A Conversation With .. Sylvia Tyson
In this wide-ranging interview, the Canadian folk legend reminisces about her early influences, the heady days of Ian and Sylvia, her love of performing in Quartette, and her first novel.
By Bill King
After the last study book was folded and all was quiet I twisted the tiny knob of a discarded radio my parents had left more as decoration in my upstairs bedroom than purposeful to the ‘on’ position and begin scanning the universe for sounds. Jazz was my priority, but even then, swing was specialty programming sentenced to late Sunday evenings.
Most of us struggling with high school and flailing away on an instrument found sanctuary in the latest British imports or those domestic numbers mistaken for British bands. The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Who – not Herman’s Hermits and Freddy and the Dreamers. There’s Billy Joe Royal and Travis Wammack hanging around my home area as well as The Kingsmen.
Then one evening this beautiful blend of folk and pop surfaced caught my attention. “You Were On My Mind," the We Five version.
I was always looking for crossover material we could play with our band; originally the Shadows, then the Chateaus. Dylan was high on my list as well as Woody Guthrie, Tim Buckley, and others.
In a nearby record store I couldn’t find much on the We Five, so I dug deeper and discovered the songwriting duo Ian and Sylvia. I then located the album Northern Journey. My, were they ever a handsome couple.
Album cover art as good as this has a way of marking a significant moment in time and encapsulating an era. It’s the early sixties and “the great folk scare”. It was the hootenannies, the freewheeling troubadours, the call for peace on earth, this land is our land, let’s get together slogans that united millions of wayfaring teens. It took no more than an extended thumb to get you from Greenwich Village to LA.
Everyone knows Sylvia Tyson’s back history yet for me that album cover and having Sylvia in the flesh only a few feet away was like that teenage kid toying with his parents' radio and tuning in a winsome, recurring memory. We are all forever young in our heads.
Here’s that conversation.
Are you quite busy?
I'm busier than I thought I would be at this age.
Do things just flow?
Yes, I mean I generally find that if things are getting a bit slack I start doing make-work projects, and then suddenly something turns up and I'm busier than I want to be.
When you say make work what could that be?
I've written some books, and I'm always writing songs. Up until very recently, I was involved in various music industry associations which as you probably know take up a lot of time.
A lot of board meetings?
Yes. Not my best thing.
Are you good with input or do you mostly listen?
Both. I was president of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame for ten years.
And a founding member.
Yes. It was started by Frank Davies and he put together a group of people, mainly songwriters and a few industry people because there was no body to honor Canadian songwriters. And lord knows we've had some of the best primo songwriting acts with hits. It has slowly built. It's still going although it's under the auspices of SOCAN right now.
That was quite an experience because I learned a hell of a lot about the history of Canadian music and how far back it went.
The initial year, did you induct people into the Hall of Fame or did that come down the line?
We did it from the first year. There were astonishing songs. Songs like “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” written by Shelton Brooks. He lived in Detroit and Windsor and had huge hits for Sophie Tucker. “Some of These Days”, he wrote that. I mean it goes way, way back.
You grew up in Chatham and your teens listening to Detroit radio.
I listened to Detroit radio all the time. I loved R&B. It was wonderful.
Even before Motown?
Oh, absolutely. One of my big favourites was Little Willie John who I just thought had the most fantastic voice. He did the original version of “Fever”.
Were your first experiences singing in a choir?
My mother was an organist and choir leader,so you can imagine where I spent a large part of my young life. Singing alto in the choir. We always had more sopranos than we knew what to do with. And if our one tenor didn't show up I’d sing tenor. Now, with Quartette I get to sing bass which is more fun than anything.
You're getting down even lower.
Absolutely. As I get older, my voice gets deeper.
When did you discover you could sing out in public?
I don't think it came necessarily through music. I always loved music and listened to a lot of music and a lot of classical music at home and of course Detroit. I had one of those radios that my dad gave me. He worked for Eaton's and it was one of those ones with a huge cap in it and a tiny little dial about an inch square. I used to listen to it late at night.
I came to performing music through English literature because in high school we had a book called Grass of Parnassus which was a book of poetry which was part of the curriculum and some wise soul had one of the two or three old English ballads and printed a line of music. I'm thinking, hey, these are songs. And that was a revelation to me, and I started researching old songs, and of course, my initial career was doing folk songs.
It’s how the words play out.
Because they told stories and the thing about those folk songs, they are kind of like distilled music. They passed through so many hands, and all the fat is cut off, and it's just that basic story.
The choice of words.
“You Were on My Mind” was one of those songs that crossed the map of the world and touched so many people.
I'm very thankful for that song, and it is still alive and kicking.
I wrote this song in 1961, although it was not recorded or published until '62 and I wrote it in a bathtub in the Hotel Earle in Greenwich Village in New York. It’s now a very fancy boutique hotel.
The reason I wrote it in the bathtub wasn’t that I was taking a bath. It was the only place the cockroaches wouldn't go. I guess the rest is history.
We were already signed to Vanguard Records. That was a folk label, and it was just a natural fit. That was the first song I ever wrote. The first song Ian ever wrote was “Four Strong Winds”.
I still get plaintive calls from my accountant asking if we could write another one.
Can you recall the recording session?
Well, Vanguard never actually had a studio until much later. I can’t remember if this was recorded in the Brooklyn Masonic Temple or in the ballroom of some uptown hotel. They would just throw a couple of canvas drapes up to kind of dampen it down a bit. Vanguard's idea of stereo was to put my voice on one speaker and Ian’s on the other. People liked it because they could figure out my harmony parts and they could also figure out the guitar parts as separate from them.
What did you think after you heard the results?
I was very pleased.
Then it starts climbing the charts.
Well, that was a total surprise.
Ian and I were in California, and we'd finished playing in Los Angeles and were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. It came on the radio from theWe Five, and we nearly drove off the road. We didn't know that they'd done it.
So many artists whether it's the Beatles or The Stones are in a car driving somewhere to a gig the moment they first hear their song played on the radio and immediately pull off the road.
That gives you some idea of the power of radio. It was extraordinary. I mean it's one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life.
Was it playing in Toronto when you returned?
Oh yes. It played everywhere and it was recorded many times over in Europe as well . As a matter of fact, a large part of my royalties come from Italy because there was a Spanish group called Los Barracudas and they recorded it as “Estabasen Mi Mente” and it keeps getting used in Italy for various things. Television shows, commercials, you name it. It just keeps rolling.
With Vanguard, did you share in the publishing or did they hold on to all of the publishing?
Oh no, they never had the publishing. The thing is, we didn't have the publishing either because we did mostly traditional material. At that point, the publishing company kept the publishing royalties and you got the writers royalties. You wouldn’t share in the publishing royalties
Did that ever get that resolved?
Later it did. I forget how many years it was, maybe 32 years or something like that; you could claim your copyright, which I did immediately and renegotiated my deal with the publisher where they now get something like 15 percent.
You had some thoughts on the Coen Brothers film about the folk era in Greenwich Village, Inside Llewellyn Davis. I expressed to a film critic that I was not a big fan of the movie and he couldn’t get over that.
I love the Coen Brothers too, and that one had some moments. I guess my main feeling is, it probably is a testament to that young actor’s abilities, but I just want to give them a smack, and say smarten up.
The quality of songs he was singing wasn’t up to par.
It was supposed to be based on the life of Dave Van Ronk and it had nothing to do with Dave Van Ronk other than the fact he had his seaman’s papers.
Dave Van Ronk was like the folk godfather of Greenwich Village. When you were certain you wrote a capable song you’d go see Dave Van Ronk for validation. Did you live in the village?
I had an apartment on the Lower East Side. I still have an apartment there but not the same one, I bought years ago. I get down quite often and see old friends and hang out.
It's very different now of course. It doesn't look the same or feel that way. But then it was th emusic that you saw, I mean not just folk music. I got to see artists like Cisco Houston at Gerde’s Folk City. I got to see a very young Simon and Garfunkel whose only song at that point was the Gregorian chant. Of course, Bob Dylan, but I also went to the Five Spot for some jazz.
Mike Porco, who owned Gerde’s, I expect had little interest or understanding of music. He just had this club and had to put people on stage. Israel Young at the FolkloreCentre had a lot to do with the early bookings in the place and that's why it became kind of the folkie haven.
Mike Porco used to refer to us as "Enus and Sylvia."
It’s the civil rights movement, and folk music is political. It was the language of the movement at that time.
To some degree, yes. Ian and Sylvia never really did protest music. I have mixed feelings about protest songs. I think they make very good protest but a lot of them don't make very good songs. And they’re kind of like yesterday's news at a certain point if you're talking specific stuff in a protest song. It’s very effective for the period of time in which it's written and then it kind of loses its appeal.
Like Pete Seeger and The Weavers were all about unionizing. That’s what the appeal was at the time.
Absolutely, and very important in that respect.
Protest songs could excite a movement and advance an agenda. I just don't see that now.
No, you don't get a lot of message in songs these days. Maybe some of the rappers do so in their genre to make a form of protest. You don't hear it in pop music for sure.
You are at Hugh’s Room Tuesday, August 7th and you're going to be with Scarlett Rivera.
You would remember Scarlett for being the fiddle player on Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, but she's played with a lot of people other than what she's been doing with me. This is the third time we've been out. Now she's playing with Eric Anderson. She does a variety of things. I mean she's she does some movie stuff and some classical stuff and she's kind of all over the map. She's a very capable player you know.
How did this happen for the two of you?
It came about through a guy called Jim Cowan who manages Albert Lee's career and Albert is an old and dear friend of mine. I try to see him whenever he's in Toronto. Jim has been doing his bookings and so Jim and I met, and he'd been an old Ian and Sylvia fan. He asks if I would like to do some dates in the States. I said sure, what do you have in mind? He said he was working with Scarlett Rivera and would you like to work something out?
Initially, it was a trio with myself, Scarlett Rivera and Cindy Cashdollar, the steel player. Cindy wasn't available for the second tour we did, so Scarlett and I just started doing our own thing. It built from there.
Colleen Peterson, who was one of the original members of Quartette, was asked to put together a women's songwriter show down at Harbourfront. That’s when Derek Andrews was booking Harbourfront and she gave me a call and Caitlin Hanford. Caitlin had been pals with Cindy Church who was living out in Alberta at that point.
We got together and started fooling around with stuff and realized that we all knew each other's material so whenever somebody would say, maybe I'll do this song, we'd all just join in. We were all harmony singers naturally, so we did an afternoon show at Harbourfront. If we'd had a CD available we probably could have sold 100 copies that day. We started getting calls from CBC and various interviewers and it was just like bang, bang, bang. And 22 years later we're still together.
When Colleen Peterson passed that was heartbreaking.
It was. We were playing in Newfoundland at the time and Gwen Swick who was an old friend of Colleen was filling in for her and is still with us of course.
It’s the friendship and travel experiences.
It’s certainly lasted longer than a lot of marriages.
We get along just great. One of the beauties of Quartette is that it really is a partnership in that each of us has our duties within the group. Caitlin handles the product. Cindy handles the travel arrangements and Gwen handles all of the bookings and contracts and booking musicians for rehearsals, and I handle the money end of it.
How did you get to the money?
I guess it was the only thing that was left.
The first time you appeared as Quartette it must have been a wonderful sensation knowing you were now a group?
It was pretty organic. I don't think any of us gave it a lot of thought.
Gary Slaight invested in a Quartette album. Was it the debut?
He’s invested in all of our albums.
Years back, I’m in his office and he holds up this piece of paper and says, “these are the first artists ever to pay me back”.
We paid him back on every album he invested in. He says it’s the best deal he ever made. That’s how we operate.
It is still basically off-stage sales?
Yeah basically, although we've been with Outside Music, the distributor for years. Lloyd Nishimura has been great to us. It’s on the Outside label. It’s worked exceptionally well for us because we don't have a record company raking off most of the profits.
Did you figure that out early on?
Absolutely! I handle the money. I’m a control freak. It’s great having total control over your material and the musicians you use and where you recorded, all of that stuff.
Who is or was your favourite country artist?
Probably one of the greatest country singers of all time was George Jones. Even my son was asked who his favourite singer is and he said George Jones. Kitty Wells too. She recorded one of my songs, “Trucker’s Café.”
Your first book, Joyner’s Dream, is a lengthy 420 pages. Did you have an editor?
Yeah, it was me and it was initially 500.
The gist of the book?
It's a family saga. It starts in the late 1700s and comes up to more or less the present day. It’s about a family and they're a musical family and there's a fiddle that's passed down through the family, and it's called Old Nick and he's kind of peripheral but kind of not you know. There’s also a CD that doesn’t goes with it, but you can get it. I realized I did forget when I was writing the book I put original titles wherever there was music and then realized when I finished the book I had all these original titles and no music.
How much time invested writing?
That took three or four years to write. HarperCollins publish it.
I'm currently involved in writing a series of murder mysteries. I'm working on the third one now. They haven't been published yet because publishers tend to want a series, so they want to know they have at least three to go with. You put in a lot of work for not much return right away.
You’re locked to your chair quite a bit.
For that and the songwriting.
The room for writing and everything, what do you see? Do you have a familiar place of comfort?
My whole house is a workspace.
I have a computer. I'm basically a Luddite and use it for e-mail and writing and research. My living room is where I practice. That's where my guitars are set up and I play button accordion as well. The kitchen table is where I do a lot of work.
Do you live in a quite zone?
I do. I'm kind of reclusive when I'm not working. I'm very comfortable in my own company.
You're like much Whoopi Goldberg on theView. She says she’s fine by herself and great company.
I watched a generation of men in my neighborhood retire, sit on their front porches and stare into space, then pass. Have you ever entertained retirement?
I can't imagine doing it. I mean they probably spent their whole lives doing a job they hate and then they say, OK, I'm done. But as I said to you earlier there's a Willie Nelson quote. Somebody asked him if he ever thought of retiring and he said all 'I do is play golf and play music, what do you want me to give up?'
Do you communicate with Ian these days?
He's doing okay now. I mean he's seven years older than I am so he's starting to feel his age a bit you know.
Does he ever say, “look, Sylvia, let's get the guitars and go on the road?”
No no, no, no. Both he and I are wrapped up in our material. You know I’m not particularly nostalgic. I enjoy the past, but I don't want to live there.
What are you reading?
I mainly read murder mysteries. How can I put it? It’s sort of popcorn for the mind.
Do you have a favourite author?
James Lee Burke.