"Four Strong Winds"

#164 / Farewell, Ian Tyson

We are among surely thousands of people around the world singing this song this weekend in private and public tributes to its composer, folk music icon Ian Tyson, who died Thursday at age 89 at his ranch in southern Alberta, Canada.

It is impossible to overstate Ian’s impact on Canadian culture and on folk music in general for the past 60 years.

"I sat in with a young band at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto,” Ian’s former wife and musical partner, Sylvia Tyson, told journalist David Bell recently, “and they wanted me to do ‘Four Strong Winds’ with them. It was quite a young audience and I didn't really expect that kind of response, but everybody in the crowd sang it.”

“It's kind of like a Canadian national anthem,” Sylvia added.

Indeed. In 2005, listeners of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation public radio network voted the work the greatest Canadian song of all time.

Fellow Canadian Neil Young, in the 2006 Jonathan Demme concert film Heart of Gold, recalled being 16 or 17 and spending all his money playing the Ian and Sylvia version of “Four Strong Winds” over and over on the jukebox at a restaurant near Winnipeg.

“It was the most beautiful record that I’ve heard in my life,” Young said, “and I just could not get enough of it.”

Later a portion of the royalties that Tyson received after Young himself recorded the song in 1978 on his Comes a Time album helped Ian secure 259 hectares of land near Longview, Alberta., in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where he established a working ranch to raise cutting horses and other livestock.

"You know, they weren't huge cheques,” Tyson told a journalist in 2000, “but your dollar went further in those days."

Ian’s First Song

Remarkably, “Four Strong Winds” was the first song Tyson ever wrote. In fact, he created it in just about 20 minutes in his then-manager Albert Grossman’s New York apartment. Ian said he was spurred on by another Grossman client, a young Bob Dylan, who was just then emerging as a writer of original folk songs.

"We had to go in some direction,” Ian recalled of the 1962 folk scene, “because we had used up all the real roots music from the Delta on north. Bob blazed the trail into the wilderness, into unknown territory.”

Tyson recalled meeting Dylan 60 years ago at the Greenwich Village bar Kettle of Fish. “This kind of little grubby kid in there said, 'I got this new song.' It was Bobby Dylan. He sang me ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ He’d just written it. And I thought, ‘I can do that.’ He wrote 'Blowin' in the Wind' and the next day I wrote 'Four Strong Winds'."

In a National Public Radio interview, Tyson remembered asking Grossman, "who was the only one that had a roof over his head:" ... 'Can I use your apartment tomorrow? I want to try and write a song.' I went over there and it was a funky little apartment. Took my guitar and just opened up the case and started to fooling around and strumming.”

Who’s the Song About?

What about the love interest in the song? Ian isn’t taking that secret to his grave.

“She was a lovely Greek girl,” Ian recently told Peter Appleborne of The New York Times, who “I was always leaving and regretting it” in Vernon, British Columbia. Her name is Evinia Pulos and, as it turns out, she and Tyson carried on an on-again/off-again love affair for the next six decades.

As Charlie Gillis reported earlier in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine, the two met in art college in Vancouver in the mid-1950s. She was 18 and he was 22. “Their chemistry was instantaneous,” Gillis wrote, “but complications ensued. In 1957, they parted company,” only to regularly re-connect from then on.

In Ian’s obituary published in Thursday’s Times, Appleborne commented, “A tale of lost love and itinerant farm and ranch work set against the Canadian West and the implacable forces of nature (Four strong winds that blow lonely/Seven seas that run high/All those things that don’t change come what may), it set the tone for how his work would evolve over time.”

Canadian Legacy

The impact of “Four Strong Winds” in Canada is legendary.

— Tyson and fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot performed the song at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.

— A recording of it was played during the 2006 funeral of former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein as an honor guard brought his urn into the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

— Ian and Sylvia re-united to sing the song together at the 50th anniversary of the Mariposa Folk Festival in July 2010 in Orillia, Ontario.

— And to this day, it is performed on the last night of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival every year.

Our Take on the Tunes

At this week’s rehearsal, we took a moment to remember Ian.

Our old band mate, Floodster Emeritus Paul Martin, dropped in with his new wife Gina and joined us on mandolin for the tune, which Danny Cox’s wife, Tami, captured on her iPhone.

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch
Charles Bowen