Friday, July 17, 2009

Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds"

Back in November, I posted a more extended discussion of Ian Tyson's contributions to the last fifty years of folk music in an article about "Someday Soon". Tyson is one of those artists (and I have frequently mentioned Emmylou Harris in the same fashion in these posts) that makes you glad that you live in the same century that he does. He created a kind of sub-genre almost singlehandedly - Canadian pop folk, decidedly different from the French voyageur songs and Celtic, Breton, and Acadian music that is the traditional musical heritage of Canada - that spread its roots and branches out as far as the Kingston Trio did in this country. Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, k.d. laing, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers, even Anne Murray and maybe even Leonard Cohen owe a great deal to Tyson.

Tyson is a modestly talented guitarist who works extremely tastefully and well within his limitations, a wonderful singer with a round high baritone - and one of the best songwriters of his generation. The simple fact that he wrote "Someday Soon" and "Four Strong Winds" would be enough by itself - but "Summer Wages," "Navajo Rug" (co-written with Tom Russell), "Four Rode By" and many more cement his place in the folk songwriter firmament.

How might it feel, I wonder at times, to be Pete Seeger ("Flowers") or Bob Dylan ("Blowin' In The Wind") or Tom Paxton ("Last Thing On My Mind") or Ian Tyson with "Four Strong Winds" and know that you have created something that will outlive you by decades for sure, quite possibly for centuries? There is such an aching and beautiful melancholy to Tyson's composition that in my book only the John Stewart/John Phillips "Chilly Winds" can compare to it in expressing what most of us have felt - a love that no matter how strong or true just can't work out.

Apparently most of Canada feels the same way - in 2005, the Canadian Broadcasting Company conducted a poll that placed FSW at the top of the list of the greatest and most essential songs in Canadian pop history:

The 50 Essential Songs Of Canada

Interestingly, though Tyson apparently wrote it in 1961, it was first released on a U.S. album in 1963 by none other than the monarchs of mellow folk, the Brothers Four. It's perfectly suited to their relaxed and quiet style and is our first selection this week:

It looks to me like this is Hootenanny. I'd actually love to hear the number done by their current configuration with the beautiful clear tenor of Mark Pearson on lead.

You can't go too deep into a discussion of the song without seeing how the master himself does it. From the mid-1980s Reunion concert, here are Ian and Sylvia (with some surprise guests at the end) doing what might be their best version:

We also can't go far on this site without seeing what the Kingston Trio did with the number. This is a most respectable version that never made it to an album - from the Decca years, I believe. My video here with a montage of CopyVio images of NBJ - that's Nick, Bob, and John - Reynolds, Shane, and Stewart:

I can only guess that this wasn't included on an album because the guys felt that there were so many other great versions out there already. If so - then this is certainly one of them - the Chad Mitchell Trio originally recorded it on Singin' Our Mind, maybe my favorite single album from the era. For me, this is the definitive version of the tune, with Mike Kobluk on lead and Chad Mitchell's soaring tenor on high harmony:

We also have a video of the CMT doing the song at their 21 year reunion concert with John Denver - this version is every bit as good as the 1963 original. It runs on this video from 2:18 to 5:12.

The less educated among the North American population thinks of FSW as a Neil Young song. Now I really love a lot of Young's stuff, and he's got countless versions of the song out there. I just never warmed to his performance - until, at least, I saw this duet with Willie Nelson:

A few more - a man whose lonely voice makes a train whistle in the night sound cheerful, Johnny Cash:

A man whose scratchy voice makes a train whistle in the night sound operatic, Bob Dylan:

A man whose voice sounds impossibly country authentic - Waylon Jennings:

And finally, our good friends Jere Haskew and the Cumberland Trio give us a sublime version. The group is planning a show in Tennessee next spring - and we might all consider going:

I believe that in my entire adult life there are a few songs I have loved as much as "Four Strong Winds" - but none more.

1 comment:

greenhawk46 said...

when it comes to melancholy songs-you can't beat Ian and Sylvia-I think about her version od St James Infirmary-and how great her voice was-
his voice seems to have sadness built into it-like John Stewart of the KT-
this is one powerful song

nice blog entry Jim, well done
Jim H.