Ian Tyson, Canadian Folk Legend Behind ‘Four Strong Winds,’ Dead at 89 – Rolling Stone

Ian Tyson, the celebrated Canadian folk musician best known for writing the contemporary standard “Four Strong Winds,” died Thursday, Dec. 29. He was 89. 

Tyson’s death was confirmed in a statement on his Facebook page. He died at his ranch in southern Alberta, Canada from “on-going health complications,” though no further details were given. 

One of Canada’s most prominent and influential artists, Tyson enjoyed a lengthy career as one half of the folk duo Ian and Sylvia (with Sylvia Fricker), and as a solo artist. “Four Strong Winds,” as well as another Ian and Sylvia classic, “Someday Soon,” were covered widely by artists like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Judy Collins; Neil Young included a rendition of “Four Strong Winds” on his 1978 album Comes a Time, and performed it with the Band during The Last Waltz

Tyson was born Sept. 25, 1933 in Victoria, British Columbia. Raised on a small farm, as The New York Times notes, he grew up riding horses and competing in rodeos. After falling and breaking his ankle during one competition, he started playing guitar while he recovered. After graduating from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958, he moved to Toronto where he worked as a commercial artist and began gigging at local clubs.

In 1959, Tyson met and began singing with Fricker. By 1961 they were an official duo, and one year later they’d relocated from Canada to the hub of folk music at that time, New York City. There, they met Albert Grossman — manager of Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary — who helped them secure a record deal with Vanguard. Their self-titled debut — which mostly featured traditional British and Canadian folk tunes — was released in 1962.

The following year saw the release of Four Strong Winds, which contained more traditionals, a rendition of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” and Tyson’s soon-to-be-seminal title-track. Tyson credited Dylan with inspiring him to try his hand at songwriting, and he wrote “Four Strong Winds” in a small coffee house below the famed McDougal street bar, Kettle of Fish.

The song itself drew on his pangs for a girlfriend back in British Columbia. “I was always leaving and regretting it,” Tyson said in a 2014 interview. He added: “I wrote ‘Four Strong Winds’ in 20 minutes thinking about that lady back in Vernon, BC — she’s still there!” (It later turned out that Tyson and his girlfriend, Evinia Pulos, maintained an on-again-off-again relationship for decades.)

Ian and Sylvia remained in New York City throughout the mid-Sixties, releasing several more albums. Their 1964 record, Northern Journey, contained another Tyson original, “Somewhere Soon,” which became a minor hit for Judy Collins in 1969. Tyson and Fricker also married in 1964. 

As the Sixties drew to a close, Ian and Sylvia — like others from the folk world, such as Dylan and the Byrds — relocated to Nashville in search of something new. Their 1968 album, Nashville, is a country-rock cult classic that helped pave the way for more popular records that soon followed, like the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. (“It was an experiment,” Fricker told Rolling Stone in 2015. “We had an unfortunate habit of being a little ahead of our time.”)

After Nashville, Ian and Sylvia released several more albums together, including one as a full-on country rock group, Great Speckled Bird (their self-titled 1969 record was produced by Todd Rundgren). In 1975, the pair’s marriage ended, and they also decided to part ways musically. Tyson decided to step away from music as well, returning to southern Alberta to train horses on his ranch.

Tyson did eventually start playing again, this time with a heavy interest in cowboy and country-western music. Albums like 1983’s Old Corrals and Sagebrush and 1986’s Cowboyography (which went platinum in Canada) featured a mix of new originals and traditional tunes. That same year, Tyson also married his second wife, Twylla Billow, a teenager less than half his age (they divorced in 2008). He also reunited with Fricker for an Ian and Sylvia concert special that included appearances from Gordon Lightfoot, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, and more. 


The early Nineties saw a string of status-cementing honors, including Ian and Sylvia’s induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1994, both Tyson and Fricker were made Members of the Order of Canada. Tyson continued to record, release music, and perform regularly up until 2006, when he strained his voice at a concert, and a subsequent virus worsened the damage. After a couple years of therapy, however, Tyson was able to return with another collection of cowboy songs, 2008’s Yellowhead To Yellowstone And Other Love Stories.

Tyson would release three more solo albums, his last, Carnero Vaquero, arriving in 2015; two years later, he shared what would be his final single, “You Should Have Known.” Tyson also remained a dedicated rancher and cowboy throughout the rest of his life.

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