Sylvia Tyson has been called “Canada’s folk-country music matriarch” and “Canada’s queen of folk,” titles well-deserved for this internationally respected songwriter whose pioneering career began with her arrival on the 1960s folk scene.
At 18, the young Sylvia Fricker left her hometown of Chatham, Ontario for Toronto’s burgeoning folk scene, where she sang old English ballads and quickly earned praise for her polished alto voice.
Fricker joined forces with Ian Tyson to form the folk-singing duo Ian & Sylvia in the late 1950s. They rapidly went from gigs at Toronto’s The First Floor and Village Corner clubs, where Sylvia sang harmony and played auto-harp with Ian singing lead, to appearing at the inaugural Mariposa Festival. They moved in 1961 to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where their unique repertoire and vocal harmonies soon had them among the city’s top acts. Their debut recording led to packed engagements at universities and concert halls across North America.
Ian & Sylvia were from 1961 to 1975 leaders in the singer-songwriter movement, enjoying commercial and critical renown and recording 13 studio albums of original and traditional songs. Their second album included Sylvia’s You Were on My Mind, which she had written in a grubby New York hotel, retreating to the bathtub to escape the cockroaches. Sylvia’s memorable first effort at songwriting broke ground for many successful women songwriters who followed.
You Were On My Mind was covered a dozen times in 1965 alone, and was a No. 1 hit for the We Five. The song has been covered dozens more times since then, including by Paul Anka, Jay and the Americans, The Fleetwoods, Barry McGuire, Serena Ryder, Crispian St. Peters, and The Vogues.
Another Sylvia Tyson song, Smiling Wine, was a No. 1 Canadian hit in 1972, recorded by Shirley Eikhard. And Ian & Sylvia had a No. 1 hit in 1967 with their recording of Ian’s The Lovin’ Sound.
In 1968, Ian & Sylvia broke ground again by introducing the cross-over country-rock genre; their “Great Speckled Bird” album remains a country-rock landmark.
As the duo act wound down, Sylvia Tyson embarked on a long solo career with the 1975 album “Woman’s World,” the first recording entirely of her own original songs. Later solo releases included Juno-nominated albums in the folk-rock and country vein.
Twelve of Tyson’s finely crafted singles have charted on Canadian country charts, including Denim Blue Eyes (No. 15, 1986), and I Walk These Rails (a No. 18 hit in 1992, written with Eikhard). Her songs have been recorded by such artists as Bob Dylan, Crystal Gayle, The Lettermen, Kitty Wells, and Glenn Yarbrough.
About her songwriting, Tyson says: “The essence of songwriting is to put forward complicated ideas in simple language. You can’t waste a word….I don’t put a song on paper until I’m sure it’s right.”
As if a solo recording career and hosting stints with CBC Radio’s “Touch the Earth” and television’s “Country in My Soul” weren’t enough, in 1993 Tyson co-founded the group Quartette. Their first album, which included Tyson’s Denim Blue Eyes and Pepere’s Mill (co-written with Lucille Starr) earned the 1994 Canadian Country Music Award for best vocal collaboration.
The Juno-nominated Quartette has since recorded many of Tyson’s trademark tunes.
Tyson has meanwhile continued her solo career, releasing noteworthy albums such as “River Road and Other Stories.”
The Grammy- and Juno-winning Shirley Eikhard acknowledges Tyson’s ground-breaking role: “Sylvia was a true pioneer….She has her own voice.”
Tyson has been a board member of FACTOR and the Junos, and is a past president of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. She is a member of the Canadian Music and Canadian Country Music halls of fame, as well as the Order of Canada.