Friday, September 2, 2011
Northern Journey - Ian and Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia
Ian and Sylvia's third album. I first discovered Ian and Sylvia via the We Five's cover of Sylvia Fricker's "You Were On My Mind." My stepmother had the first We Five album, "You Were On My Mind," and I listened to that one song many times as a teenager. I became curious about the original and sought it out. I started with an Ian and Sylvia comp but the song first appeared on this album which I picked up a few years later. After Dylan, Ian and Sylvia are my favorite folkies, at least as far as North America is concerned. There are many reasons for this, starting with my obsession with Canada. Their albums feature many songs about Canada and listening to them made me yearn to visit the great white north. Secondly, Ian and Sylvia had excellent taste in songs and were both good songwriters also. I believe that all of their Vanguard albums are worthwhile. They were talented singers as well, Ian Tyson has one of the best voices in North American folk music, I think only Tom Rush comes close and Sylvia Fricker is a brilliant harmony singer, that vibrato in her voice always sends me. Finally, I have to admit, I had a crush on Sylvia Fricker. When I saw her picture on the comp I bought, I was instantly smitten. As a youth I totally idealized her and what I thought she and Tyson represented - integrity, bohemia and the true north strong and free. According to the album's liner notes the album title reflects the folk scene in Canada or more particularly the way Anglo-American songs traveled there from England and the United States. Many of the songs are either about Canada, from Canada or collected in Canada. The album begins with "You Were On My Mind." When I heard the We Five version (which altered the lyrics) I thought it was about a depressed person who was cheered up thinking of her love, but my error became clear when I heard the Ian and Sylvia version and realized that the narrator is depressed because she is heartbroken, she is trying to forget the person on her mind. Despite the sad subject matter, I'm always elated when I hear this song, it makes me feel good to be alive. The lyrics sound like a blues song but the music is almost joyous. There is a rich string sound in the performance which features two guitars, a bass and Fricker on autoharp. This is characteristic of most of the album aside from the autoharp. All but one of the songs features a bass and most of the songs feature a second guitarist. The resulting richness of sound is very appealing. My two other favorite songs were both written by Tyson. "Some Day Soon" is a classic song about a girl in love with a rodeo performer. It is set in the United States, but given Tyson's background in rodeo I would assume that the song is a little autobiographical as well. With no less than three guitars and a bass it has a very dynamic sound and boasts a terrific duet vocal. It would later be a minor hit for Judy Collins although I greatly prefer this version. Tyson's other song is "Four Rode By" which describes the exploits of the criminal McLean gang in British Columbia in 1879. The song is mostly neutral in its perspective, ignoring the various social and political aspects of the events. It is a very propulsive tune with some stirring guitar work from John Herald. The remaining songs are all traditional. I particularly like the compelling "Nova Scotia Farewell" which is about the hardships of the life of a sailor. The mournful dirge, "Brave Wolfe" recounts the batttle of Quebec between the French and the British in 1759 and celebrates the valor of James Wolfe, the British general killed in the battle. "The Moonshine Can," another Canadian folk song on the album, could not be more different than "Brave Wolfe." It is a frenetic tune recounting moonshining activities in Newfoundland and features some fast-paced picking from Monte Dunn on mandolin and John Herald on guitar. The haunting ballads "The Jealous Lover" and "The Ghost Lover" feature subject matter typical of Anglo-American folk music. Anyone who is familiar with the Child ballads will recognize their tales of the man who kills his true love mistaking her for someone else and the dead lover who pays one final ghostly visit to his love. "Green Valley" also covers familiar territory, that of the young woman wronged by a false lover, but it is apparently unique to Canada and Ian and Sylvia credit the New Brunswick traditional singer, Marie Hare, as their source for the song. The song is given a charming country treatment with Dunn's mandolin providing much of the instrumental color. Although collected in Nova Scotia, "Captain Woodstock's Courtship" is an old Scottish ballad that Child included in his anthology. It is an amusing series of riddles sung by Fricker and responses sung by Tyson. For an old folk song, it is kind of sexy. The remaining songs are less connected to Canada. The acappella performance of "Texas Rangers" and the lively gospel tune "Swing Down, Chariot" are obviously American and "Little Beggarman" is a rollicking Irish tune that the duo picked up from Tommy Makem. They are all good songs but I don't see how they fit into the concept of the album except perhaps as a display of the diversity of music popular in Canada. I love this record, this music has been the soundtrack for many of my Canadian road trips. Recommended to people who'd rather make a journey to Halifax than Hollywood.