Ian and Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Well known to a generation of U.S. folk music lovers as a result of their involvement in the urban folk music revival of the 1960s, the Canadian duo of Ian and Sylvia ranked among their own country’s most popular musical sensations during that same decade. From their roots in the coffeehouse folk music culture that came to fruition in large cities like New York’s Greenwich Village and Toronto, Ontario, during the late 1950s, Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker’s musical repertoire soon grew to encompass American and British folk tunes, blues influences, and original compositions; they would even embrace aspects of contemporary country music during the period that produced what was later branded the “Nashville Sound.” Many of the duo’s most popular songs—which included “Someday Soon,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “You Were on My Mind”—have not only become folk classics, but have also successfully transcended the musical culture from which they sprang and have gone on to become hits for both rock and country artists. Despite their decision to part company in the mid-1970s, both Tyson and Fricker continue to be important voices within the Canadian music community.
At the time of their first meeting in 1959 at the Village Corner, a Toronto folk music club, Tyson and Fricker were both seeking a change in their life’s direction. Tyson, born in 1933 in the far-western Canadian province of British Columbia, had been raised on a small farm. As a teen he had dropped out of school to work as a farmhand and lumberjack, and then had taken to the saddle and ridden the Canadian rodeo circuit. It was the rodeo that indirectly prompted him to pick up a guitar for the first time; Tyson was looking for a way to pass the time while recuperating from a broken leg, the result of a rodeo mishap. “Back in the ‘50s, not many people played the guitar,” he later explained to Country Song Roundup’s Jennifer Fusco-Giacobbe. “It was really a folk process,” Tyson added. “Everybody just taught themselves.” Although he made an attempt to escape his rural roots by enrolling in the Vancouver School of Art and embarking on a career as a commercial artist, Tyson soon found himself drifting back to the rodeo ring after graduation. And his creative instincts were drifting away from art and toward music. During his constant travels across Canada, he began to earn extra money by playing his guitar and singing at small folk clubs.
Fricker, meanwhile, was searching for a way to escape her humdrum life as a jewelry store clerk in her hometown of Chatham, Ontario. The daughter of a department store manager and a music teacher, she sang in the church choir that her mother led until the blues-based rhythms drifting into her small farming community from a Detroit, Michigan, radio station inspired an interest in folk harmonies. By the time she was 15,
Ian Tyson (born September 25, 1933, in British Columbia, Canada), guitar and vocals. Sylvia Fricker (born September 19, 1940, in Chatham, Ontario, Canada), vocals.
Duo met while performing as solo acts in Toronto folk club, 1959; moved to New York City, 1960; signed with Vanguard, 1962; released debut album, Ian and Sylvia, 1962; married, 1964; performed at numerous folk festivals in U.S. and abroad; signed with MGM, 1967; traveled to Nashville, 1968, and adopted country sound; formed touring band the Great Speckled Bird; cohosted television series, Nashville North, CBC-TV (became The Ian Tyson Show, beginning 1974), during 1970s; parted ways in 1974; divorced, c. 1985; both have since gone on to pursue independent recording careers.
Awards: Ian Tyson: Juno award; three male vocalist of the year awards from Canadian Country Music Association; inducted into Juno Hall of Fame.
Address: Record company —Vanguard Records, Inc., 71 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10010.
Fricker was determined to make something more of her life; inspired by the success of musicians like Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and Jean Richie, she wanted to become a folk singer. Teaching herself guitar, the young vocalist built a repertoire of British and American folk songs by memorizing tunes from folk song anthologies obtained from the Chatham Public Library. Quitting her clerking position soon after graduating from high school in 1958, Fricker moved to the city of Toronto, found a day-job at a local clothing store, and became singing partners with Tyson. While Fricker performed as a solo act at a small club called the Bohemian Embassy, she and Tyson also began working on arrangements of traditional ballads: Tyson, on guitar, sang lead while Fricker performed background harmonies. The pair took their work seriously, rehearsing at least three times a week.
By early 1959 Tyson and Fricker were performing part-time at the Village Corner under the name Ian and Sylvia. The pair became a full-time musical act in 1961 and married four years later. Although their raw, mountain-style sound quickly became popular with Toronto audiences, a trip to Columbia, South Carolina, to perform at a cotillion ball convinced the pair that they had what it took to move beyond “local talent” status. Ian and Sylvia traveled to New York City in the early 1960s, where they became involved in the very active Greenwich Village folk scene. Meeting up with Albert Grossman, manager of such popular acts of the era as Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and fellow-Canadian Gordon Lightfoot, proved to be the couples’ first real break into the U.S. market. Grossman agreed to manage the duo and scheduled a concert tour that quickly found Ian and Sylvia performing before folk fans at leading clubs from Chicago to Los Angeles. As the urban folk revival grew, fueled by the civil rights movement, so did the Canadian duo’s popularity, particularly among college students.
In 1962 Tyson and Fricker recorded theirfirst album, Ian and Sylvia, under contract with Vanguard, the only large-scale record label then specializing in folk acts. Although the album did not produce large-scale sales, it did spread the tradition-flavored work of the duo to even more listeners, broadening their loyal (if still relatively small) following among American folk music aficionados.
At this point Ian and Sylvia began to develop their unique character within the folk music genre. U.S. folk music was growing in stature and scope due to the work of artists such as Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, who wrote many of their own songs. Both Tyson and Fricker started to follow suite and began composing original material. Sylvia’s inspiration was the blues, while Ian wrote of the rural life he had left behind in the Canadian west. Their next two albums, Four Strong Winds and Northern Journey, reflected this more contemporary direction. The albums also brought the duo to an international audience when they were released in 1964, sparking a performance schedule that would include major folk festivals both around the United States and overseas.
During the mid-to late-1960s the couple wrote and recorded several memorable tunes, including Tyson’s Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon,” as well as Fricker’s “You Were on My Mind,” which in 1965 would be a top five pop hit for the folk group We Five. “Four Strong Winds” became a number three country hit for singer Bobby Bare in 1964 and survived the passage of time to become a pop single for rock singer Neil Young more than 15 years later. “Someday Soon,” a favorite of country star Lynn Anderson—as well as of folksinger Judy Collins, who recorded the Tyson-penned tune in the 1970s—was transformed into a hit on the country charts for the second time by Suzy Bogguss almost three decades after Ian and Sylvia first recorded it. Remarking on the universality and continuing popularity of certain types of songs, Bill C. Malone notes in his scholarly Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers that the rambler theme “assume[s] a bittersweet poignancy in such rodeo songs as Ian Tyson’s ‘Someday Soon,’… which document[s] the strains in human relationships often wrought by nomadic occupations or lifestyles.”
In listening to the recordings that followed Ian and Sylvia’s debut LP, one was immediately aware of the eclectic mixture of styles that were represented: from bluegrass, French Canadian tunes, and pop to cowboy ballads and folk melodies. By writing their own material the duo also effectively showcased the differences in their individual musical personalities. Fricker, with a soprano voice that ranged in tone from a demure lilt to a nasal, confrontative wail, wrote material that sometimes broke with songwriting convention. Her overall style was idiosyncratic compared with that of Tyson, whose warm, mellow tenor found its truest footing in songs inspired by his love of the West and traditional themes of love, loss, and loneliness. In addition to such richly creative and diverse music, Four Strong Winds also marked Ian and Sylvia’s decision to begin using session musicians on their recordings, thereby supplementing Tyson’s acoustic guitar with electric bass and guitar and a variety of other instruments. In the albums that followed Northern Journey, the couple searched for a single “sound” that would unite them; they would finally find it in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ian and Sylvia originally traveled to Nashville in 1968 with the intention of recording with some of the best session musicians that could be found in one place. Whether acoustic or electrified, Music City has always been notable for the quantity of talented musicians that make Greater Nashville their home. Not surprisingly considering their own rural roots, Ian and Sylvia quickly became caught up in the new sounds coming out of north-central Tennessee. The “Nashville Sound” itself—characterized by a heavy use of “strings” as backup—permeated commercial country music during the 1960s, one of its chief promoters being RCA-producer Chet Atkins. Whilefinishing up their recording commitment to Vanguard with 1968’s country-jazz fusion entitled Nashville, Ian and Sylvia incorporated some of these country influences into a new stage show, put together a country band dubbed the Great Speckled Bird, and began touring in 1969. The two albums they would later record for Capitol—FullCircleand Ian and Sylvia —each showcased the duo’s avant garde country western repertoire.
Unfortunately, Ian and Sylvia’s now heavily instrumental live performances and “countrified” recordings rapidly alienated them from their original fans. In fact, many folk-music purists were offended by the injection of what they saw as derivative Nashville pop into a folk concert. “People even got up and walked out,” Sylvia is quoted as commenting in Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music. “They would have a violent reaction to the steel guitar. They’d walk out on the first bars that the steel player would hit.” Although the group’s sound grew increasingly accepted—in 1970 they were given a standing ovation at a Calgary folk music festival—their new audience wasn’t enough to win back their U.S. audience. The pair’s 1970 recording, the Todd Rundgren-produced Great Speckled Bird, was unsuccessful. After Tyson’s 1972 arrest for marijuana possession made travel into the United States impossible, the couple disbanded their touring show.
The following year, while searching for a new direction, Tyson and Fricker were invited to co-host Nashville North, a weekly television series planned for broadcast throughout Canada by the Canadian Broadcast System (CBC). The show provided the couple with an excellent opportunity to take the time to reevaluate their direction. Although Ian and Sylvia continued to perform together on Nashville North, it became increasingly clear that their paths had begun to diverge, both personally and professionally. Ian and Sylvia announced their decision to separate in 1974; Tyson and Fricker divorced a decade later.
Although each would chart a separate course, both halves of Ian and Sylvia have since maintained strong ties to the folk music genre. In addition to writing and performing on stage, Fricker recorded her first solo album, Woman’s World, for Capitol, with Tyson acting as producer. From 1977 to 1982 she hosted the CBC-Radio music program Touch the Earth. The program, which showcased folk, pop, and country music artists, eventually spun off into a television series called Country in My Soul, which was broadcast on Canadian television from 1983 to 1984. In addition to forming her own record label—Salt Records—Fricker helped organize and perform in a 1984 television special for the CBC.
Meanwhile, after extending the popular Nashville North’s run on television for a few years as The Ian Tyson Show, the other half of Ian and Sylvia turned his back on the celebrity lifestyle and returned to his rural roots. “I wanted to train horses, live on a ranch, and possibly get a ranch if I could make enough money,” Tyson told Fusco-Giacobbe of his decision to leave music during the late 1970s. Devoting several years to working his 160-acre spread in southern Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, Tyson began to reintegrate music into his life during the early 1980s. The songs he now began to write and record related his experiences as a cattle rancher and rodeo rider; the musical trail he has since followed has joined him with such cowboy traditionalists as Michael Martin Murphey, Red Steagall, and Chris LeDoux. While, as historian Bill C. Malone notes, such traditional cowboy songs “seldom become big commercial successes,” Tyson’s 1987 release, Cowboyography, went platinum in Canada and sold more than 100,000 copies. The recording also earned Tyson a Juno award, Canada’s equivalent to a Grammy award.
In 1993 Tyson signed with Vanguard as a solo artist and recorded the critically acclaimed Eighteen Inches of Rain, his first album released in the United States in over two decades. Ian and Sylvia reunited briefly in 1986, performing with fellow artists Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Judy Collins in concert on stage in Toronto, the city where they first raised their voices in folk-inspired harmony over two and a half decades earlier.
As Ian and Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia, Vanguard, 1962.
Four Strong Winds, Vanguard, 1964.
Northern Journey (includes “You Were on My Mind”), Vanguard, 1964.
Early Morning Rain, Vanguard, 1965.
Play One More, Vanguard, 1966.
So Much for Dreaming, Vanguard, 1967.
Nashville, Vanguard, 1968.
Full Circle, MGM, 1968.
Lovin’ Sound, Columbia, 1969.
Ian and Sylvia, Columbia, 1969.
(With Amos Garrett and Buddy Cage) Great Speckled Bird, Ampex, 1970.
(With others) Folk Music at Newport, Volume 1 Vanguard, c.1980.
Solo albums by Sylvia Flicker
Woman’s World, Capitol, c. 1976.
Solo albums by Ian Tyson
OI’ Eon, A & M Canada, 1975.
Cowboyography, Vanguard, 1987.
Eighteen Inches of Rain, Vanguard, 1993.
Bufwack, Mary A., and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music, Crown, 1993.
Basselaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton, Folk Music Encyclopedia, Omnibus Press, 1977.
Basselaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton, Folk Music: More than a Song, Crowell, 1976.
Editors of Country Music magazine, Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, Random House, 1994.
Malone, Bill C., Singing Cowboys and Musical Mountaineers: Southern Culture and the Roots of Country Music, University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Country Music, May 1994, p. 30.
Country Song Roundup, August 1994, pp. 62-63.
Rolling Stone, September 10, 1988.
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