SWEET SONG OF SUCCESS
The teen beat put a lot of soulful folkniks out of work, but not Ian and Sylvia. Why? There’s always a market for nice songs, nicely sung
THE FIRST THING I noticed when I got off the Fifth Avenue bus in New York's Greenwich Village on July 4 — well, not quite the first thing: after all, there were all those groovy little girls in their stretch pants and their French-striped tank tops — was Ian and Sylvia Tyson, the folk singers from Toronto. They were everywhere, hundreds of pictures of them on posters plastered all over the place — on lampposts, outside coffeehouses, inside bars, on the sides of buildings, and one nailed irreverently to a wall of the giant memorial arch that stands over Washington Square. Ian and Sylvia were very big in Greenwich Village that holiday week. The posters announced their appearance at the Café Au Go-Go on Bleeker Street in the heart of the Village. And that night the man at the café door, a hipster, tells me. “Man, it’s New Year's Eve in here every night. The crowds are swinging!”
The Café Au Go-Go is a coffeehouse. No booze. You pay $2.50 to get in and if you're thirsty, you try a “large iced cider in a flower pot (95c)” or a “Go-Go mania — a sundae for six ($6.50).” The room is long and narrow, with brick walls, low ceiling, broadloom on the floor, wooden tables and chairs, a small stage, four microphones and subtle lighting. It seats two hundred and fifty — mostly, to judge by the July 4 crowd, college kids.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” the hipster from the door announces over one of the mikes, “the Café Au Go-Go is proud to present from Canada” — my chest swells with patriotic pride — “Ian and Sylvia!” Applause ricochets around the room for three or four minutes.
Ian is tall and handsome, a little on the order of a Spanish matador. He has a strong face and longish nose; he lets his sideburns grow an inch below his cheekbones; and sometimes, in song, he holds his head in the attitude of a matador at the penultimate moment of the corrida. Very dramatic. Sylvia’s hair is shoulder length, naturally, and chestnut; her clothes are Mod, her figure exquisite; and her face rests in detached serenity.
They begin strong, this night, singing You Were On My Mind, a bluesy song that Sylvia wrote, more white country than Negro. It has a jumping, joyous sound, which the audience digs immediately, and lots of rattling harmonies. Ian sings with the wail of the Kentucky hills in his voice; Sylvia sings straight and true and with high intensity. Ian plays the guitar, Sylvia the autoharp, and they have a second guitar, a boy from Boston named Rick Turner. They get a supple, relaxed, but big sound that bends the walls.
They sing Early Morning Rain and Captain Woodstock’s Courtship,
Ian picked up his Tennessee twang on a BC ranch; Sylvia learned the Negro blues Ontario city
two songs about Canada. Ian introduces all the tunes and handles the patter. His onstage manner is casual and gently mocking. “We're from Canada,” he tells the audience, “. . . no great feat really. We have about eight anthems up there, but hardly any love songs. So I wrote a ballad, Four Strong Winds. Actually, it’s a combination love ballad and winter weather report.”
Four Strong Winds is a couple of years old now and close to becoming a standard. It had a short run on the Top 50 charts two seasons ago and, listening to it sung in the café, it has for me the sound of permanent beauty.
Sylvia sings a blues, one she wrote herself, Maude’s Blues. (Maude is Ian’s name for Sylvia. It grew out of her maiden name, Fricker, and Ian’s admiration for Jonathan Winters’ funniest comic character, lovable mean old Maude Fricker.) Sylvia sings the blues the way a twenty-four-year-old girl from a small provincial city like Chatham, Ont., isn’t supposed to. Her voice calls up the bitter rough flavor of the rural Negro South and it fills the café with the special images of the blues — a man gone, an empty bed, a tumbler of gin for breakfast.
Ian introduces another of his songs, Four Rode By. “There were hardly any bad guys in Canadian history like you had down here,” he says, “and I always felt deprived as a kid. So I searched through our history and finally found some real bad guys in my own home town, Kamloops, British Columbia. They were The Wild McLeans, three brothers and a cousin, and they were strung up for shooting down a Mountie back in 1881. But later on a McLean son went to the First War and came back with a Victoria Cross and spoiled the McLean image. This is a song about them.”
They do Red Velvet, another Tyson song, this one about Saskatchewan and the wheat fields. The café audience, liberals all, love it when Ian tells them “our prime minister, Lester
Pearson, sells Saskatchewan wheat to Red China just to bug LBJ.” The song, and Ian’s country twang, suggest vividly the prairie and “the dusty autumn wind.” Sylvia sings a wordless obligato to Ian on the second chorus. Ah.
I think, impressed again, she’d charm the angels out of heaven.
The audience claps for encores and calls for songs from the Tysons’ most recent, and fourth, record album; the record has only been out a couple of months but the audience already knows all its songs. They’re given two encores and the audience is still applauding, but Ian and Sylvia are across Blceker Street by now, to spend the intermission in a place called The Dugout, which has sawdust on the floor and Ballentine’s beer on tap. Enough of “cider in a flower pot.”
“Funky,” Ian is saying. “That’s what you’ve got to be in popular music these days. All of the good music that people pay attention to now has that strong sensual thing to it. Very sensual. It’s something you dig instantly in music, it’s an emotion that’s definite and laid right out in front of the listener.”
This comes as good news to me. Most of the new breed of folk singers — the New Christy Minstrels; Peter, Paul and Mary; the Kingston Trio — fill me with tedium. Their music rarely rises to the emotional level of a Doris Day vocal and I’m glad to see them giving way in popularity, even among the college crowd who made their reputations for them, to the more exciting big-beat rock ’n’ roll groups. The Limelighters, thank goodness, have disbanded; the Byrds, who rock, have arrived. But the best, the most musical, of the new folk performers are holding onto their audiences and their reputations and are becoming a permanent part of the show-business scene. This select group numbers among its members such people as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. And Ian and Sylvia.
“What’s actually happening to popular
music,” Ian says, “is
continued on page 3S
In Canada, “Song For Canada” left the politicians baffled
IAN & SYLVIA
continued from page 15
that everything’s coming together. Jazz, rock, folk, we’re all meeting. We listen to each other, we use each other’s material, and a lot of guys move hack and forth across the different styles. That's never happened before and it's having a terrifically improving effect on all music. Rock ’n’ roll is a lot more interesting than it used to be. it’s full of really difficult harmonies — Paul McCartney, John Lennon anti George Harrison had a lot to do with that.”
“There’s a rock group called We Five that’s recorded one of our songs, You Were On My Mind," Sylvia says. “It’s different from the way we do it, of course, but it’s very musical. And you know what Billboard says? It says the record’s ‘bubbling under the Top 100.’ ”
“We’re all coming together,” Ian says again. “If that ever happens in the rest of life, we’ll all be cool. Nobody’ll get blown up."
The second-last number they sing in their second set at the Café Au Go-Go is Song For Canada. I experience my second patriotic twinge of the evening. The melody of Song For Canada, which Tyson wrote, is lovely; the lyrics, which the Toronto journalist Peter Gzowski wrote, are urgent and convincing. The song supposes that an English Canadian is talking to a French Canadian and it expresses, movingly, the English Canadian’s slightly baffled, slightly hurt reaction to the new attitude of the Québécois:
How come we can’t talk to each other any more?
Why can’t you see I’m changing too?
We’ve got by far too long to end it feeling wrong,
And ! still share too much with you . . .
Why can’t you understand I’m glad you’re standing proud?
I know you made it on your own,
But in this pride you’ve earned,
I thought you might have learned
That you don’t have to stand alone . . .
(Copyright: H. Witmark & Sons)
“We’ve sung Song For Canada in Canada four times and we’ve got four very weird reactions,” Ian is saying, back at The Dugout. He drinks Johnnie Walker with a twist of lemon, Sylvia has a glass of Chablis. “The first time was last winter at Massey Hall in Toronto. 1 introduced it wrong and gave the impression that the song was a kind of Spring Thaw satire. The audience laughed at first, but then they listened and by the end they were taking it very seriously. We sang it at the University of Ottawa where the kids were half English and half French and afterward the French kids came on very strong. They told us, ‘Thanks, but you’re five years too late.’ The audience at McGill were all English and they had to be the squarest audience we’ve ever played. 1 came away figuring that a lot of the trouble in Quebec is that all the hip people of Montreal are French. We
sang the song at a Liberal Party dinner in Toronto and the politicians there were puzzled. Man, they didn’t know how to react. They kept looking at Lester and he kept looking at his watch.
“At first when we did Song For Canada in the U. S.,” Ian goes on, “I used to try to explain a little of the background to the song, but 1 don’t anymore. Now 1 just say, here’s a song about Canada. They’ve got too many of their own problems down here. I mean, they’re up tight over Vietnam and the South. We had a good look at American politics last fall when we campaigned with Lady Bird. We did it because we were like everybody else — afraid of Goldwater — and when the Democrats asked us to do something, we had to say yes.”
“I voted for Johnson,” Sylvia says. “My mother was born in Michigan, so I had dual citizenship until last year when I had to make up my mind and choose one country. I’d been living in New York City for a couple of years anyway, except when we were working, and 1 chose to be an American.”
“Man, we made bread”
A short bouncy man wearing sandals comes into The Dugout. He is Don Francks, an actor and singer from Toronto who is enjoying a small triumph in an off-Broadway musical play, Leonard Bernstein’s Theatre Songs. He has been listening to the Tysons earlier at the café and he greets them elaborately. “Too much, man, too much,” he says. He sits down and he and the Tysons talk of the old days, 1960, at the First Floor Club, a pioneering coffee house in Toronto.
“Don and I worked together there not long after I came down from the coast,” Ian says. “Don was the hippest thing around Toronto in those days. Me, I didn’t know what I was doing. But the experience was fine. We sang a lot of rhythm and blues, a lot of rough B.B. King-type blues.”
“The first time I worked with Ian was at the First Floor,” Sylvia says. “We’d been introduced over the phone by some people we both knew, but we didn’t get together right away because I was just commuting from Chatham and when I finally stayed in Toronto for good, Ian had gone west to ride in a rodeo. When he came back, he played guitar behind me at the First Floor Club one night — 1 couldn’t play my own guitar because I didn’t have a union card. After that we worked together most of the time.”
“Man, we made bread in those days,” Ian says. “Ten dollars a night.”
The Tysons play one more set at the Café Au Go-Go. It’s 2 a.m. by the time they finish, but the audience isn’t going to let them go. By my watch, they give the Tysons a fourand-a-half-minute ovation. Outside on Bleeker Street the action is as heavy as it was when I got off the bus that afternoon. I stand beside a young cop who is watching a pair of stretch pants go by. If you look quick, you think the pants are just a light coat of paint. “There oughta be a law.” the cop says.
The Tysons order some roast beef and French fries and drinks at The Dugout — it’s their supper — and begin to talk about their old days, the real old days before the First Floor Club.
Ian was a cowboy in the beginning. He left home the first time when he was fifteen and worked on ranches and at summer lodges in Alberta and British Columbia. And he competed in rodeos. “I did my last riding last summer, ’64,” he says, “at a little rodeo in Ontario. I won $18.50, and I’m never going to cash that cheque because it’s the last one.”
He listened to his first music, he says over his roast beef, in bunkhouses after he’d finished his ranch chores. He was impressed by Merle Travis and the Carter family and Flatt and Scruggs, all of them American country-and-western singers and players. He began to play the guitar himself, picking up a little musical knowledge here and there, catch-ascatch-can, and he worked the occasional music job. He kept at it while he put in two years at the Vancouver School of Art and, soon after he graduated, he packed up and moved down to Toronto. He was a commercial artist and designer during the day — a good one: he won an Art Directors Award one year, and the Resdan bottle you still see in drugstores is his design — and a folk singer at night.
Sylvia’s past was more secluded, which is only fitting for such an ethereal sort of girl. She grew up in Chatham, sang in a church choir and learned her music, she says, from her mother, who was a music teacher, organist and choirmaster. Sylvia has a fairly complete basic music background. “I’m a terrible mimic, though,” she says. “That’s why I don’t like to listen to too many blues singers. I’d end up sounding like everyone except myself.”
“We got our first good break together in 1961,” Ian says. “Pete Seeger invited us to sing at his concert in Massey Hall. He put us in the audience and called us up on the stage to perform. After that, we were really looking for something to happen. Ed Cowan, a friend of ours who was handling management for us, wrote to about twenty agents and record com-
continued on page 40
parties in New York and then we went down to see them. We gave ourselves three days to make it — or forget it. The second day, Albert Grossman said he’d take us on. He’s the biggest manager in the folk thing — he’s got Odctta and Peter, Paul and Mary, all of them. It took about six months and then we started to move.”
“We’ve built some good cities for us down here,” Sylvia says. “We do a lot of business in Washington and L.A. and New York. We play a club in Washington called the Cellar Door a couple of times every year and it’s always packed. The owner gets a big kick out of making senators sit on the stairs.”
Their Town Hall concert in New York last February is their biggest
triumph so far, they say. It was sold out a couple of weeks in advance, there was standing room only, the reviews were superb — the whole bit. And their records are moving this summer better than they ever have. The fourth album, the one with Song For Canada, is having such strong early sales that Vanguard, their recording company, thinks it will easily hit sales of a hundred thousand copies.
They’re doing better than ten dollars a night now: fifteen hundred and up for a concert, considerably more than that for a week in a club like the Café Au Go-Go. They have a manager, an agent, an accountant, and they’re incorporated: Four Strong
Winds Inc., Sylvia Tyson, president. They share ownership with another
couple of a lovely old house in the Rosedale district of Toronto, which they decorated themselves. It’s their first real home together — they were married in June 1964 — and now they’re looking for a farm near Toronto. ‘T want to do some calf roping,” Ian says. “I'm too old for bucking horses” — he’s thirty-one — “and I need something gentle.”
They finish eating. Bleeker Street is still swinging, but Ian and Sylvia say good-by and head off across Washington Square, walking to the small apartment they keep on the lower east side. They pass the memorial arch. If they look over their shoulders they can see their picture on one of the arch’s walls. They don’t look back. ★