The Legendary Sylvia Tyson This Week at Meaford Hall

This week Meaford Hall is bringing a true Canadian icon to town, when Sylvia Tyson visits to perform in concert at the Opera House.  Over her long career, she has contributed both in the foreground and behind the scenes as the Canadian music industry has evolved into the world powerhouse that it is today.  Her distinctive voice created the prototype for generations of female vocalists and her songs have become standards.

When she left her parent’s Chatham home in 1959 to pursue a music career in Toronto, the new folk era was just emerging.  The Kingston Trio had brought a new sound to radio with their hit, “Tom Dooley”, a traditional tale set to simple instrumental accompaniment.  Bob Dylan had  moved to Minneapolis that year and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he began to discover folk music as an alternative to the rock and roll he’d been playing with Little Richard and Bobby VeeGordon Lightfoot was in California studying jazz composition and orchestration at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music.

Albert Grossman was just getting into managing artists who appeared at his club, the Gate of Horn in Chicago, including eighteen year old Joan Baez.  Recognizing the potential of the folk movement that was emerging on campuses, Grossman put together a trio with folk singers Mary Travers, Noel Stookey, and Peter Yarrow, who as Peter, Paul and Mary topped the charts in 1963 with “Puff The Magic Dragon” and Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind”.  By that time Grossman’s management stable, which dominated commercial folk music, included Dylan, Lightfoot, and the duo Ian and Sylvia.

“My parents had a particularly enlightened view for the day,” Sylvia says, “When I left home to become a singer, my dad said, ‘Well if it doesn’t work out you can always come home and get married.’”  She rented a room in Toronto and began to explore the local coffee house scene.  “The first coffee house I played at was on Gerrard, and it was called “The Coffee House”.  Before long she was introduced to Ian Tyson and that magic combination of voices was born.

“When I came to Toronto Ian was already established as part of the coffee houses and summer  camps scene,” Sylvia says, “Summer camps were a great place for people to get work in the summer.

“My meeting with Ian was actually an arranged meeting.  He was working as a commercial artist and my landlady knew his boss, so they introduced us.”

Through the sixties and early seventies, Ian and Sylvia produced thirteen popular albums and toured extensively in North America and Europe.  Among their hit songs was Sylvia’s first composition, “You Were On My Mind”, which in 1965 reached #3 on the Billboard chart when it was covered by a group called We Five, a was later a hit in Britain for Crispian St Peter.

When the folk era faded, Ian and Sylvia formed The Great Speckled Bird (named after a Roy Acuff song), driven by the rocking guitar of Amos Garret, and the group enjoyed success for many years as the house band for the television show Nashville North and as part of the legendary Festival Express tour in 1970.  After Ian and Sylvia broke up Sylvia released several solo albums and in 1993 formed Quartette with Colleen Peterson, Cindy Church, and Caitlin Hanford.  The band was an instant and lasting success, continuing after Colleen Peterson’s death in 1996 with the addition of Gwen Swick, and is still wowing audiences today.

While continuing to record and perform, Sylvia Tyson has also had an impact in publishing and broadcasting.  In 1985 she co-edited with Tom Russell a songwriter book entitled “And Then I Wrote – The Songwriter Speaks”, a collection of quotes from songwriters about their craft (from Stephen Foster to Stevie Wonder), and in 2011 she published a novel, “Joyner’s Dream” and released a CD of music under the same title.

Perhaps her greatest contribution outside of her own music has been in broadcasting.  Through the 80’s she hosted “Heartland” on CBC TV as well as “Country In My Soul”.  But her most significant contribution to Canadian Culture through broadcasting was from 1974 to 1980 when she hosted “Touch The Earth” on CBC radio.

“My CBC radio program, ‘Touch The Earth’ really started the singer-songwriter thing and independent recording as well,” she says, “Suddenly musicians that were just local had national exposure.  Paul Mills, who produced the show, really had his ear to the ground and was good at finding new talent.”  The program took pains to direct listeners to where they could buy the records of the artists they heard.  “We told them how to get in touch with Stan Rogers’ mother to buy his record,” she adds, laughing.

Her career carried on through great changes in the Canadian Music Industry and she was at the centre of it, serving on the boards of FACTOR, the Juno Awards, and the Songwriters Association of Canada, and in 1994 she served on a federal advisory committee on the cultural aspects of the information highway.  Because of her wide-ranging contributions, she was recognized with the Order of Canada in 1994.

But above all, Sylvia Tyson remains a singular performer that has inspired generations of Canadian singer-songwriters.

“At Meaford Hall,” she says, “I will mainly be doing material that I’ve written, but I will be including some of the old Ian and Sylvia chestnuts.  I’ll have a 3-piece band with me: Randall Camp on bass, whom I’ve worked with for 30 years; John P. Allen, who you probably remember from Prairie Oyster, and Larry Smith, from London on guitar.  I’ll be playing guitar and button accordion.”

Solo dates with Sylvia Tyson are few and far between with all of her other activities, so this is a rare chance to catch a performance by a true Canadian jewel.

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