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Four Strong Winds Ian & Sylvia by John Einarson
February 13,2012 — In the Fall of 2011, McClelland & Stewart published the first biography of the Canandian duo of Ian & Sylvia; previously, there had been biographies of Ian Tyson, including his autobiography, but this was the first time that a book was written about the pair and it was written with their full cooperation. I had first heard about the book from David Rea who was interviewed at length for it, and mentioned his phone calls with the author on multiple occasions.
I expected the book, "Four Strong Winds Ian & Sylvia by John Einarson with Ian Tyson & Sylvia Tyson" (Amazon.com link), to be an enjoyable read for me because I am interested in the musical history of the period (1960s/early 1970s), because I love their music (I discovered them because of Lightfoot's gratitude and respect for them), and because I knew that there would be a lot about my late friend David Rea, and surely something about Lightfoot. I wasn't disappointed.
Imagine my delight when I read the first few pages which talked about Ian & Sylvia's debut headlining appearance at Town Hall in NYC, extolling its acoustics and importance. It has long been one of my favorite venues; not only have I seen Lightfoot there, but I performed there as a child ballerina, and they are a client of mine today, so there is a lot of personal connection. In his introduction focusing on that Town Hall appearance, Einarson went on to say that Ian & Sylvia debuted three cover songs at that concert: two by Lightfoot (Early Mornin' Rain and For Lovin' Me), and one by my friend Steve Gillette (Darcy Farrow). Ian & Sylvia were the first to record those songs, and those recordings opened many doors for their songwriters.
The book is very much the story of the duo, but with enough on their lives earlier (and as children), and after they broke up (musically and personally, although the musical connection actually outlasted the personal) to put the duo's biography in context. I learned a lot about them that I didn't know, as my knowledge was limited to their early recordings, and the time that David was with them (and most of that from David).
Before I go further, I want to include a wonderful interview by Jian Ghomeshi on Studio Q, CBC Radio, talking to the pair shortly after the book was released. If you aren't convinced that you want to buy it yet, I think you will be after you watch the video:
I had first learned about them because I followed Lightfoot, and I bought their CD with the two Lightfoot covers, Early Morning Rain, to hear their version. I later bought Northern Journey because it had Ian's recording of the traditional tune, Nova Scotia Farewell*, a song that Lightfoot played live in the 60s, and then on and off through the decades most recently in 1995. Lightfoot credited Tyson as an influence and friend, so I decided I would learn more about him. This biography, rich with stories and anecdotes from that period, went a long way toward filling in the musical blanks.
Rather than include long sections of biographical material, with sourcing when necessary, their story is told almost exclusively in quotes. So there are countless quotes from the duo themselves, and many from their friends and associates in the music business. For some people this might be off-putting, but I enjoyed it because I actually know (or know of) most of the people, and in some cases could hear them saying it. In the case of one story from David Rea, about an attempt to arrest him for drug possession during a recording session in Toronto (a charge which was eventually dropped), I did really hear the story before, from David himself.
There are two small photo sections; the first, from childhood through 1969; the second 1969 through 2010. In the latter section, there are two photos with Lightfoot; one from 1976 and the other from the Ian & Sylvia Reunion Concert in 1986 (a bit of that concert can be seen on You Tube). Unidentified, Lightfoot actually also appears in the first photo section, on the poster for the 1966 UK tour.
Lightfoot himself is present throughout the book, not only in photos, but also contributing many quotes; and some of them say as much about him as about the subjects of the book. Just lift them up and put them in a new Lightfoot biography (one can wish). In the early years, their careers were inticately interwoven; and, no fewer than three of the musicians who backed Lightfoot also backed Ian & Sylvia: David Rea, and later Red Shea and Peewee Charles, both of whom appreciated the opportunity to work mostly in Toronto. Interestingly, there are no quotes from Peewee; if I get to speak with the author, that's one thing I will ask him about.
Ian and Sylvia are icons in Canada where they have received most if not all of the awards that could be bestowed on them. Their influence on Canadian music is acknowleged; perhaps their influence on Country Rock is less acknowledged than it should be. They were playing it - much to the chagrin of some of their diehard fans - back when it was very new, and their music helped define the genre. Both went on to successful careers apart; Ian solo with "cowboy" music, having a very successful album with Cowboyography in 1987. Sylvia recorded a few solo albums and then joined with three musician friends to form the all-girl group Quartette. Both Ian and Sylvia are still active in music today. Their separate appearances at Mariposa 2010, and their reunion to perform Four Strong Winds - unrehearsed, and in fact only discussed by them minutes before Ian's solo set - close the book.
I must admit that I cried a bit, and that I feel a bit sorry for them. They never received the high acclaim they deserve, at least in the US, probably because of Ian's decision to sign with Vanguard rather than with a more marketing savvy record label, like Columbia or Warner Brothers. Having placed Dylan, their manager Albert Grossman had almost infinite credibility in the world of record labels. Be that as it may, their contribution to the music of my youth, to Lightfoot's career (they recommended him to Grossman), and to the evolution of the genre is undisputed. But that "hit record" proved elusive. However, a hit is just for a moment in time, while their musical contributions will last many generations.
I received a copy of the book from the publisher.
*Nova Scotia Farewell remains a fan favorite - of both Ian Tyson fans and Gordon Lightfoot fans. In this biography, Ian says that he hates it, and Lightfoot hasn't performed it in more than 16 years!
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