Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the folk song Four Strong Winds. We will review the original by the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia, and covers of that song by Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
Ian & Sylvia and Four Strong Winds:
In 2005, Ian & Sylvia’s folk song Four Strong Winds was the winner in a contest held by the Canadian radio station CBC One to determine the best Canadian song of all time. Given the high quality of Canadian singer-songwriters – artists such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot – this was quite an honor. But it is a well-deserved honor, as this folk song holds its own even in stiff competition.
Ian Tyson came out of British Columbia with the ambition to be a rodeo rider. However, in the mid-50s he sustained a serious injury, and taught himself how to play the guitar while convalescing. While performing at coffeehouses in Toronto, he met the young folksinger Sylvia Fricker. Eventually they began performing as a duet, and in 1962 they moved to New York’s folk music scene. Below is a picture of a young Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker.
In New York they were discovered by none other than Albert Grossman. We have previously encountered Grossman, who at this time was managing Peter, Paul and Mary and shortly would also manage Bob Dylan. Grossman signed on as Ian & Sylvia’s agent and got them a recording contract with Vanguard Records.
Ian & Sylvia produced some lovely folk songs. Four Strong Winds appeared on their second album, and although it achieved only moderate chart success in the US, was a very big hit in Canada. Two of their subsequent songs, You Were On My Mind and Someday Soon, became big hits for We Five and Judy Collins, respectively.
On their third album, Ian & Sylvia (who by then were married) introduced the first songs by their Canadian colleague Gordon Lightfoot. Like many artists at that time, Ian & Sylvia next turned to folk-rock music. In 1969 they formed an electric folk-rock band, Great Speckled Bird. Todd Rundgren produced an album for the band that was scheduled to be released by Ampex Records. Unfortunately,
the record failed when Ampex was unable to establish widespread distribution. Thousands of copies never left the warehouse, and it has become a much sought-after collector’s item.
The song Four Strong Winds was Ian & Sylvia’s ‘signature song.’ It is an achingly sad song about a man who is leaving his lover after they are unable to resolve their differences. The harsh weather of the great plains of Alberta features prominently in the song.
Think I’ll go out to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall
I got some friends that I could go to working for
Still I wish you’d change your mind,
If I asked you one more time
But we’ve been through that a hundred times or more
Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
But the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.
If I get there before the snow flies, and if things are looking good
You could meet me if I sent you down the fare
But by then it would be winter, not too much for you to do
And those winds sure can blow cold way out there
Here are Ian & Sylvia singing the song during their 1986 reunion concert produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Both Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker have lovely folk-country voices, and very pleasant harmonies. This song is one of my favorites, but it makes me sad every time I hear it, as it is so reminiscent of the heartbreak in relationships that just don’t work out.
At the end of the song (the final song in that concert), Ian and Sylvia are joined onstage by the guest artists who participated in the concert. The only one I recognize is Judy Collins. Not surprisingly, such a powerful folk song has been covered by dozens of artists. In this blog post we will present two by Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but the song was also covered by the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Glenn Yarborough and John Denver, as well as a host of other groups during the 70s.
By 1975, Ian & Sylvia had stopped performing together, and shortly after that they were divorced. Following their divorce, Ian continued a part-time singing career, but also returned to ranching, while Sylvia continued to write and perform.
Neil Young and Four Strong Winds:
Neil Young is a multi-talented singer-songwriter, who grew up in Canada but then moved to California in 1966. His first big band was Buffalo Springfield, which he formed with fellow musicians Stephen Stills and Richie Furay. Following the breakup of that group, Young teamed up for a while in the short-lived supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The photo below shows CSNY; Neil is in the back, barely visible, as if to underscore that he was not intending to hang around for long.
Since that time, Neil Young has carved out an extraordinary career as a solo artist. He is exceptionally prolific, continuing to churn out albums at a rate of about one per year. His work also covers an astonishing range of styles. Much of his solo work is acoustic; however he also teams up from time to time with the band Crazy Horse to tour and to produce hard-rock music.
Musical styles such as alternative rock and grunge also adopted elements from Young. His influence has caused some to dub him the “Godfather of Grunge.”
Young also has a distinctive guitar style. I am not a big fan of his guitar playing. A solo that consists of a single note repeated over and over and over? I’ll pass, thanks; though I have to admit that his guitar work is quite unique. Young is also adept on keyboards as well. For his contributions to rock music, Neil Young has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, initially as a solo artist in 1995 for his singing and songwriting, and then as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997.
It would take a much longer review than this to do justice to Neil Young’s vast contributions to rock and folk music. Despite the fact that Buffalo Springfield lasted for only two years and had only one commercial hit, the 1967 record For What It’s Worth, the band was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because of its crucial influence on the development of folk-rock music, and also because of the impact of its members on the various bands that were formed following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield. By the way, surely Buffalo Springfield has to be the only band named after a steamroller company!
Young’s songs cover a vast range, from political protest anthems to deeply personal topics that deal with relationships and breakups, to anti-drug songs (several of which relate to his various colleagues who suffered or died from addiction problems), to hard-rock anthems. For example, Young’s song Heart of Gold was a big commercial success, and this provoked a very interesting response:
Young … described “Heart of Gold” as the song that “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
In the late 1970’s, Neil Young came out with songs such as Hey Hey My My (Into the Black) that were strongly influenced by punk rock. That and subsequent releases from Young sparked the interest of West Coast grunge bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Young’s reputation in this field of music was so strong that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide note quoted lyrics from a Neil Young song.
Neil Young has also made extraordinary contributions as a social activist. Above is a photo of Neil being presented with a buffalo hide at a 2014 Harvest the Hope concert protesting the Keystone Pipeline project. Of his many varied activities in this arena, I will mention a couple that are most impressive to me. The first is Farm Aid, a series of concerts organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Young to benefit small farmers and to provide them with some financial relief.
A second notable charitable organization is the Bridge School, an institution that deals with youth who are afflicted with severe disabilities. Young helped organize the school in 1986 and sponsors annual concerts to benefit the school. Neil Young has a very personal connection to the Bridge School. Of his three children, two have cerebral palsy and the third has epilepsy (Young himself suffers from epilepsy; he also was afflicted with polio in 1951, shortly before a cure for the disease was discovered). Young’s annual concerts have raised a great deal of money for the Bridge School, and his public and financial support for the school has been noteworthy.
It is very appropriate that we include Neil Young singing Four Strong Winds, as this song was inspirational to him as a youth.
In the 2006 film Heart of Gold, Young relates how he used to spend time as a teenager at Falcon Lake, Manitoba, where he would endlessly plug coins into the jukebox to hear Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”.
So here is Neil Young singing Four Strong Winds. This took place at a 2005 concert in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium where Young introduced his Prairie Wind album, and which was recorded for Jonathan Demme’s 2006 concert film Heart of Gold. Young had first recorded Four Strong Winds in 1978, where it appears on his Comes a Time album, with backup vocals from Nicolette Larson. Neil also frequently includes Four Strong Winds in his playlist at Farm Aid concerts.
For a concert debuting an album titled Prairie Wind, what better song to include than a tune that features the plains of Alberta with the line and those winds sure can blow cold way up there? In this song, Neil appears onstage with his entire band, including a gaggle of acoustic guitars, bass, autoharp, pedal steel guitar, violin and drums. Heck, it takes nearly half the song just for a single panning shot that includes all of the band! Emmylou Harris is to the left of Young while Neil’s ex-wife Pegi is to the right. Young’s high quavering voice is perfect for this song, as this particular treatment brings out the pathos expressed by the singer.
Although Young has made seminal contributions to rock music, many colleagues found him exceptionally difficult to deal with. He and Stephen Stills repeatedly clashed in two different groups, Buffalo Springfield and CSNY. In the middle of a tour with Stills, Young abruptly pulled out of the tour, sending Stills
a telegram that read: “Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way. Eat a peach, Neil.”
That tour was just one of many Young projects that have been postponed or abandoned. True to form, Young was a no-show at the induction of his group Buffalo Springfield into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he has been known for some epic confrontations with music industry executives.
However, it is impossible to ignore Neil Young’s brilliance, and we have to admire his ability to move from acoustic folk to hard-rock to punk to grunge, and to marvel at a level of productivity that would just about fill an iPod with Neil Young songs. Long may you run, Neil.
Bob Dylan and Four Strong Winds:
In our previous section we remarked on Neil Young’s exceptionally varied and long-lasting career. Well, it’s not clear that any individual artist can compare to Bob Dylan for either their influence on popular music nor the duration of their work. For the past 55 years, Bob Dylan has been churning out albums and presenting concerts. In fact, for the past thirty years he has been performing nearly non-stop on what has been called the “Never-Ending Tour.”
Robert Zimmerman grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, stopped at the University of Minnesota for one year, headed off to Greenwich Village, changed his name to Bob Dylan, and has never looked back. Below is a photo of Dylan circa 1962, with guitar and harmonica. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, in the early 60s Dylan began issuing folk-protest albums, and songs like Blowin’ in the Wind and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall became anthems for the civil rights and anti-war protest movements.
However, in 1965 Dylan’s music took a dramatic turn when he added an electric backing band, and began to write much more personal, cynical songs, often with cryptic lyrics. As a civil-rights activist, I found Dylan’s new musical direction rather disconcerting. The music was exciting and novel, the subject matter ranged from the universal to the intensely personal, and Dylan more or less single-handedly jump-started the field of folk-rock music.
However, Dylan didn’t just abandon the protest movement, but he often appeared to be mocking it. The lyrics in his song She Belongs to Me were particularly shocking. Surely the genuinely nasty remarks in that song referred to Joan Baez (the song mentions an “Egyptian ring” that Dylan had given to Baez), who had used her fame and influence to advance Dylan’s career, and whose whole life was devoted to social activist causes?
I understand that dedication to a cause, no matter how noble, can limit an artist’s range, and I don’t begrudge Dylan for moving on to other types of music. As a graduate student in England, I attended Dylan’s famous “Royal Albert Hall” concert in May 1966. At this time his concerts were divided into a solo acoustic set for the first half (just Dylan, his guitar and harmonica), followed by a second half where Dylan was backed up by the electric quintet The Hawks, soon to become The Band. Below is a photo of Bob Dylan with guitarist Robbie Robertson of the Hawks, during a concert in White Plains, NY in February 1966.
The atmosphere for the Albert Hall concert was, in a word, electric. Dylan’s switch from acoustic folk to rock was sufficiently recent that it still elicited very strong reactions. The audience was divided between a small fraction who booed or even left the hall when Dylan emerged with The Hawks, and those who raptly listened to (or in a few cases, heckled) his new sound. When the lights came on at the intermission, it was fun to see the Rolling Stones encamped in a box at the back of the hall. Despite the fact that the Albert Hall acoustics were truly miserable in our section of the arena, and The Hawks seemed more loud than talented (something that would soon change), the concert was genuinely thrilling.
It was especially interesting that some of Dylan’s new electric songs were included in the acoustic first set, while the second set with The Hawks contained some tunes that had initially been acoustic releases. To me, the most riveting songs from that concert were Dylan’s acoustic version of the beautifully written, hypnotic It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue in the first half of the concert, and the jarring, unforgettable closing song with The Hawks, Like a Rolling Stone.
Just two months after the Albert Hall concert, Dylan had an accident while driving his motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, NY. Initial accounts said that Dylan had broken his neck and was lucky to have survived the wreck. However, there is no record of an ambulance being called to the scene of the accident, and also no evidence that Dylan was hospitalized for his injuries. In any case, this event was the start of an eight-year hiatus from touring for Dylan.
In 1967 after Dylan had recovered from his accident, he began recording songs in his house and in the basement of the nearby house, Big Pink, that was occupied by four members of The Hawks. In the beginning, Dylan would drop by Big Pink and play the group a traditional folk, country or blues song. They would all then record it, typically after just a few takes, and then move on to another song. Below is a photo of The Band, taken in London in 1971. From L: Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm (who arrived at Woodstock just before completion of the Basement Tapes), Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson.
After a while Dylan began bringing new songs of his own, and the group would also record those. The Band’s Garth Hudson describes their process:
“We were doing seven, eight, ten, sometimes fifteen songs a day. Some were old ballads and traditional songs … but others Bob would make up as he went along. … We’d play the melody, he’d sing a few words he’d written, and then make up some more, or else just mouth sounds or even syllables as he went along.”
These “Basement Tapes” became the subject of great speculation over the ensuing years. In October 1967, a demo tape was made of fourteen of the songs, and began to circulate among interested musicians. Several groups subsequently issued covers of Dylan’s songs, for example The Mighty Quinn by Manfred Mann, and You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere by The Byrds. Bootleg copies of the demo began to proliferate. Eventually in 1975, Columbia Records issued twenty-four of these songs in a double album titled The Basement Tapes.
However, the release of this collection did not quell the public’s appetite for more of these songs; in addition, several music critics panned the particular selection of songs that appeared on the Basement Tapes. More music from this period dribbled out on various Dylan retrospectives. In 1990 virtually all of the “basement tapes” were released in a 5-CD bootleg boxed set, and eventually in November 2014 Columbia/Legacy issued a 6-CD set The Basement Tapes Complete, that contained 139 tracks (!) which include nearly every song recorded during this period.
Dylan’s cover of Four Strong Winds must have been one of the earlier songs recorded by the group, when they were primarily reproducing existing folk and country songs. By the way, note that Ian Tyson and Neil Young are both Canadians, and Bob Dylan came from sufficiently far north in Minnesota that he must have been familiar with those winds on the northern Plains that sure can blow cold way up there. So here is the audio of Dylan and The Band covering this Ian and Sylvia song.
Dylan sings the song straight up, without many of the normal idiosyncrasies of his vocals. The song does not appear to be well rehearsed; it sounds more like Bob and The Band were just practicing; for example, Dylan occasionally butchers the lyrics, and the song doesn’t really have an ending, but just stops. However, Dylan is a certified musical genius and The Band were virtuoso musicians, so the end product is well worth listening to. In particular, I really enjoyed Garth Hudson’s keyboards, just barely audible in the background until the end of the song.
It is worth while trying to put this whole enterprise into context. In 1967 when these songs were recorded, The Beatles had just released their Sgt. Pepper album, one of the most elaborately produced and sophisticated studio works ever. Note that the Basement Tape recordings take place during the “Summer of Love” period, when psychedelic-rock music was hitting its peak.
At this time, Dylan and the Band were taking a diametrically opposite direction to the prevailing currents of rock music, as they were producing deceptively simple songs with minimalist production values. For example, the acoustics of the Big Pink basement were such that the musicians had to huddle together to perform, and their instruments had to be sufficiently quiet that Dylan’s vocals could be heard above them. As has been his habit over the years, Dylan was striking out in his own direction, regardless of the dominant trends in popular music.