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Ian Tyson (1933-2022)
At 89, Ian Tyson has passed on. Ian was one of the most vital, inquisitive, uncompromising and artful people I’ve ever known. Today, I’ve been thinking about how I became his friend. I’ve also been remembering an NPR interview I did with him about writing his most famous song, “Four Strong Winds,” and I’ve included it here.
Ian and Sylvia had been musical heroes since I was a teen but it was with the album, Great Speckled Bird, released in 1969, that I became a true fan. By then the couple had left Greenwich Village and moved back to Canada and Nashville where they formed and fronted the group by the same name, Great Speckled Bird. I followed their music for a while but lost track and went on to more traditional folk music.
Ian emerged again for me in the early eighties. He and Sylvia had broken up and he’d gone back to the ranch in Alberta. He had always been a cowboy and horseman but he had fallen in love with the working buckaroo culture centered in the high deserts of Nevada and started writing songs about that life.
His first album containing these songs, released in 1983, was Old Corrals and Sagebrush. It was a big hit with the working cowboys I was starting to make friends with, thanks to my fieldwork as a folklorist in the Great Basin. When it came time to plan the details for the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko in 1983 and 1984, I hoped Ian would be one of the centerpieces for the event. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the funding to get he and his band down from Canada.
As many know, I was the director of those first events, but I was not the sole founder. A small group of folklorists, cowboys and local folks all had the same goals and we worked together to make it happen. Our aim was to create an event that in every way would appeal to working ranch people.
We decided on Elko because it was a cowboy town rather than a tourist version of a cowboy town. We decided to hold it in the middle of winter because we figured it was a time cow workers could get off the ranch. In addition, Elko had lots of cheap empty hotel rooms to rent and a wonderful new convention center, museum, and college to partner with.
Initially I worked on a deal to house everyone at a nice newish casino called the Red Lion. As part of the deal I asked, since we’d be filling up most of their rooms, if we could pick the band for their showroom. Management refused so I walked. I then approached Dan Bilbao at the Stockman’s Casino, an older property in the middle of town, and asked if he would agree to hire our selected entertainment. He agreed and we moved all our room reservations to the Stockman’s. That is how we got Ian and his group to Elko and for many years the Stockman’s was the place to go for all-night music and lots of after-hour dancing to Ian and his band. God, we were young.
That year most of the cowboy poets and musicians flew into Salt Lake City and then traveled as a group on a late-night train to Elko. It was a killer schedule but the fact is that Elko in the middle of winter is not an easy place to reach, no matter the mode of transportation. As a result, the Cowboy Poetry Gathering became more a pilgrimage than just another festival. And who attended, whether spectator, participant or even organizers, saw themselves pilgrims willing to face the arduous journey in pursuit of something not available elsewhere. Ian credits the event with jumpstarting his musical career. Through the experience of working together year after year, he became my friend, an experience I shared with Meg Glaser, the Gathering’s artistic director. Ian was never easy but he always knew we were there to do the best we could.
When I got together with Teresa a few years later in 1991 we decided to get married in the ranching community of Iron Mountain, Wyoming where Teresa grew up. We invited a lot of the Cheyenne-based ranching folks and Teresa’s rancher neighbors organized our wedding. Many people, particularly cowboys and folklorists, came from far and wide to celebrate our union and for that we will ever be grateful.
For the ceremony we asked an odd grouping of friends to participate. My brother, a Mormon bishop, married us. My old bandmates from Deseret String Band played us down the aisle. Terry Tempest Williams, Kim Stafford and Waddie Mitchell gave us away. Gary MacMahan and his band played a dance in the old Iron Mountain Community Hall where many musicians sat-in including Ian and Michael Martin Murphey. The three-day party was filled with music and poetry and stories but the song Ian sang for our ceremony was a great highlight. I know he sang this at other weddings, but it felt like it was ours alone.
From Old Corrals and Sagebrush, by Ian Tyson
This is the girl with everything
And everyone waiting at her beck and call
Well-read and well-bred and lovely as sunrise
This is the girl with it all
What does she see,
What does she see
In that old cowboy? (he sang beat-up old cowboy for the occasion)
He’s no longer young,
battles that he’s won
They’re all in the past
She could have had so much more
Then he’ll walk through the door
and his eyes never leave.
It’s plain to see to fools like me
She’s happy at last.
He takes her walking through fields of blue bonnets
He takes her dancing down in Mexican town
She cries for him when he’s off to Montana
And me, I’m just a hangin’ around.
So what do we see, what do we see in that old cowboy, Ian Tyson. He lived hard. He lived with passion. He did it his way. And he will go down as one of the great popular song writers and musicians of the century. Ian, I’m grateful I knew you.
click on the link below to hear an interview with Ian Tyson about his famous song, “Four Strong Winds,” part of Western Folklife’s series What’s in a Song, broadcast nationwide on NPR.