Canada’s Legendary Folk Singer Ian Tyson Passes Away at Age 89

Canadian folk icon and cowboy storyteller Ian Tyson, 89, who co-wrote “Four Strong Winds” with his late wife Sylvia, has passed away. According to his manager, Paul Mascioli, the Victoria native passed away on Thursday at his ranch outside Longview, Alberta, after a long battle with a variety of health issues.

The musician and his first wife, Sylvia Tyson, were integral members of Toronto’s prominent folk scene. However, he spent the most of his life and career pursuing two interests that had little to do with his folkie background: ranch life in southern Alberta and writing songs about it.

Sylvia Tyson reflected on her ex-husband, describing him as “extremely serious” and “versatile” in his songwriting. It was clear that “he spent a lot of time and work into his composition and felt his material very profoundly,” she told The Canadian Press on Thursday.

The frontier has always held a special allure for Ian Tyson. In fact, it was during his time spent recuperating from rodeo injuries that he began honing his guitar talents to perfection. Tyson told The Canadian Press in a 2019 interview that while the damage he sustained at the time was traumatic, it provided him with plenty of material for future works.

IAN Tyson Death
IAN Tyson Death

There were a number of good songs written during that time. It doesn’t look like Tyson, who was born on September 25, 1933 to parents who came from England, had a particularly rough life. Before he found rodeoing, he went to a prestigious private school and learnt to play polo.

After receiving his BFA from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958, Tyson took a hitchhike to Toronto. He became immersed in the city’s budding folk movement, where future Canadian icons like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell honed their craft in smoke-filled hippy coffee bars in the artistic Yorkville district.

In 1959, Tyson began a relationship with a fellow performer named Sylvia Fricker. They relocated to the Big Apple where they met Albert Grossman, the manager who guided Peter, Paul, and Mary and who would later sign Bob Dylan. The two, Ian and Sylvia, are now signed to Vanguard Records thanks to him.

Their first album, simply titled, was published in 1962. It featured largely traditional tunes. Their big break came with the release of their second album, “Four Strong Winds,” in 1964, which featured the mournful title track as one of just two original compositions.

They wed the same year (1964) and kept putting out new music (Lightfoot contributed to their 1965 album “Early Morning Rain,” even though he wasn’t yet famous). When folk’s popularity began to decline, the duo relocated to Nashville and began adding rock and country influences to their music.

The Tysons experimented with this new hybrid sound by founding the country rock band Great Speckled Bird in 1969; their groundbreaking self-titled first album was released in 1970. Clay was born to them in 1968, but the pair eventually split up in 1975 after both of their careers hit a wall.

In his biography “The Long Trail,” published in 2010, Ian Tyson claimed that he had an extramarital affair throughout his marriage and had overtly carnal fun with his mistress in front of their young son. He admitted, “I wasn’t being particularly sensitive about the whole issue.”

IAN Tyson Death
IAN Tyson Death

Ian Tyson moved back to the Western United States after his marriage ended in divorce. He now works as a cowboy and horse trainer in Pincher Creek, Alberta. His songs, especially 1983’s “Old Corrals and Sagebrush,” feature a deeper layer of reflection on these events.

This was his third solo album, but the first to use just Western songs. Even though Tyson didn’t have high hopes for the record, it was obvious that he was finding his singing voice as he sung honest but naive songs about ranch life.

The shift toward traditional Western music that Tyson made in 1983 coincided with a growing interest in cowboy culture, as seen by the first Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada. Self-released in 1987, “Cowboyography” became a surprising word-of-mouth hit and revitalised Tyson’s touring career in Canada and the United States.

Even in Tyson’s private life, he was doing well. He first encountered Twylla Dvorkin, a waiter, in 1978. Tyson, then in his mid-40s, pursued a connection with her despite the teasing of townsfolk who were shocked by the age gap.

This happy couple tied the knot in 1986, and then a year later welcomed daughter Adelita into the world. Despite the fact that their marriage lasted longer than Tyson’s first, the pair split up in 2008. Tyson’s book is frank about their connection and the pain caused by its end.

“I wanted to be honest about it and fair,” he stated in an interview the year his book came out. However, the divorce was difficult and contentious. Tyson’s long-standing reputation in the industry for irritability is something he addresses in his book on multiple occasions.

(He uses the word “irascible.”) And yet, he was also capable of brutal candour, as seen by his memoir, in which he discusses his extramarital affairs, his arrest for marijuana possession, and his long-standing rivalries with luminaries like Gordon Lightfoot and Stompin’ Tom Connors.

In the wake of his second divorce and suffering from health issues including arthritis, Tyson admitted he had a hard time moving forward. A voice issue that had previously compelled Tyson to alter his singing technique was also overcome. As his career progressed, his voice took on a more rugged, gravelly tone.

IAN Tyson Death
IAN Tyson Death

In 2010, he explained, “Through the difficult moments… I addressed it inside the music.” And my horses and the music helped me get through it. The concept of a horse, however, is more conceptual. The tunes were big assistance. The volume of the song increased.

Hank Williams was very correct when he remarked, “A wounded heart doesn’t hurt your songs.” In 2019, he will be permanently honoured in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in addition to his many other musical accolades.

He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1992 alongside Sylvia Tyson, with whom he had co-written and performed on several of her albums. He has been inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Order of Canada, and awarded the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2003.

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