Sylvia Tyson Interview
As half of Ian & Sylvia, Sylvia Tyson made albums throughout the 1960s that were important to the folk boom, early folk-rock, and early country-rock. The duo played an astonishing variety of traditional and contemporary folk-based songs, and were among the first to cover compositions by Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, SteveGillette, and other writers.
They were also skilled songwriters themselves, Sylvia's most well-known work being "You Were on My Mind," which became one of the first big folk-rock hits when covered by the We Five. Do you see the influence of your early records on the first folk-rock records, particularly in the diversity of repertoire? For instance, the Byrds, and later Fairport Convention, had a similar mix of original material, covers of songs by emerging contemporary songwriters, and a variety of traditional folk songs. Ian and I, of course, started out doing traditional music. And it wasn't until our second album that Ian had "Four Strong Winds." And that was the first song that either of us had written on our albums. We always liked to do the material of other writers, once we started to write, because we felt that every writer, after they do stuff for a certain length of time, stuff starts to sound the same. And that it gave us a bit more of a variety in what we were doing. Plus, we really liked the songs, too. On some of the albums, there was more range than on almost any records of the time. You did your own songs, Gordon Lightfoot songs, blues, Cecil Sharp folk tunes, French-Canadian songs, country-western songs... It was me that did most of the research on the traditional stuff. It's amazing material. I sort of think of it as distilled music. You know, it's been through so many hands that all of the fat is cut off it, because having gone through so many hands in the oral tradition, people just forgot the boring bits (laughs). And kept the good stuff. And I find that that has held true for me in writing songs, too. I think that really good songwriters are vicious editors. Almost from the start, you were using a lot of side musicians on your albums, much more than most folk records of the time, with some really good musicians, like Bill Lee on bass. John Herald played on our albums, I think Eric Weissberg played on a couple of things...we really had some wonderful players. And playing an arrangement of those instruments was always a big part of what we did. Were you conscious that this was setting you apart, to some degree, from a lot of other folk artists recording at the time -- '63, '64?? Well, we were aware that we probably put a lot more time into arrangements. I think that the norm at that point was not really to rehearse a lot. Once you got down the chords, you just kind of played it. And we were very much aware of arrangements, and of double lead lines and things like that. For the material you were selecting by contemporary songwriters, often they were of composers who had not recorded yet, or barely recorded, and hadn't been covered often or at all yet. That certainly was true of Gordon Lightfoot. Joni Mitchell, I think Tom Rush had recorded at least one of her songs before we did. It might have been the same song. He did "Circle Game" around the same time you did. And also, I think we recorded Dylan's songs before anybody else really was doing them. He was certainly well known in New York, and was just beginning to be known outside of the New York area, at that point. For instance, "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" is something Dylan didn't release in the '60s. He may have recorded it later, but he didn't record it at that point. Was sharing management an aid for getting songs by Dylan and maybe some other writers that were also managed by Albert Grossman, as you were? In a sense, we actually signed with Albert Grossman before Bobby had. And we were at least partially responsible for him signing Bobby, not because we said "sign him," but because we said, "Hey, this guy's really great." Did you see any of your influence in folk-rock acts that used similar male-female harmonies, like the Mamas and the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, We Five, and Fairport Convention? In some ways I am aware of it. I mean, certainly Michelle Phillips once said to me, "When I was starting out, every girl in the music business wanted to be Sylvia Tyson." (laughs) How true that is, I don't know. But that's what she said. And actually, I'm currently looking at a project of working with three female singer-songwriters from the California area who were major Ian & Sylvia fans: Carla Olson, Terry Roche, and Mare Winningham, the actress, who's also a singer-songwriter. And it looks like we will be doing something together late in the springtime, I hope. And they have all told me that the reason they want to do this is because they were so influenced by what Ian and I did, and what I did, early on. So the influence is lingering for several decades now. I think that what happened in some cases, is that the parents of these people were so into the music, and they heard it growing up. And I mean, I have to say, blowing our own horn, that that material really holds up for me. There's some stuff from that period that doesn't. But I have to say, I have no apologies for anything we ever recorded. For your own songwriting, Ian's first song was "Four Strong Winds," and yours was "You Were on My Mind." That's quite a start, since those are still your most famous ones. Were you trying to develop a style for your own material that was different from what you were covering? Speaking for myself, not really. I came to folk music through a very different process than most of the people who were part of the folk era, in that I was from Chatham, Ontario, a small southern Ontario town. And there were no records. There was nobody I could listen to. So I got all of my songs from books. So I didn't have any preconceived notions about how they should be performed. And when it got to the point where I was writing my own stuff, I really almost calculatedly didn't listen to a lot of other singers or writers. Because I really didn't want to be influenced. There were people, certainly, that I knew and had listened to and had liked. But I didn't -- like certain friends of mine who are very successful in the music business lock themselves in their rooms and listen to Aretha Franklin forever. I never did anything like that. In the transition period from folk to rock, did you have any notion, say around '64, that there was going to be a big shift to electric instruments and bands? I think you have to realize how isolated we were. We were on the road almost all the time. And when we did the two albums in Nashville, we took almost a year off after those albums were put out, and realized that part of what we were feeling was that we did not want to go out on the road with just a guitar player anymore. That if we could not reproduce the material that was on those records, that we didn't want to be performing. And that's when we put together the first version of the Great Speckled Bird. When we did the Great Speckled Bird album, the people playing on that album -- I mean, there were some Nashville musicians too, but the people playing on that album were people who had actually played with us. They were part of the Great Speckled Bird. I think that the Loving Sound album, the one with "Loving Sound" on it, that there was a little pressure from the record company to do something that might be aimed a little more towards pop music. We were fortunate in that we didn't have a lot of that kind of pressure. But I think that that album was in fact a result of some sensibility on the side of the record company that they wanted something that might go a little more towards the pop mainstream. And, although I think there are some good songs on that album, that there are some flaws in the arrangements which show that we really were not pop artists. Was it a surprise to you that "You Were on My Mind" was covered by the We Five for a big pop hit? Quite a surprise. It was actually a hit before I knew about it. We were on the road in California. We were driving down Highway 101 (laughs), and turned on the radio, and there it was, by god. Do you know what channels the song passed through to get to the We Five? I think they had our albums. I don't think it was a publisher or a third party. But I may be wrong on that. What did you think of their version? I wasn't that thrilled with how they changed the lyrics. But I certainly knew the limitations of pop radio in those days, and that the lyrics "I got drunk and I got sick" probably wouldn't pass muster (chuckles). I think your version had a much more gospel, bluesy feeling. Well, it definitely was gospel-influenced. Did you ever hear the version that became the hit in England, by Crispian St. Peters? I did hear it, ages and ages ago. The thing that really pissed me off was that he put his name on it. He claimed he'd written it. Did he get any of the publishing money, or did that get straightened out? I think it got straightened out pretty quickly, but I thought it was pretty stupid on his part. It's a really odd version -- very slow and lugubrious. We did have an odd experience with it. When Ian and I did a tour in England with Gordon Lightfoot, with the Ian Campbell folk group, oh gosh, who else -- I can't remember who all was on that tour. But we toured England and Scotland. And it was just after the point when Crispian St. Peters had had a hit with that song. And we were doing that song as a regular part of our show, and of course, the folk Nazis in the audience (laughs) just started booing and hissing and carrying on. But the good news is, that there was a group out of Spain called the Barracudas who did it, and had a huge hit with it in Europe. Did they translate it into Spanish? Spanish and Italian, yeah. And it continues to make me money from Spain and Italy (laughs). Were you aware of the cover versions of Ian & Sylvia songs by rock groups, like of "The French Girl" and "Four Strong Winds"? I was aware of a few of them. Certainly "You Were on My Mind" was done by several people. "River Road," which is a little later of course, was done by Crystal Gayle. "The French Girl" was done by a couple of people. I thought that could have been a hit if it got more promotion or something. Gene Clark did a version, and a group in Seattle called the Daily Flash did a really good one. Looking at the whole picture, we never wrote with other people in mind. We all basically wrote for ourselves. Was there much negative reaction from folk purists as your music changed and you went into more pop, rock, and country arrangements? When we first put together the Great Speckled Bird, we had some very adverse reaction. We had some situations where the minute people saw pedal steel on stage, they would get up and walk out. So that's still going on even though Great Speckled Bird is a few years after Bob Dylan had gone through that whole thing. Yes, but we weren't Bob Dylan (laughs). They thought of us as folk music, as the acoustic thing, and the idea of an electric instrument on stage was an anathema to certain people who, for whatever reason, they just couldn't deal with it. As I say, the folk Nazis. When "You Were on My Mind" came out on your greatest hits collection, there were drums that weren't on the original version. Do you remember you or Vanguard redoing or dubbing the original to make it more of a rock song? If I did, I don't remember. It sounds highly unlike Vanguard, however. Which leads into my next question. Elektra and Vanguard were the two most progressive folk labels of the 1960s. What were the good and bad things about being with the company? I think that Vanguard, despite the folk artists and their success with them, was always primarily a classical label. Even with Joan Baez selling so many copies, and your albums and some other people's doing pretty well? Their whole approach to recording was really based on how they recorded classical music. So do you think that was perhaps a disadvantage for them, when they were trying to keep up with the changes in the audience and the market? I can't speak for them, but the two brothers, Maynard and Seymour Solomon -- Seymour ran the classical wing, and Maynard was I think the younger brother, and wanted to have something of his own. So he really got invested in the folk side of it. And I think there was always a kind of a bottom-line attitude that, well, this is all very well and good, but what we're really about is classical music. That's surprising to hear. You'd think that they'd want to shift more into popular music, both because they were having some success with it and because the market for folk and then folk-rock was expanding so much. You'd think so. But you know, their sense of promotion was not terrific. I mean, their idea of a big promotion was to buy an ad in the Evergreen Review (laughs). And, you know, we actually had one of our albums on the national charts at one point, but it was not due to any kind of promotion that Vanguard did. It was strictly because we were out in the trenches, working and promoting the record. And I think that's true of all Vanguard's artists. And when it came to the singles market, it seemed like Vanguard didn't really have a clue. They didn't get it, they really didn't. Nice men, and loved music, but just no sense of how to move into the larger record business. I wanted to ask about any impressions you have of a few of the musicians who played on your records. Bill Lee, the bassist, who's Spike Lee's dad? We met Bill Lee through Odetta. He had played with her forever. I think his bass added a much greater sense of rhythm to the records than was heard on most folk records. I think that's absolutely true. But you see, I think that Bill Lee really came out of jazz. And I think that that really was his approach. I thought he was a wonderful player. And I often thought that he must have found himself sort of like in a strange country (laughs), playing with folk artists. But I really liked what he added to what we did. Felix Pappalardi is most known for his rock production, but he was on quite a few folk and folk-rock sessions, with you and Fred Neil for instance. He played bass for us for two or three years, I guess. What kind of sensibility did he bring to the sessions? Well, again, more of a rock sensibility. Although he had a fairly extensive classical background. An interesting story about Felix, actually, is the first time he saw Cream was when he was playing with us in Boston. And it might have been their first North American appearance. It seemed like an such an unexpected change, for him to move from folky sessions to producing Cream. I don't know if his heart was ever really in folk music (laughs). And Eric Weissberg, who's famous for the one hit he had, but he added a lot to a bunch of your recordings. Oh yeah. I mean, he's a wonderful guitar player, as well as a banjo player. Russ Savakus, I've never seen him interviewed anywhere... I have no idea what happened to Russ. He played on a bunch of Vanguard albums for other artists too, like the Farinas. I think that what happened was that, for instance, when we started adding more musicians, people would listen to our albums and would decide that they liked that playing. It wasn't that it was people that hung out together. As I say, we were on the road most of the time. We didn't hang out that much. I think, for instance, here's one little story -- you know, when John Herald [was] on our very first albums, John is a very hard-working, meticulous player. And everything that he plays, he works out very carefully. And we would send him tapes of what we were doing, weeks, months ahead. And he would very carefully work out his parts. And once he started playing on our records, he started getting calls from all of these people, that they wanted him to play on their records. And they would expect him to just show up at the studio, and play the kind of stuff that he played on our records. And he told us, we ruined his life (laughs). Because he was on the hot seat now? Yeah. Well, the thing is, as I say, he always worked things out ahead of time. Those parts that he did were very carefully put together. So, like I say, when he would get a call to show up at the studio and "play something like you played on 'Katie Dear'" or something like that, he'd be on the spot. CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO OF SYLVIA TYSON INTERVIEW