Singer-songwriter Ian Tyson wrote Four Strong Winds – a stately balladic lament in E major and a Canadian-set expression of romantic sorrow – in about a half an hour. It was his first attempt at creating his own song. A friend of his, Bob Dylan, had just written Blowin’ in the Wind. Inspired by Mr. Dylan’s imagery, Mr. Tyson wrote an instant classic as a self-challenge: “How hard can this be?” he thought.
Though it wasn’t completely a snap – his musical partner and future wife Sylvia Fricker contributed one line that Mr. Tyson was stuck on – Four Strong Winds as recorded by the folk act Ian and Sylvia charted high in Canada in October, 1963, competing with Bobby Vinton‘s Blue Velvet and Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs.
A twangy hit version by U.S. singer-songwriter Bobby Bare earned Mr. Tyson enough royalties to buy a 350-acre farm in Ontario. Neil Young, who recalled plugging coin after coin into a jukebox to hear the song as a teenager in Manitoba, recorded it himself for his million-selling 1978 album Comes a Time. Mr. Tyson used the resulting money that came his way from that adaptation as a down payment on a ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, southwest of Calgary.
The melancholic song that touches on fresh starts and regional meteorology – “Think I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall” – eventually got the songwriter to where he always longed to be.
Mr. Tyson, one half of the influential folk music revivalists Ian and Sylvia and a life-long embodiment of cowboy pride, died at his spread in southern Alberta on Dec. 29, after a series of health complications. The Victoria native was 89, and had undergone open heart surgery in 2015.
The private-schooled, only son of a well-to-do British immigrant was a rodeo rider as a young man who after successful forays in folk music and country rock reinvented himself artistically as a sort of northern Gene Autry, writing and recording songs that stubbornly celebrated a vanishing way of life that was experienced on the back of a horse. A white-hatted mythologizer who “loved his old damned rodeo,” he championed the western side of country and western music.
His commitment to ranch culture was represented by rugged lifestyle choices – he bred cutting horses and rode them victoriously in competitions – and by his albums of cowboy music. The 1987 LP Cowboyography in particular rejuvenated Mr. Tyson’s status and touring career in North America, and with a single from 1989 he seemed to position himself as the Irving Berlin of the sagebrush people: “I wonder if old Irving ever wrote a song about blowed out country, a marriage gone wrong and a cowboy on the telephone?”
In 2005, CBC Radio One listeners chose Four Strong Winds as the greatest Canadian song of the 20th century. The composition is seminal. “Ian and Gordon Lightfoot were reflecting on the emotional, psychological and physical landscape of being Canadian songwriters,” Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor told The Globe and Mail. “They started it, and it means everything.”
Mr. Lightfoot described the Tysons as his “angels,” because they recorded his Early Morning Rain in 1964. “It opened up the door for me,” Mr. Lightfoot told The Globe. It was Mr. Tyson who convinced Mr. Lightfoot to sign a contract with Albert Grossman, the high-powered manager of Mr. Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Ian and Sylvia, among others. “From that, came my career,” Mr. Lightfoot said.
Mr. Tyson, the charismatic and irascible boot-wearing baritone with matinee idol looks, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1992, alongside his by-then former wife. Eleven years later he won a Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award, and he is a member of the Order of Canada. The Washington Post once hailed him as “Canada’s cool cowboy.”
More infamously, Mr. Tyson holds the distinction of turning young Mr. Dylan onto grass, according to onetime Dylan muse and girlfriend Suze Rotolo. “The first memory I have of Ian is him introducing Bob to marijuana,” she told Ian and Sylvia biographer John Einarson for his 2011 book Four Strong Winds.
Ms. Rotolo and Mr. Dylan were close friends with the Tysons in New York’s Greenwich Village, folknik central in the early 1960s. The Blowin’ in the Wind singer deferred to the hip fashion choices of Mr. Tyson, eight years his senior. “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,” Ms. Tyson said in Mr. Einarson’s book. “Ian had a sense of style that others copied including Bob.”
In his later years, Mr. Tyson was the darling of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held annually in Nevada. “Ian was the patriarch of traditional cowboy music renaissance,” said Corb Lund, a friend and fellow western singer-songwriter.
Mr. Tyson dearly loved his ranch, the T-Bar-Y in Longview, Alta. He was fond of Navajo rugs, Mexican tiles and 6 a.m. coffee. His bookshelves, as revealed in a profile by The Globe’s Marsha Lederman in 2008, were stocked with To Kill A Mockingbird, a Georgia O’Keeffe biography, Hemingway, The New Yorker magazines, poetry by Robert Frost and The Western Buckle: History, Art, Culture, Function.
“He was the thinking man’s cowboy,” said Mr. Lund.
In 2006, he blew his voice out at the Havelock Country Jamboree. A year later, a virus further reduced his once-rich vocals to a soft croak. As a sufferer of arthritis, he played his Martin D-45 acoustic daily to keep his hands and wrists limber.
He had first picked up a guitar at the age of 22 after fracturing his ankle while rodeoing in Banff, Alta. Recuperating from surgery, he passed the time by learning to play Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line.
More than 50 years later, a horse struck again, stepping on his foot shortly before his 2008 interview with The Globe. He limped and winced but went about his chores. “I’ll get used to it,” he said. “It’s the cowboy way.”
Ian Dawson Tyson was born on Sept. 25, 1933, on Vancouver Island. He shared a middle name with his father, George Tyson, who had emigrated from England to Alberta, where he found work as a ranch hand in Bowden.
Finding the harsh work and climate not to his liking, Mr. Tyson’s father headed to British Columbia. There he met his wife, Margaret Gertrude Campbell, a second-generation British Columbian who came from money and a deeply moralistic Scots Presbyterian background. “She was always there for me over the years, but poor mother lived a pretty dour life,” Mr. Tyson said in his 2010 autobiography, The Long Trail.
Mr. Tyson’s father managed the Monarch Life Assurance Co.’s Victoria branch and kept polo horses on the family farm in Duncan. At the age of 6, Mr. Tyson encountered his first cowboy, at a rodeo in Vancouver. “He was wearing a purple satin shirt, and when he lifted me up and stuck me up on the saddle, I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ That saddle was where I was meant to be.” Raised on the novels of Will James, the paintings of Charlie Russell and the music of Roy Acuff and the yodeller Wilf Carter, Mr. Tyson pined to punch cows.
He graduated from the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design) in 1958. The Jack Kerouac enthusiast hitchhiked to Toronto, where the folk scene bubbled.
There he worked as a commercial artist by day – he designed the logo for the dandruff-defying shampoo Resdan – and as a solo singer-guitarist at night. At a Ryerson Polytechnic gig he met Ms. Fricker, an aspiring folkie seven years his junior. Her high vibrato voice, eccentric wardrobe and a gift for harmony caught Mr. Tyson’s attention.
In turn, the future Ms. Tyson was struck by his handsomeness. “But it was not love at first sight,” she told biographer Mr. Einarson. “I didn’t think of it in terms of becoming a relationship.”
By 1961 the two had become the top coffeehouse draw in the city. That year they left for New York, where contracts with Mr. Grossman and with Vanguard Records were signed.
The pair were a hit on the East Coast college circuit and made their Newport Folk Festival debut in 1963. But just as their career was taking off, the Beatles changed everything. Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, Mr. Tyson heard I Want to Hold Your Hand on the car radio. “They got to the part of the song where the voices go up,” he recalled in a recent interview with The Globe. “When they did that, I said, ‘We’re done. We’re done.’”
In 1964, the twosome returned to Toronto to play Massey Hall – “They are unquestionably masters of harmony and deliver their songs in a unique style copied from no one,” wrote Globe reviewer Marvin Schiff – and to get married. The wedding at St. Thomas’s Church was attended by 100 guests, including the colourful American folkie Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The couple’s only child, Clay Dawson Tyson, was born in 1966.
As the folk movement lost momentum in the late 1960s, Ian and Sylvia relocated to Nashville and moved on to a brand-new style with their albums Lovin’ Sound, Nashville and Full Circle. “Those records were as close to the beginning of country rock that you’re going to find,” said Mr. Keelor.
In 1969, the duo formed the short-lived electric band Great Speckled Bird. From 1970 to 1975, Mr. Tyson played host to CTV’s The Ian Tyson Show, known as Nashville North in its first season. The Tysons divorced in 1975 because of Mr. Tyson’s infidelities. “Sylvia could accept a lot of things but she couldn’t accept that,” he explained. “I don’t blame her.”
In 1976, Mr. Tyson headed to Alberta and never left. He broke horses and chased cattle before purchasing his own ranch. Multinight stints at the Calgary honky-tonk Ranchman’s paid $5,000 a week.
A hard drinker for a time, Mr. Tyson’s personal life was perpetually complicated. When his career bottomed out in the late 1970s, he dulled his pains with tranquilizers. He met his second wife, Twylla Dvorkin, when she was a teenager and he was in his 40s. They later married in 1986, and were divorced in 2008. The song Estrangement is about the couple’s only child, Adelita.
The troubadour’s Navajo Rug (co-written with Tom Russell), Summer Wages and Someday Soon were chosen by the Western Writers of America as three of the top 100 western songs in history. Four Strong Winds has taken on anthemic status in Canada. Mr. Tyson performed it at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. When four RCMP officers were tragically killed in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005, he sang it at the memorial service.
Regret and wistfulness were consistent lyrical themes for Mr. Tyson. The Wonder of It All, for example, mourned a lost age: “The golden West has come and gone, right before our very eyes.” In his music, Mr. Tyson, the bard of buckaroos, romanticized the very life he lived.
He is survived by son, Clay Tyson; daughter, Adelita Tyson Bell; and granddaughter, Mesa Bell.