Ian Tyson, Canadian folk music icon who penned Four Strong Winds, dead at 89

Tyson, left, sits at a table at the Twin Cities Saloon in Longview, Alta. (Chris Goss - image credit)
Tyson, left, sits at a table at the Twin Cities Saloon in Longview, Alta. (Chris Goss - image credit)

Canadian folk music icon Ian Tyson died Thursday morning, his ex-wife confirmed to CBC News.

His former wife and musical partner, Sylvia Tyson, said the 89-year-old's impact on Canadian culture is hard to overstate.

"I sat in with a young band at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and they wanted me to do Four Strong Winds with them. It was quite a young audience and I didn't really expect that kind of response, but everybody in the crowd sang Four Strong Winds," she told CBC News in a phone interview Thursday.

"It's kind of like a Canadian national anthem."

Tyson had major surgery a few years ago and never fully recovered, she said.

His manager, Paul Mascioli, told The Canadian Press that the singer died following a series of ongoing health complications.

WATCH | Ian Tyson in conversation with the CBC:

Bard of the West

Fellow Alberta country singer-songwriter, Corb Lund, grew up listening to Ian Tyson and played shows with him in 2018.

"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," Lund told CBC News in a 2019 interview.

Referring to Four Strong Winds, Lund said the song's staying power speaks for itself.

"When you have a powerful song like that and it sticks around for decades, it becomes part of the cultural fabric, so it builds on itself. The repetition of the song becomes self-fulfilling, so it starts out as a great song and builds over the years."

WATCH | Calgarians join Ian Tyson in playing Four Strong Winds on Canada Day 2017:

Paul Brandt, another country artist from Calgary, told the CBC in an interview that Four Strong Winds was the first song he learned on guitar, a feat that impressed his mother so much that she got him guitar lessons. 

"If that hadn't happened, I never would have had the opportunity to continue doing music. So, the intersections of my life with Ian Tyson's life were hugely monumental for me and my career," he said.

Chris Goss
Chris Goss

From rodeo to songwriting 

Born Sept. 25, 1933 in Victoria, B.C., Tyson didn't appear to have a hardscrabble upbringing. His parents had emigrated from England, and he attended private school and learned to play polo before discovering the rodeo.

He was a rodeo rider in his late teens and early 20s. But in 1957, while competing in the Dog Pound Rodeo near Cremona, Alta., he shattered his ankle.

During two weeks of recovery in the hospital, he borrowed the guitar of another patient and taught himself to play.

"Guitar was the means by which to pass the time," he told the CBC in a 2000 interview.

Tyson began his music career in the late 1950s, first hitchhiking across the country from Vancouver to Toronto and then getting swept up in the city's burgeoning folk movement in the bohemian Yorkville neighbourhood.

That's where he met a kindred spirit named Sylvia Fricker and they began a relationship — onstage and off — eventually leading to their breakthrough second album Four Strong Winds in 1964.

WATCH | From the archives, Ian and Sylvia speak to CBC in 1963: 

They would continue releasing music together for years, and they had a son, Clay in the late '60s. However, the couple grew apart as their career began to stall in the '70s, and they divorced in 1975.

Tyson built a solo career as a country music singer in the years that followed, with his self-released 1987 album, "Cowboyography" becoming a surprising word-of-mouth hit that helped earn him a Juno award.

Life as a rancher 

When the couple divorced, Tyson moved to Alberta to embrace the rural life he had long loved.

A portion of the royalties he received after Neil Young recorded Four Strong Winds in 1978 helped him secure 259 hectares near Longview, Alta., in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where he established a working ranch to raise cutting horses and other livestock.

"You know, they weren't huge cheques but … your dollar went further in those days," Tyson told CBC in 2000. "It was exciting; it was fun doing that."

James Young/CBC
James Young/CBC

Once settled, he began writing and recording again — but this time he focused exclusively on country music.

In 1986, Tyson married Twylla Dvorkin, whom he'd originally met at Ranchman's Bar in Calgary when she was 17 and he was 45.

Their daughter, Adelita, was born in 1987. Tyson credited Dvorkin with encouraging him to start recording cowboy music. The couple's marriage ended in 2005 and they divorced in 2008.

Losing his voice, but still playing 

Tyson continued to release music late into his career, including the 2015 album Carnero Vaquero and the 2017 single You Should Have Known.

But doctor's exams related to a heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery in 2015 left permanent damage to his voice. That didn't necessarily slow him down.

Tyson continued to perform live concerts, and he continued to play his guitar at home.

"I think that's the key to my hanging in there because you've gotta use it or lose it," he said a year after one of his shows was cancelled due to health reasons in 2018.

"When you get to a certain age in life, which I've attained and probably passed, it's hard to stay fairly sharp with the instrument. But I've committed myself to doing that. It's paying off, I'm playing pretty good, in spite of all the broken bones and so on over the years."