Ian Tyson, Pioneering Canadian Folk Singer, Dies Aged 89

The Alberta-born performer wrote the standard ‘Four Strong Winds’ and influenced the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

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Ian Tyson (right) with Ian & Sylvia - Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns

Ian Tyson, the Canadian folk singer who wrote the modern standard “Four Strong Winds” as one half of Ian & Sylvia and helped influence such future superstars as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, died Thursday at age 89.

The native of Victoria, British Columbia, died at his ranch in southern Alberta following a series of health complications, his manager, Paul Mascioli, said.

Ian Tyson was a part of the influential folk movement in Toronto with his first wife, Sylvia Tyson. But he was also seen as a throwback to more rustic times and devoted much of his life to living on his ranch and pursuing songs about the cowboy life.

He performed “Four Strong Winds” at the opening ceremonies of the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympic Games at McMahon Stadium.

In a Twitter tribute, Alberta country star Paul Brandt said the song was the first he’d ever played, noting he ended up performing with Tyson.

“He kept country music and its artisans honest. Authentic to the core. Thankful we crossed trails this side of the Great Divide,” said Brandt.

Calgary-based singer-songwriter Jann Arden on Thursday said that “Four Strong Winds” was “pretty much the unofficial Canadian national anthem, one of the first songs I learned on guitar.”

But his musical legacy runs much deeper, Ian Tyson Music said in a social media post.

“During the (1960s) British Invasion, Ian and (wife) Sylvia evolved into pioneers of country-rock. Their band, Great Speckled Bird, rivalled the Byrds and other groups which helped create modern country, a decade before the Urban Cowboy phase of contemporary ‘new traditionalists,’ ” it said.

Ian Tyson was born in Victoria on September 25, 1933, and was a genuine cowboy, who took up guitar after he was sidelined by a rodeo injury. After hitchhiking to Toronto he met Sylvia, whom he married in 1964, and the two were part of a folk scene peopled by the likes of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

“We had to go in some direction, because we had used up all the real roots music from the Delta on north. Bob (Dylan) blazed the trail into the wilderness, into unknown territory,” Tyson told Postmedia in 2019.

“I realized after I had written “Four Strong Winds” and a couple of others, I had all kinds of cowboy material back there from personal experience. I just never thought of it as folk material, which it was, of course.”

Sylvia Tyson remembered her ex-husband as a “versatile” and “very serious songwriter.”

“He put a lot of time and energy into his songwriting and felt his material very strongly, especially the whole cowboy lifestyle,” she told The Canadian Press in a new interview.

Their musical union led to the band Great Speckled Bird, whose influence resonates today, said Neil MacGonigill, who managed Tyson in the 1980s.

“Great Speckled Bird was the forerunner to all country rock bands,” said MacGonigill, who was with Tyson during his final days at his ranch near Longview.

“It’s hard to put into words what he’s meant to the Canadian music scene,” he said. “An argument can be made he’s the greatest singer-songwriter in Canadian history. … He’s reinvented himself two or three times.”

Ian and Sylvia’s compositions, including “Someday Soon” and “You Were on My Mind” have been covered by numerous artists, including Dylan, Judy Collins and fellow Canadian Neil Young.

MacGonigill was also present when Tyson recorded the 1983 album Old Corrals and Sagebrush in the basement studio of his Longview home, considered a groundbreaking work in the genre of cowboy music.

“It was a kind of a musical Christmas card for my friends. We weren’t looking for a hit or radio play or anything like that,” Tyson has said.

Tyson was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of fame in 1989 and the Order of Canada in 1994. He garnered a Juno Award for Best Country Male Artist in 1987, and was nominated for multiple musical honors. In 2019, he was granted a place in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honor he said “was about time.”

Iconic roots rock group The Band, which consisted mostly of Canadians, noted Tyson’s death in a tweet with a nod to his songwriting prowess.

“Sad news today as we say goodbye to folk icon Ian Tyson. The Band performed his song “Four Strong Winds” along with Neil Young, during The Last Waltz. Rest in peace, Ian,” said the group.

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