Remembering Ian Tyson at Mariposa 1963

Jan 11th, 2023 | By | Category: In Brief
“Untold Tales” by Michael Seward (whose mother grew up in Pincher Creek, Alberta), January 2023.

ONTARIO TONITE. RANDALL WHITE, FERNWOOD PARK, TORONTO, WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 11, 2023. When Ian Tyson’s sad death at 89 was announced a few weeks ago, during the last days of 2022, my thoughts rushed back almost 60 years, to the summer of 1963.

I found an article online that caught the moment : “Where the boys and girls go, SEPTEMBER 21 1963 PETER GZOWSKI … on the swingingest young people’s party of the year: When 20,000 young songsters descended on the 15,000 citizens of Orillia, Ont., for the third annual Mariposa Festival of folk singing—if that’s what it was …”

(Just since I found this 1963 piece from Maclean’s magazine the link to it seems to have broken! For another much more recent report on the same event see : “MARIPOSA ’63 — Beats, Booze + Biz! … Published on August 5, 2021” by “Winnie Czulinski, Writer, Editor, Publishing-Promo Consultant, Musician.”)

Crowd gathered around the Champlain Monument at Couchiching Beach Park during 1963 Mariposa Folk Festival.

My own late-teen memories from 1963 are more specific. I can see Ian and Sylvia on stage at a site close to Orillia (“Silver Sleeve Park/Campground”?). Possibly they were singing “Four Strong Winds” (written by Ian Tyson) and/or “You Were on My Mind” (by Sylvia Fricker).

I remember that Ian looked cool. And Sylvia looked hot, in a short skirt. It was dark and the crowd was huge (and there was “no shortage of beer”).

Beyond Ian and Sylvia I have three other specific memories of the 3rd Annual Mariposa Folk Festival, August 8, 10, 11, Orillia, Ontario, Canada.

One is hanging out briefly at the Champlain Monument in Couchiching Beach Park. Another is strolling the main street of Orillia late at night. There were almost no cars but quite a few people. And you could hear a guy in an upstairs apartment, over a store, practising the saxophone.

Yet another memory starts with an ice cream store on the main street in the afternoon. There I bumped into a girl who had been in my class in the suburbs, before we moved back to the city. She was cuter than I remembered but I just said hello and not much more. (I don’t know why this very brief encounter still sticks in my mind.)

Ian and Sylvia doing a Pollution Probe benefit at St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto, March 1970.

Whatever else, Ian and Sylvia are the only performers I can still remember from Mariposa 1963, in what was supposed to be a music festival. According to Maclean’s magazine they were “Canada’s fast-rising young recording stars.”

Ian was born in Victoria, BC to English immigrant parents who at some point had a BC ranch with horses. Sylvia was born in Chatham, Ontario. They both finally moved to Toronto and started singing together there in 1959. They were married in 1964 (and thought about going on to Alberta as in their hit “Four Strong Winds”).

Although Ian and Sylvia intermittently revived musically for short periods afterwards, the height of their career together was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their marriage (and long-term musical partnership) ended with an “amicable divorce” in 1975.

Ian Tyson still at work in 2010, by Dean Jarvey from Calgary, Alberta.

With royalties earned from a 1978 Neil Young recording of “Four Strong Winds” Ian made the down payment on a large cattle and horse ranch in Alberta. There (and at the Ranchman’s Club in Calgary, where he still played music) he became the Canadian cowboy singer of his later years, focused on his “relationship to the ‘West’ — both as a fading reality and a cultural ideal.”

No doubt like a lot of other young adults who may have liked the 3rd Mariposa Festival in August 1963 a little too much, I have never been a fan of folk or country music.

But I like to think that I like all kinds of good music. And (for me especially via Ian and Sylvia) Ian Tyson has bequeathed some good or even great songs that still speak to my aging mind and spirit. (To “Four Strong Winds” and “You Were on My Mind”, eg, I would personally add at least “Early Morning Rain” and “Someday Soon”. Although Ian and Sylvia’s “Early Morning Rain” was actually a cover of a 1964 Gordon Lightfoot tune — another part of a similar scene?)

From where I sit today, far away from my late teens in 1963, Ian Tyson did well to live to 89. I also think it’s apt enough that the second paragraph of the CBC News site’s report on his unhappy death consults his old musical partner Sylvia.

“Paying Tribute to Rita Mestokosho” by Michael Seward, January 2023.

As someone who has lived in Toronto most of my life, I cannot entirely share Ian Tyson’s passion for what his “fellow Alberta country singer-songwriter, Corb Lund” has summarized as “the romance and reality of the West.” But again, he wrote (and otherwise sang) some great songs that mean something to me, for whatever larger and smaller reasons.

He is also apparently tied in my mind to some good times I had as a young adult, growing up in what at least then seemed to be the vaguely rising “northern North America” of Canada in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the spirit of his own Western Canada romance and reality, I finally think Ian Tyson has earned the right to rest in peace.

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