Tuesday, February 22, 2011


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 Greenwich 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 here.

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 Sheridan 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.

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 Edmonton with the Edmonton Symphony next September. Caryl and I are thinking about it…


gwelde said...

I loved Ian and Sylvia. I first heard them on cassette! My favorite was "Un Canadien Errant," not his comosition--I think it's from the 1800's. He can do the retro circuit anytime. Since he lives in my general vicinity--out here you're a neighbor if you live within a hundred miles--I'll try to figure out about his next performances.

chimichanga said...

As far as his autobiography states, Ian Tyson's parents came from England and there is no mention of them being Welsh. Can you refer me the source of your information? I am interested in this subject, as I'm working on a project re: Welsh in Alberta
Thank you

Richard Jorgensen said...

Chimichanga: Sorry for the delayed reply -- been gone. I'm certainly no expert in this, just heard it over the years. For example, on Ian's web site (iantyson.com/pages/reviews), about half-way down, in a review titled, IAN TYSON TAKES THE GRAVEL ROAD LESS TRAVELLED. Good luck. Dick jorgensen

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I read the review that you're referring to.