New York’s fabled Town Hall, at 123 West 43rd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, is, like Carnegie Hall (the city’s other renowned performance venue), more than just a concert location or another stop on a tour itinerary. A Town Hall engagement is a milestone in any artist’s career, a pinnacle, a measure of success, and a sign that you have, indeed, arrived. Spearheaded by the League for Political Education, a suffragette movement determined to create a utilitarian meeting hall, and opened in 1921, the venerable 1,500-seat venue is known for its superb acoustics. Folk artists were especially fond of performing at Town Hall because of its unique sound qualities that lent themselves to acoustic folk music. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez had all graced the Town Hall stage. Now it was Ian & Sylvia’s turn.
On the evening of February 27, 1965, the Canadian folk duo, the darlings of the North American folk music circuit and heroes back home, performed to a sold-out Town Hall audience. It was a significant moment in their upward career trajectory from arriving in New York as unknowns from Toronto just three years earlier.
“This was our first solo concert at a major New York City venue,” recalls Sylvia, noting that while the Canadian duo may have played Town Hall previously on a multi-artist folk bill,* this was their unofficial coming-out event for New York audiences. “It was a big moment for us.”
Having gone just about as far as one could on the largely scattered Canadian folk music scene by early 1962, Ian & Sylvia headed south to New York’s folk music mecca, Greenwich Village. With no contacts or connections and armed only with their own confidence and a list of the key folk music impresarios located in the Big Apple, the two managed to charm their way into the big leagues within a matter of days. Theirs was no Cinderella story, however; Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker had put in countless hours perfecting their distinctive vocal blend – Ian’s rich baritone combined with Sylvia’s signature vibrato and gift for idiosyncratic harmonies – before dazzling folk patrons in Toronto coffeehouses and headlining the inaugural Mariposa Folk Festival. Their repertoire, drawn from obscure traditional sources, was the envy of their contemporaries, Bob Dylan among them. In short order the duo had become a top draw on the lucrative American college circuit and were regarded in folk music circles as on par with the likes of Dylan, Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary. Now here they were at Town Hall.
“They brought so much dignity to our genre of music,” acknowledges Carolyn Hester, a contemporary on the folk music scene back in the 1960s. “They kind of represented the Toronto folk scene and that gave them a bit more importance to the rest of us. They didn’t come down here and just become Americanized folksingers, which could have happened. And as a result a lot more of us went up to Canada to perform because of them.” Adds veteran American singer/songwriter Tom Paxton, “Ian & Sylvia became as much a part of the American folk music community as Peter, Paul & Mary or the Kingston Trio or anybody. I just thought they were fantastic. It was their voices that impressed me. They both sang so beautifully.”
“Everybody in the [Greenwich] Village loved them,” recalls banjo player extraordinaire Eric “Dueling Banjos” Weissberg, a member of the folk group the Tarriers at the time. “They were so good and it was so refreshing to hear that music done so well; great songs, great harmonies. They were regarded as being at the top of the folk music food chain.” As Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s girlfriend at the time (pictured on the cover of his The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album), points out, “There was something about Ian & Sylvia that was so compelling. Their look, their voices, and their choice of songs were unique. They had this natural charisma. Bob liked Ian & Sylvia a lot. He and Ian were good friends. And Bob thought Sylvia was gorgeous. He really admired her and thought she had a wonderful voice. There weren’t a lot of folk duos at the time; so many came after them.”
Having released three critically acclaimed albums and penned three bona fide folk music standards – “Four Strong Winds,” “You Were On My Mind,” and “Someday Soon” – Ian & Sylvia stood poised at the top of their game. As they strode onto the Town Hall stage to a rapturous response – Ian, matinee-idol handsome in a well-tailored suit, guitar in hand, and Sylvia, slender and radiant in an iridescent shift dress, her long dark hair poker-straight, clutching her autoharp – each paused briefly to acknowledge the adulation and drink in the moment before turning to face one another. Exchanging quick glances, they opened their set singing a cappella the traditional Elizabethan ballad “The Greenwood Sidie (The Cruel Mother),” one of the many songs Sylvia had researched from her books of old English ballads. With its extraordinary parallel fifth harmonies, the opening number proved, as if it were necessary, that Ian & Sylvia were in a league all their own.
“We had a mystique being from Canada,” Ian suggests. “That was a bit of a novelty. I had the whole package because I was a cowboy from the west, not like the cowboy I became much later. And Sylvia had the look back then with the long straight hair. It was like a script writer had written the whole thing.”
For the next seventy-five minutes, Ian & Sylvia, accompanied by American guitarist Monte Dunn, presented a mesmerizing mix of traditional and original folk music, from two-hundredyear- old French Canadian ballads and Mississippi chain gang wails to cowboy laments and Appalachian bluegrass, all delivered in their inimitable harmonic blend. Interspersed with the traditional folk numbers was a growing cache of original songs, including Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind” (a pop hit later that year for We Five) and Ian’s cowboy-themed “Four Rode By,” inspired by the true story of the notorious Canadian outlaws the McLean brothers. Ian handled the between-song patter, jokes, and introductions while Sylvia, beguilingly shy, stood quietly at his side.
Having recently completed recording sessions for their yet-tobe- released fourth album, the two debuted songs by then unknown writers Gordon Lightfoot (the album’s title track “Early Morning Rain,” as well as “For Loving Me”) and Steve Gillette (“Darcy Farrow”). Sylvia’s funky “Maude’s Blues” brought the house down, while “Come In, Stranger” was Ian’s tip of the cowboy hat to friend and fellow traveller Johnny Cash. By the time the duo closed their set with Ian’s evocative “Four Strong Winds,” its Western Canadian imagery harkening back to simpler times, there was little doubt that Ian & Sylvia had achieved a level of critical and commercial success, along with peer respect, that few Canadian performers before them had attained. When they returned for a rousing encore (in the days when an encore was earned, not pre-programmed) of “Nova Scotia Farewell,” it was clear that despite all they had achieved in the North American popular music pantheon, the two remained steadfastly rooted in their Canadian homeland.
That close bond with their roots would ultimately earn Ian & Sylvia iconic status, multiple awards, and accolades in Canada in later years, long after breaking up to pursue separate careers, as their groundbreaking achievements were acknowledged (Order of Canada, Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canadian Country Music Hall of Honour, Prairie Music Hall of Fame, Mariposa Hall of Fame, Governor General’s Award, and honorary doctorates). In 2005, CBC radio listeners overwhelming voted “Four Strong Winds” the most essential Canadian song of all time. Writer Bob Mersereau’s The Top 100 Canadian Singles (Goose Lane, 2010) ranked the song at number 9. Beloved CBC broadcaster Peter Gzowski once declared “Four Strong Winds” Canada’s unofficial national anthem. “‘Four Strong Winds’ is the foundation of modern day songwriting in Canada,” states veteran music journalist and former Billboard Canadian bureau chief Larry LeBlanc. “There’s nothing like it that has stood the test of time.”
“‘Four Strong Winds’ is an anthem,” says fellow Canadian folk performer Bonnie Dobson. “Ian & Sylvia, along with Gordon Lightfoot, really set the scene for Canadian singer/songwriters. I love Ian & Sylvia’s music. Even after they split up I continued to follow their music.” As folk music legend Oscar Brand points out, “Between the two of them Ian & Sylvia carried a lot of beauty. They were very special people who had great songs and performed them beautifully, which is something you couldn’t say about all folksingers back then. They commented on the Canadian highways and byways to the world. They carried the banner for Canada. Ian wrote some of the greatest Canadian songs.”
Whether together or individually, the two continue to inspire a whole new generation of singer/songwriters. “No woman in the music industry can say they haven’t in some way been influenced by Sylvia Tyson,” notes Alana Levandoski, part of a new wave of young Canadian musicians drawing attention beyond our borders. “With discipline, grace, and humour she has touched the generations.” Singer/songwriter John Hiatt observes, “Ian writes great songs. He’s a great lyricist and always has a good story to tell. That’s my idea of a good lyric. The thing about songs is that they’re really not poetry. A lot of it is the melody and the delivery and Ian knows that. He has that all put together.” Dallas Good of respected roots-rock renegades the Sadies adds, “Of all people, Ian Tyson could give a rat’s ass about what I think, which is something I love about the man. This is a kiss-ass business (I’m doing it now). That said, Ian never kissed an ass he didn’t like (to my knowledge) and it shows in his uncompromising, stellar career. And Sylvia is a goddess. The Great Speckled Tysons made some perfect records and I thank them for it.”
As for Ian & Sylvia’s signature song, rock music icon and fellow Canadian Neil Young remains a fervent fan. “I’ve always loved it,” says Neil of “Four Strong Winds.” “It was the most beautiful record I heard in my life and I could not get enough of it.” Muses Sylvia, “For so many people it was the first truly Canadian song that they heard that they could identify with as being a Canadian song. It’s become a standard. Some people even think of it as a traditional song.” Adds Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, “I remember being a young person and hearing the singles, ‘You Were On My Mind’ and, of course, ‘Four Strong Winds’ and being more than a bit proud that those were Canadian songs.”
“‘Four Strong Winds’ was before my time,” notes multi-award winning Western Canadian alternative country singer/songwriter Corb Lund, “but it’s definitely one of the iconic Canadian songs. I remember as a kid at camp when we’d all be sitting around the campfire singing ‘Kumbaya’ and ‘Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore’ someone would always start singing ‘Four Strong Winds’ and everyone would join in. Someone would write down the chords for me and we’d all do it. I didn’t even know it was written by a Western Canadian. It was probably the first Canadian song I’d ever heard. It’s just one of those songs in the campfire library that everybody knows.” In recent years, Corb and Ian have developed a close friendship, with the latter serving as mentor to the young artist. “I tend to forget about his status when I’m around him,” says Corb, “because even though he’s from a different age bracket than me he’s just like any one of my musician buddies. It doesn’t feel any different hanging out with Ian. But every once in awhile I’ll look over and see his Order of Canada medal on his dresser and I’ll remember he’s a legendary figure. Earlier, when I was just starting to write this kind of music, Ian was the one who showed me that it was okay to write about Canada, to put Calgary in my songs instead of Houston, and to sing about the Rocky Mountains instead of Texas. And that’s become very important to my music.”
Few things are more quintessentially Canadian than Ian & Sylvia. “They are a part of the fabric of this country,” stresses Gordon Lightfoot, whose own career received a major boost once Ian & Sylvia brought him to wider attention by championing his brilliant songwriting. “They left a legacy of a lot of hard work and a lot of great music. They opened the doors for a lot of people and were very generous with other people including myself. And they’re both still at it. I still pay attention to whatever they’re doing.”