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Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson perform at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia on July 11, 2010. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson perform at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia on July 11, 2010. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Review: Biography

Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia by John Einarson with Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson Add to ...

Spoiler alert: Yes, Sylvia does join Ian on stage at the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival in 2010, to sing the anthemic Four Strong Winds. The audience, which has been on tenterhooks hoping for this “reunion,” sings along, “teary-eyed.” Sylvia even plants a kiss on Ian's cheek at the song's conclusion.

The entire final chapter of John Einarson's fine book about Canada's first couple of folk is devoted to the “will they or won't they” moment, significant because the duo, divorced since the late 1970s, does not make a habit of sharing the stage. Nor are they known for rehashing (publicly at least) the good old days.

But rehash they do, in the first biography to be endorsed by both Tysons. It's a tender (but not hagiographic) account of Ian & Sylvia's rise to fame, of their heady Greenwich Village days when they hung out with the likes of Bob Dylan and his artist girlfriend, Suze Rotolo; of every album they made together and of the vagaries of their post-break-up solo careers.

Unlike the audience at Mariposa, Ian and Sylvia are not teary-eyed about that one-off performance. Nor, for that matter, do they seem to view the days in which both were stunningly beautiful (and for a time stunningly successful) as necessarily “the good old.”

The Mariposa moment left Sylvia saying, “I'm just glad it's over,” as she reflected on the pressure to perform together. Ian, as is typical throughout the book, is less diplomatic. “Well, that's what everybody … wanted!” he says, before going on to complain about the sound mix.

But Sylvia's cool eye and Ian's unfiltered irascibility are part of what make Four Strong Winds such a good read. Another, larger part (for those interested in the history of folk music, at least) is the detailed reckoning of the early days of the mid-20th-century “folk music revival,” and Ian & Sylvia's place in it.

The biography is thick with quotes from fellow musicians (Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Tom Paxton, among many others), some attempting to convey why Ian & Sylvia were so special. But one of the most eloquent assessments comes from a non-musician, the late Suze Rotolo: “What struck me about her [Sylvia]besides her being so extraordinarily beautiful was her voice, which was timeless and almost otherworldly, as if it came from the edge of time. And when they sang together, Sylvia's ethereal voice and Ian's baritone, it was just mesmerizing when they sang these traditional songs.”

Four Strong Winds is eight strong chapters, although it becomes a tad softer somewhere in the middle of the chronological, album-by-album account. Even so, there is much memorable trivia to be found there, for instance, recollections of rocker Todd Rundgren producing the legendary – if not altogether successful – band, Great Speckled Bird. Rundgren “freaked” Ian out, and looked, as Sylvia recalls, “like the fourteen-year-old-girl who never got invited to the prom.”

Still, it's the tales of those early, politically charged days that captivate. In the centre of that storm, Ian & Sylvia were notably apolitical, for reasons ranging from being polite Canadians to a belief in the lack of protest-song longevity. (Ian also claims “all these political types like Pete Seeger never got over the depression … if you weren't a socialist you were suspect to some of those people.”)

At times, Ian and Sylvia offer differing accounts of events, and there is the occasional snipe, but that seems inevitable from two people who began as professional partners, eventually married, but ended up a couple asunder. The brutal honesty with which some of the dissolution is reported (“I had girlfriends,” Ian says) is almost painful to read. And yet, ultimately, there is both humour and a kind of grace to the telling of Ian & Sylvia. “We had a damn good run,” Ian says.

Li Robbins is a Toronto-based arts and music writer.

 

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