I have two portraits hanging on the wall of my study. One is my confirmation pastor, the other is Ian Tyson.
Ian and Sylvia were there at the creation (a certain kind of creation) with Dylan, Baez, and the others in
Village. Ian confesses that Dylan’s song-writing stirred something
in him: “I can do that!” and the result was “Four Strong Winds,” the first of hundreds
of ballads that authentically wed the plains of the west to the European-based
folk traditions of the east. (Ian, a Canadian cowboy of Welsh descent is a
product of that same poetic marriage.)
After his break-up with Sylvia and the waning of the urban folk movement that they, ironically, had helped to create, Ian was in a variety of kinds of wilderness for a while, and re-emerged from those same Alberta roots as the chronicler of the land of the west and the men and women who, quite actually, live their lives there as he does. As such, he occupies a musical niche that is almost unique. Geographically, it’s bounded by
Alberta to the north and Texas
to the south, British Columbia to the west and Dakota to the east. (Of course it’s not that limited.)
Psychologically, it’s the real thing happening to real people, being sung by a poet-rancher
who doesn’t deny the reality of his years. I am most distinctly not a cowboy,
but Ian Tyson has caught me in the web of both of those regions: the
geographical and the psychological. And
the spiritual: Tyson’s combination of lyrics, tunesmanship, and a voice like Canadian
whiskey come together with his life story to create real art – music that
speaks to you and for you and takes you somewhere – somewhere that is west of
One of the things that I admire mightily about Tyson is that he is not travelling the retro circuit. I doubt he’ll ever appear on one of those bring-back-the-sixties galas that PBS must think appeals to us boomers. Rather, he’s writing new songs in his ranch cottage and singing them in places like Elko, Nevada; Lewistown, Montana; Sheridan, Wyoming; and Edmonton, Alberta; playing with a couple of young sidemen at Holiday Inn ballrooms and high school auditoriums. That whiskey voice has become grainier with a recent virus. And he plugs along.
I travelled with friends to hear Ian in
a few years ago -- in a Holiday Inn
ballroom. Ian’s concerts are always a melding of the old folkies and the newer
cowboys, but this was a cowboy crowd. I was one of the few without a hat, and
probably the only guy in the place wearing penny-loafers and argyle socks. We
sat in the front. Shortly into the first set, a young kid sitting behind us,
maybe twenty years old, called out, drunkenly, “Play Magpie.” Ian went on with
his introduction and played another song. Between numbers, the kid reeled,
weaving, from his chair, and shouted louder, “Hey, Ian! Play Magpie.” The small
band continued with their set. The young cowboy began to mutter more loudly,
even during the performance, that he wanted to hear “Magpie.” My sister-in-law
turned around and said, politely, “Could you please be quiet.” He stood and lunged
toward her with a kind of “Oh, yeah?,” at which point I jumped to my feet,
chivalrously to my sister-in-law's defense, faced him chest-to-chest and said,
“Hey, pal…” There was just the slightest second of tension, broken when the
woman at his side said, “Come, on, honey, let’s get out of here,” and he was in
fact, escorted out by a couple of burly guys. Sheridan
Tyson went on with his between-song patter as though nothing had happened, but as soon as the door closed on the kid’s exit, Ian announced, “Now we’d like to do a little song called “Magpie.” The song was greeted with laughter and cheers.
Later, Ian signed a poster for me, adding the line, “Thanks to the front row.” But here’s why I relate this story: I want it to be remembered about me that I got into a fight with a cowboy at an Ian Tyson concert!
If you’ve never heard Ian Tyson, this YouTube video from a few years ago is as good an introduction as any.
Here’s Ian Tyson’s Web site. I see he’s going to be in
with the Edmonton Symphony next
September. Caryl and I are thinking about it… Edmonton