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Ian Tyson, the legendary Canadian folk musician behind the classic “Four Strong Winds,” has died at 89. His ex-wife and former musical partner, Sylvia Tyson, confirmed the news to CBC, adding that “he had major surgery a few years ago and never fully recovered.”
Born in Victoria in 1933 and raised in Duncan, Tyson moved to Vancouver to attend the Vancouver School of Art, now known as the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He made his professional debut singing with a backing band at the Heidelberg Café in 1956, before graduating in 1958.
Tyson hitchhiked to Toronto and rose to prominence in Yorkville’s burgeoning folk music scene, where he met Sylvia Fricker. Performing together as Ian & Sylvia, their duet, “Four Strong Winds,” which references Alberta’s cold winters in subtext to a failed romance, became a key contributor to the folk music revival of the 1960s and is considered to be one of the most important songs in Canadian music history. On their program 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version, CBC Radio named it the greatest Canadian song of all time.
“Four Strong Winds” was reportedly inspired by Evinia Pulos, whom Tyson met while they were both students in Vancouver. “If you loved me, you could [make it here] too,” Tyson wrote to her in 1960, begging her to come to Toronto with him, as detailed by Maclean’s.
Ian & Sylvia released almost a dozen albums, yielding other essential songs including “Someday Soon” and “Red Velvet.” They later moved to Nashville and transitioned into country-rock music, forming another band in 1969 called Great Speckled Bird. Their self-titled debut, now a rare collector’s item, was produced by Todd Rundgren.
“Four Strong Winds” has been covered by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLachlan, and many more. Neil Young recorded a version of it on his 1978 album, Comes a Time, and later the same year on The Band’s documentary concert film, The Last Waltz.
Tyson fully transitioned into country music after his marriage to Sylvia ended in 1975, and he moved to Southern Alberta. His first dream was reportedly to be a “rodeo cowboy,” which was borne out by his ranch near Longview. The western lifestyle offered boundless inspiration. His 1986 album, Cowboyography, earned Tyson his first JUNO Award and three Canadian Country Music Awards. The song “La Primera” spawned a young-adult fiction book, La Primera: The Story of Wild Mustangs in 2009, while he co-wrote a suitably rodeo-esque autobiography with journalist Jeremy Klaszus in 2010, The Long Trail: My Life in the West.
Tyson continued to perform and release music, with his most recent single being 2017’s “You Should Have Known.” He performed his last live shows in 2018, with gigs at Victoria, Edmonton, and at the Vogue in Vancouver.
Tyson was hugely influential on generations of musicians. "He's kind of our Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen. He's a guy who's most embodied the region in art, musically at least," Alberta country star Corb Lund told CBC in 2019.
Since the announcement of Tyson’s death, tributes have been pouring in from artists including Ron Sexsmith, Robbie Robertson, and Jann Arden. Fellow Canadian country singer Brett Kissel wrote on Twitter how Tyson taught him a lot of lessons as he came up as an emerging artist. “The world lost a great artist, songwriter, and most of all—a great cowboy.”
Tyson was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1994. He was also an inductee of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I am so sad to hear that Canadian Icon - Mr. Ian Tyson has passed away…— BRETT KISSEL (@BrettKissel) December 29, 2022
May our Four Strong Winds carry him home… pic.twitter.com/mmJ9JYXTu3
RIP the great Ian Tyson. I had the honour of meeting him at the Canadian Country Music awards in 2001 as part of a Lightfoot tribute with Anne Murray too. Big night for me to meet all of these legends RS pic.twitter.com/02nGf1HA8z— Ron Sexsmith (@RonSexsmith) December 29, 2022
Rest in peace, Ian Tyson.️ https://t.co/78tOY5M76B— Robbie Robertson (@r0bbier0berts0n) December 29, 2022
IAN TYSON was the real deal. ‘Four strong winds’ -is pretty much the unofficial Canadian National anthem. One of the the first songs I learned on guitar. I met him in the YYC airport years ago and had a nice chat. I will never forget it.— jann arden (@jannarden) December 30, 2022