Saturday, November 22, 2008

"That Damned Old Rodeo": Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon"

Given the inextricable link between American folk music traditions and the lore of the Old West, I always thought it a bit strange that the original troupes of the Kingston Trio didn't venture more frequently into the distinct folk sub-genre of cowboy music. When they did so, the results were at times stunningly effective. The Shane, Guard, Reynolds trio recorded few songs lovelier than their version of "The Colorado Trail," a genuine artifact from the cowboy times, and Stewart configuration made a decent attempt at "Get Along Little Dogies," which if nothing else features an interesting and original chord accompaniment structure.

Maybe the cowboy numbers seemed too country-ish for a band that needed to maintain a somewhat urban posture for the nightclub dates that they played all through their career. But then - the Trio had plenty of river songs - and mountain songs - and history songs - just few serious traditional cattle drive tunes.

They fared better with faux cowboy numbers. If "Some Fool Made A Soldier Of Me" was just silly and "Adios, Farewell" a merely unsuccessful attempt to tap into the success of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" - they did score musical successes with a truly great version of the fake folk "Long Black Veil," and I always thought that their performance of "Red River Shore" (another nod to Robbins, perhaps) was the only truly listenable song on Something Else and one of their best numbers from their last two records.

"Someday Soon" from the Nick, Bob, John album fits into this category, as it does in "Really Great Writers And Songs Discovered/Promoted By The Kingston Trio." By 1964, when the KT put this one on vinyl, its writer Ian Tyson was already a superstar in his native Canada and very popular in the U.S., both with album sales and frequent appearances on Hootenanny and other TV variety shows. With his at first POSSLQ* and later wife (and eventually bitter divorce enemy) Sylvia Fricker, Tyson became a major force in folk music on both sides of our (formerly) friendly border - as a performer of course, as a writer ("Four Strong Winds" has been voted the greatest song ever written by a Canadian - and though I agree, you have to wonder what Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot ["Early Morning Rain," maybe?] fans might say to that), and like Bob Gibson in this country, a discoverer of new talent (it was Tyson who gave Lightfoot his earliest break, and he also sponsored the early recording career of Joni Mitchell).

After the boom period of the folk movement passed and his marriage to Sylvia imploded, Tyson returned to the ranch in Alberta that he was having trouble paying for, sought and found work as a cow puncher and ranch hand, all the while still writing and performing, albeit to much smaller audiences for a time. (I caught him in a crummy bar outside of Edmonton in the early 80s when i was returning from one of my solo adventures to the Canadian Arctic; there were maybe 25 people in the audience, and both of us there who were actually listening heard a great show.) He re-cast himself as the troubadour of the simple cowboy way of life, with steady and increased success since then. As a matter of fact, if you visit his website and check out his discography (Tyson Discography) all you'll find are the cowboy-era albums from 1973 onward - no folk, no "Four Strong Winds" - no Sylvia.

And yet - whatever was between Ian and Sylvia fifty years ago when they met almost fifty years ago has been immortalized in this great song, which is sort of imaginary-autobiographical. Written by Tyson, it seems as if he is conceptualizing the romance through her eyes - he was, in case you didn't know, a rodeo rider before he turned to music and art.

The best-known version of the song, of course, is by Judy Collins from a really great Judy album, Who Knows Where The Time Goes? There is a live performance video of Collins doing the song on TV in 1969 ( Judy Collins Live) and I really wanted to post it - but without that great steel/slide guitar intro and accompaniment, you just lose too much of the flavor of the number. So here is Judy's actual studio recording:

[But since Collins' video above was yanked from YouTube as of 3/09 - here's the live performance, sadly minus slide guitar.]

However - a recent (2009) performance on the Letterman show includes the great slide guitar part - and shows that 40 years later, Collins still has the vocal chops to pull it off:

This came out after the Kingston Trio had flipped the speaker of the lyrics from the girl to the young cowboy. It's a version that few outside of Trio circles have ever heard (Nick, Bob, John didn't sell very well, comparatively) - but it has the virtues of an original arrangement and a strong, masculine vocal by John Stewart:

Now, I'd love to post a full version of Ian Tyson doing his own song - but as Rick Daly knows, Syvia's lawyers don't take kindly to YouTube or websites like his using her performance material. So - several of the songs that came from the 1984 Ian and Sylvia Reunion are now on YouTube - but "embedding is disabled by request" - from Sylvia's attorneys, I'm betting. However - here's a video montage of Ian doing his own composition:

Not surprisingly, the song has remained tremendously popular with female country singers in all the decades since Collins' performance. Here are two of what I think are the best - Crystal Gayle and Suzy Bogguss:

Crystal Gaye, 1979

Suzy Bogguss - Recently

And to close - since as mentioned the pedal steel is such a fine part of this arrangement - how about a pedal steel instrumental version - from The Steel Guitar Association in Ireland, of all places:

A great song, indeed - and in this year of lost legends, we can be happy that Ian Tyson is still alive and kicking, out on the road somewhere, singing and writing into the sunset of his life..............

*POSSLQ is an acronym for "people of opposite sexes sharing living quarters" - one that never really caught on but I always thought deserved to.


johnddickey said...

Very insightful article, Jim. I always liked Ian & Sylvia's "Old Blue" (or is it just "Blue"? I'd have to dig my LP out of my archives to get it right) number, although it's even more canine dismal than Elvis Presley's "Old Shep" (also one of my favorites - Elvis was the piano player in that one, so I hear). Ian Tyson is the genuine article as a performer, with a penchant for the unusual and pensive with cowboy songs.
This article has prompted me to upload one of the most pensive (albeit not unusual), lachrymose and well-known cowboy songs of all time I took the liberty of multi-tracking. (No, not "Streets of Larado".) I love them there cowboy songs, but I could never get my group to do this one straight. I often responded to their reticence with "Well...get yourself an outfit and you can be a cowboy, too." (Arcane trivia: Where did that come from? I'm certain you know.)

Cordially, John

Jim Moran said...

Hey John!

Lachrymose cowboy songs??? Never!!

Actually, the week Nicky died, I was going to post the KT "Laredo?" up against some great country/cowboy versions like Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, and Marty Robbins - the intent being to show that the Trio had the best musical arrangement but that they squandered it in a joke. Look for that upcoming - meanwhile, I'm over to the "Blinkmyt" site to see which song is even more lachrymose than "Streets of Laredo"!



ps: we of course agree about tyson!

Jim Moran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike McManus said...

What a great blog. I just found it looking for the writer of "Some Day Soon". I knew it had to be a great song writer and not surprised it was Ian T. I love "Four Strong Winds".