Ian and Sylvia Tyson put Canadian folk music on the map with a song about the fine fall weather in Alberta and a charisma that was unmatchable in their prime. Now, for the first time, Winnipeg music historian John Einarson produces an authorized biography of the iconic duo, drawing on recollections of theirs as well as those of contemporaries such as the late Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s girlfriend (pictured on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album).
In this adapted excerpt from the book Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia, which is on sale as of Saturday, Einarson illuminates Dylan’s relationship with the Tysons, and offers insight into the writing of the song that inspires the bio’s title. – Brad Wheeler
When not on tour, Ian and Sylvia often spent time with Bob Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. Suze recalls, “They used to come over when Bob and I were living in this tiny apartment on West 4th Street. We were just like four friends. I’m sure Ian and Bob went out doing what they were doing then and Sylvia and I would hang out together. We had our own friendship apart from the two guys.
“When Ian and Sylvia would come over, there would be this excitement about looking over new albums either Bob had or they would bring with them. And they would sing something they had recently worked out. It was always fun. Ian and Bob would exchange songs together. It was so much harder to find new music back then than now. It was like a treasure hunt looking through record collections for new discoveries.”
Suze noticed a genial competitiveness between Ian and Bob back then. She recalls that Bob admired Ian. “There were several guys in the Village who had been cowboys but Ian was certainly the most authentic. Plus he looked great in his cowboy boots.”
“Bob was too afraid of Ian, like everybody else,” admits Sylvia. “Ian never saw anybody as competition because he had such a strong sense of himself and his image and what he did. It was no surprise when after we arrived in New York in the folk community all the guys started wearing cowboy boots and not rolling their jeans up. Ian had a sense of style that others copied including Bob.”
That wasn’t the only instance where Ian influenced Bob Dylan. According to Suze, “The first memory I have of Ian is him introducing Bob to marijuana. There was such innocence back then even though marijuana was part of the beat generation and the jazz scene. I may have been pretty naive because I was younger than everyone else, but it seemed that that was the first time marijuana was introduced into our circle when Ian brought it over. … It seems funny now thinking of this image of Ian, the drug dealer,” says Suze with a laugh. “It seems so out of character with their image. Ian was cool back then. He was his own self back then.”
As for Sylvia, Suze claims Bob admired her for her voice and her beauty but also admits, “I don’t know if he ever thought about Sylvia’s importance. I don’t know if any of those guys thought about that. … It was all about Ian because he was the male and Sylvia was seen as his partner onstage. It wasn’t easy for women performers. But Sylvia could have done it on her own. She had the goods. It was just the climate of the times.”
Even before the fame and god-like adulation, Bob Dylan was defying the folk-music traditionalists by writing his own songs. Soon other folk acolytes would follow his lead, Ian & Sylvia included. As Ian remembers, “Dylan came running in one day in about 1962 and he said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hear this great song I’ve written,’ and we said, ‘Written? What do you mean written?’ Everybody thought he was nuts. ‘You don’t write folk music.’ I remember the day he wrote Blowin’ in the Wind. We were with him in the bar at the Kettle of Fish on MacDougal Street when he came running in after having probably stolen the paper that he wrote it on, he was so poor. But that was a mindblower at that time. He started all that because before then the songs sung were all traditional songs, many American and Canadian. Dylan changed all that.”
Hearing Bob Dylan perform Blowin’ in the Wind hot off his typewriter would serve as a pivotal moment for Ian, spurring him on to begin writing his own songs. His first attempt would prove to be pure gold. “I’ve told so many goddamn lies about Four Strong Winds that I don’t know what the truth is any more!” he grumbles.
“Actually, I do remember it very well. It was a rainy autumn afternoon at Albert Grossman’s tiny little apartment in the East 50’s. That was before Dylan was making the big dough. I had heard his Blowin’ in the Wind or one of his other early songs and just thought, ‘Shit, how hard can this be? If that little shit can do it.’ … I didn’t care that much for the melody because he just played rudimentary guitar but I started to get the imagery. I hadn’t been writing before. I always thought the stuff I liked was written by people who knew something I didn’t know. I liked Bob’s imagery so I thought I’d write about my life and what I used to do. I wasn’t a professional migratory farm worker or cowboy but I had done some of that stuff. … It came very easy. It took maybe half an hour. It was my first song. I knew what other guys in the Village were trying to write. They were all trying to catch up with Dylan. He wasn’t a star yet but he had this incredible output already. He would leave us in the dust.
“I just thought, God, it was so damn simple. Think I’ll go out to Alberta, shit, that doesn’t take a genius. But it had a universality about it. People could relate to it. The Americans loved the Canadian references. They thought I had huge balls to put Canadian geography in a song. When the Nashville guys started to record it, they wanted to change the Canadian references and I said, ‘Nope.’”
Excerpt from Four Strong Winds: Ian & Sylvia. Copyright © 2011 John Einarson. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd.