SOCAN is mourning the loss of iconic Canadian singer-songwriter Ian Tyson, who passed away on Dec. 29, 2022, at the age of 89 (while SOCAN was on hiatus).
Tyson was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, and into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, as half of the duo Ian & Sylvia, in 1992. Tyson became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1994, and in 2003 he received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. He was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2006, and in 2019, into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Tyson won a JUNO Award as Best Male Country Artist in 1987.
In 2005, CBC Radio One listeners chose Tyson’s signature tune, “Four Strong Winds,” as the greatest Canadian song of all time. Tyson has been a strong influence on many artists, including Neil Young, who recorded “Four Strong Winds” for his Comes a Time album in 1978. Johnny Cash also recorded the song for American V: A Hundred Highways in 2006. Tyson himself sang “Four Strong Winds” at the opening of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
Many in the Canadian music ecosystem remembered Tyson on social media. Fellow cowboy singer-songwriter Corb Lund said, on Facebook: “With a heavy heart, I learned of my old friend, Ian Tyson’s passing… Canada and the world has lost a legendary songwriter, performer, and lifelong advocate for the romance and reality of the West…”
Steve Kane, the former President of Warner Music Canada, said in a Facebook post: “Neither legend nor icon comes close to describing Ian Tyson. He is woven into the fabric of Canada. He brought our stories to the global stage. He helped keep the tradition of cowboy poetry alive…”
Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament and leader of the folk/roots combo Grievous Angels, posted on Facebook: “Ian Tyson defined Canadian folk music. He was a true original. He wrote so many incredible songs. ‘Four Strong Winds’ remains the defining Canadian song…”
Born a British Columbian in Victoria, and raised in Duncan, Tyson was a rodeo rider in Western Canada in his late teens and early twenties. He began to play guitar while recovering from an injury sustained in a bad fall in the rodeo. He hitchhiked to Toronto, and there met young singer Sylvia Fricker, with whom he formed a musical duo. As Ian & Sylvia, they were – along with Gordon Lightfoot, to whom Tyson was a mentor in Lightfoot’s early days – Canadian stars of the early-1960s folk boom that gave the world Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez.
Married in 1964, the duo made almost a dozen albums, and wrote some of Canada’s best-loved songs, including Ian’s “Four Strong Winds”, “Someday Soon,” and “Summer Wages,” as well as Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” — songs covered countless times, including in versions by Dylan, the aforementioned Neil Young, Judy Collins, and more. As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, Ian & Sylvia evolved into country-rock pioneers. Their band, The Great Speckled Bird, rivalled the Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers in creating a more current form of country music, while still respecting tradition.
After hosting a national Canadian television music show from 1970 to 1975, Tyson’s marriage to Sylvia ended, and he returned home to his first love – training horses in the ranch country of southern Alberta. After three years in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Tyson recorded the album Old Corrals & Sagebrush, consisting of cowboy songs, both traditional and new. Since the 1980s, Tyson released 15 albums on Stony Plain Records celebrating the cowboy life.
The cowboy renaissance blossomed at the inaugural Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1983, where a small coterie of cowboys and cowboy-adjacent craftsmen assembled in a small town in Northern Nevada. Tyson was invited to perform his “new Western music,” and missed only one or two gatherings in the almost 40 years since.
Tyson, a member of ASCAP for most of his life, is survived by a son, Clayton, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Adelita, from his second. Donations in his memory can be made to The Ian Tyson Legacy Fund here. SOCAN extends its sincere condolences to Tyson’s family, friends, fans, and any who’ve ever enjoyed his music, worldwide.