The legendary Ian Tyson penned Four Strong Winds in 1961 after spending an evening with another legend, Bob Dylan, after which he concluded that if Dylan could write his own material, so could he. Tyson was right. The next day, Tyson went to his manager Albert Grossman’s New York City apartment and wrote Four Strong Winds ‒ one of the most influential songs of the folk era ‒ in twenty minutes flat.
In his memoir “The Long Trail,” Tyson recounts: “In Albert’s dingy flat I took out my Martin D28 and commenced strumming, drifting back out west to open country and my beautiful Greek girl from the Okanagan Valley. We had gone our separate ways…and it was uncertain when or if we’d meet again.” He captured that regret in the immortal opening line “Four strong winds that blow lonely,” and the half-hearted promise, “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.”
Tyson had been performing folk songs in Vancouver and Toronto clubs since the late 1950s. And with Sylvia Fricker, he was active in the Greenwich Village folk revival scene, so it’s no surprise that English folk influence is evident in Four Strong Winds’ verse-and-chorus structure and the arc of its melody line.
Ian and Sylvia’s single (Vanguard 35021) was an instant hit in Canada, entering CHUM’s chart September 23, 1963; by October 21 it was in the top ten. Their “Four Strong Winds” album (their second for Vanguard) was on CHUM’s Top 5 album list for several weeks too. The “Folk Today” songbook published the music and lyrics, and other musicians started recording covers; a single by Bobby Bare (RCA 8443) reached No. 3 on the U.S. country charts.
The tune was big for Ian and Sylvia, who were invited to sing it on “Hootenanny” and “The Johnny Cash Show” on US television, and they closed their first major New York concert with it.
The lengthy list of noteworthy cover artists ranges from folk stalwarts to international rock and country stars: Joan Baez, The Band, Harry Belafonte, the Carter Family, the Celtic Tenors, Chad and Jeremy, Judy Collins, John Denver, Bonnie Dobson, Bob Dylan, Flatt & Scruggs, Waylon Jennings, the Jordanaires, The Kingston Trio, Sarah McLachlan, The Seekers, Hank Snow, The Travellers, David Wiffen, and more. Even the Victoria Symphony recorded it, with Rik Emmett and Eleanor McCain.
Four Strong Winds was a hit again for Neil Young, who years before had played the Tyson single repeatedly on a jukebox. Young told John Einarson, “It was the most beautiful record I’d heard in my life, and I could not get enough of it.” Young covered it on his hit 1979 album “Comes a Time” (MSK 2266-P); his single (RPS 1396-P) reached three RPM charts: adult contemporary (top 20); country (No. 48), and top singles (No. 61).
In 1986 Ian and Sylvia reprised the song for CBC TV, with guests Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan and Judy Collins on the rousing final verse. And the duo reunited to sing their signature tune at Mariposa Folk Festival’s fiftieth anniversary.
Tyson re-recorded Four Strong Winds for his album “I Outgrew the Wagon,” and later recorded it with a military band for a project commemorating World War I heroes, including Tyson’s father George, a decorated veteran of the Somme and Ypres.
Four Strong Winds is so meaningful for Canadians that we told the CBC it is our all-time number one Canadian song. And when several Mounties were tragically killed in Mayerthorpe, Alberta in 2005, Tyson sang it at the memorial service. Several years later, a recording was featured at Alberta premier Ralph Klein’s funeral.
Singer-songwriter Ian Dawson Tyson (born 1933 in Victoria, British Columbia) was influenced by country singers Bob Nolan and Roy Acuff. After Ian and Sylvia parted ways in the mid-1970s, Tyson raised horses on his Alberta ranch and recorded the influential “Old Corrals and Sagebush” and “Cowboyography” albums, among others. A Juno award winner for country male vocalist of the year, Tyson has multiple Canadian Country Music Association awards, is in the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, and is a Governor General’s Performing Arts laureate.