Ian and Sylvia were a couple from Canada who were part of the folk music boom that occurred in the early 1960’s. Ian Tyson was originally from British Columbia and Sylvia Fricker was originally from Chatham, Ontario. They met in Toronto through a mutual friend, and started a professional musical relationship there. Although there was a folk music scene in Canada, the real action was in New York City. Ian and Sylvia felt that had gone as far as they could in their native land, so in early 1962 they headed to New York to see if they could take the next step to a career in the music business.
It is difficult today to appreciate the influence and popularity that folk music had as the decade of the 1950’s ended, and the early 1960’s began. There seems to be a general belief the popular music of that era was rock and roll, and that it all started with Elvis, until the Beatles took over. In fact, folk music actually eclipsed what Elvis and his early rock and roll contemporaries had been doing. Folk music was the music of choice of the most of the young adult population, particularly those in college. By the time Ian and Sylvia headed to New York, folk music groups such as the Kingston Trio were selling millions of records. In contrast to rock and roll, folk music was thought of as “serious” music, wherein the lyrics dealt with contemporary social issues. In our current age of cynicism, it seems quaint that sincere young people strumming guitars and singing about progressive issues would be taken seriously, but in fact that musical genre was considered vital and important.
As is often said, “timing is everything”, and Ian and Sylvia were well positioned to take advantage of the current popularity of the type of music they were performing. They appeared in New York City at a time when it was the centre of the folk music world. They were a striking couple, both visually and musically. Like any successful singing duo, the voices complimented each other, and made an immediate impact on the listener. They also arrived ready to play, having honed their skills in Toronto, and possessing a unique and powerful sound. They also had the great fortune of being selected as clients of Albert Grossman, a real up and comer in the management of artists. He understood the business, and would ensure they could concentrate on their art, while he looked after the commercial end of things.
After becoming clients of Mr. Grossman, the next step was for the duo to sign with a record label. Albert Grossman already had a good relationship with Warner Brothers records after bringing them the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary (whom he also represented). Peter, Paul and Mary had enjoyed commercial success right away, so Albert Grossman’s stock was high. However, Ian and Sylvia had other ideas. They preferred to go with a smaller independent record label that specialized in folk music, and already had a certain cachet, and so they signed with Vanguard Records. This decision would be a mixed blessing for Ian and Sylvia. Being a smaller label that specialized in their type of music, there was no doubt that the label would be able to focus more of its attention on them. On the other hand though, Vanguard would never be able to compete with a major label in the amount of support (in the terms of marketing and promotion) that it could provide Ian and Sylvia. One advantage that Vanguard did have however was their approach to recording their artists. Rather than use a commercial recording studio, Vanguard would look for a location that had great natural acoustic properties. The recording equipment would then be brought to that location. The advantage to this approach was that there was an emphasis on capturing the artist’s unique and personal sound, as opposed to creating a sound in the studio, and fitting the artist into it. While this approach eschewed the technical practices of overdubbing and editing that were to become so prominent (and standard procedure) in the making of a record, it captured the spontaneity and organic aspects that are part and parcel of musicians performing a piece of music together. In his excellent biography of Ian and Sylvia, John Einarson quotes Sylvia Tyson as she recalls recording the first Ian and Sylvia album live “off the floor”, with a single microphone hanging from the ceiling.
In early March of 1964, Ian and Sylvia returned to New York to record what is generally considered their best Vanguard album. “Northern Journey” was recorded in New York’s Manhattan Towers Ballroom. The songs on the album showcase the amazing empathy that Ian and Sylvia had when they sang together. The harmonies are subtle yet beautiful, shifting throughout the songs as they sing them. The album would also feature two of their most well-known and loved songs, Sylvia’s “You Were On My Mind”, and Ian’s “Some Day Soon”. The instrumentation on Northern Journey was typical of what you would expect from a folk music record of that time; guitar, auto-harp, mandolin and string bass along with Ian and Sylvia’s vocals. The album is a potpourri of folk styled music, with country and bluegrass influences alongside old English ballads. The musicianship is first-rate, with the recording process beautifully capturing the depth and nuances of their incredible vocal talents. The instrumental sidemen acquit themselves admirably, with some fine guitar playing from John Herald. In keeping with the practice of the day, the album was released in both mono and stereo versions (the mono version is Vanguard VRS-9154 and the stereo version VSD-79154).With the release of Northern Journey in September of 1964, it would seem that the future was bright for Ian and Sylvia. However, a musical change was in the air. 1964 was the year the Beatles arrived in America, and changed popular music forever. While the change didn't occur overnight, serious and sincere young adults strumming acoustic guitars gradually became passé, and rock and roll returned with a vengeance. Ian and Sylvia would continue to make great music, and would evolve their styles to accommodate the shift in public tastes. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Northern Journey would be a very successful record for Ian and Sylvia and is a testament to the vital and beautiful music being made before everything started to change. For more on this talented couple, I would highly recommend John Einarson’s excellent book about them.