When you started to use some orchestration, was that because you were looking to broaden your sound, or because you were under pressure to be more commercial, or both?
A combination of both, I think. Certainly the Warner stuff, they were looking for something that could go a little more into the pop mainstream. Again, the pressure was not that great on us, because they never told us what to sing. And they never told us what instruments to put on it. They would just sort of make it known that gee, it really would be nice if you put something together that we could get on the radio. And we didn't really get major pressure of that kind until we went to Columbia. And we subsequently discovered that the reason that we were signed to Columbia was that Clive Davis had a song that he thought was a surefire hit for a duo, called "Creators of Rain."
And that was the whole motivation behind the signing, that one song?
Yes, we subsequently discovered. I mean, it was definitely not us. As a matter of fact, years later, Ian ran into the writer of that song. It was originally done as a single by a duo called Smokey and His Sister. And Smokey, whose real name I honestly don't know but I'm sure it would be [on] one of the records as the writer of "Creator of Rain," said to Ian, "Gee, I'm really pleased that you guys recorded one of my songs. But why that one?" (laughs) [NOTE: A reader informed this website in 2006 that the real name of Smokey is Larry Mims.]
That doesn't seem like such an efficient long-term strategy, for a big label that had just signed you.
No. And it was a bit touchy after that, because it didn't do well. And we were in kind of a bind there, where they didn't want to record us, and they didn't want to let us go. We were kind of in limbo. So nothing that Albert could do or anything that we could say seemed to convince them that they should either let us do another record, or let us go.
I've talked with a lot of Columbia artists over the last few years who were just lost in the shuffle and hardly promoted. It seemed like they had way too many people on their roster to effectively promote all of them.
I think their point of view with a lot of that stuff was, well, we'll just run it up the flagpole, and if anybody salutes, we'll go for it.
Which means that over half of the artists are bound to feel in the cold in that situation, I think.
Absolutely. And, again, once you get with a real major label like that, artists put a lot of faith in building up relationships with people at labels. Labels, especially of that size, don't put any faith in that at all. And you would just think that you had a relationship with somebody there, and they'd be gone.
I wanted to ask about the Toronto scene of that time. I see that as one of the chief incubators of folk and folk-rock, although it doesn't get as much attention as New York and California in that regard. For various lengths of time, you were based there, and so were Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot. What do you think was conducive to cultivating that much talent in Toronto?
I think that for any Canadian artist, there were two places to go if you were an English-speaking artist, and that was Vancouver and Toronto. Just as New York and Los Angeles were in the States. I just think it was natural for people to gravitate to that big city. There was certainly some activity in the Ottawa area as well, but it was a smaller scene. And there was an English folk scene in Montreal as well, but again, smaller. The main problem with it was, you played all of the clubs in Toronto, and in Vancouver, and then Montreal and then Ottawa, and that was about it, you know? There were maybe ten university concerts you could do in a year. So although there was a lot of music coming out of the Toronto area, there weren't a lot of places for us to perform it.
And so, all Canadian musicians of note from that time -- all the ones I mentioned, and also the Band -- really had to base themselves in the States to reach a big audience.
Yes. I mean, we did try at one point to record in Toronto, very early on. And it was a company called Arc Records. And they assured us that they had four-track. And when we went in to try to do the album, what they had was two Ampex two-tracks, kind of fastened together. And they were out of sync!
This was pre-Vanguard?
Well, no. We tried to record a Vanguard album there. But they [Arc Records] were the ones who had the studio.
This doesn't factor into my book, but has that changed now, as far as Toronto offering state-of-the-art facilities?
Oh yes. One thing that really changed the recording industry in Canada is that the Canadian radio-television commission, which is a very powerful body up here and decides everything that goes on television and radio, decided that American companies advertising up here had to do Canadian ads. Which meant that all of the sound had to be recorded in Canadian studios. Well, you can bet people started putting together good studios in a damned big hurry. And that was a great benefit to Canadian recording artists.
Do you think that you had an influence on the major Canadian singer-songwriters who followed you just a bit later?
I think you'd be better speaking to them about what influence we had. I don't know how qualified I am to judge that. It's hard for me to say. I mean, I can only say what people have said to me. And, you know, certainly we had an influence on Gordon in that we recorded his songs, and because of us recording them, Peter, Paul & Mary recorded them.
And some of the Peter, Paul & Mary versions were chart hits, and I think that helped get Gordon his own deal.
I think you had more influence on Dylan than has been acknowledged. On the "Basement Tapes' bootlegs, he does "Four Strong Winds" and "The French Girl." That's 1967, so that's obviously something still in his mind and repertoire long after his Village folkie days.
And I think that he was to some degree grateful that we had recorded his material too. Because Dylan is not somebody that got a lot of covers, you know?
At least in 1962. Are you referring more to before "Mr. Tambourine Man," pre-1965?
How much of a help was Albert Grossman in developing your music and exposing it to a national audience?
I don't know that Albert had a great musical ear. I mean, there might be people who would disagree with me. But what he did know how to do, was to keep his ear to the ground, to hear what other people were listening to. He was very good at picking up trends.
Was he at all influential in his artists' musical direction?
He was very laissez-faire with his artists. He really believed that artists should be allowed to develop at their own speed, in their own way. And in some ways that was an asset, and in other ways, it was a drawback. Because one line that I never forgot from Albert was that he said that artists should be allowed to self-destruct, if that's the way they're going.
That's not that sympathetic.
No. But that he would not interfere, that that was their prerogative, you know?
You were at the famous 1965 Newport Folk Festival concert where Bob Dylan played electric rock for the first time. What were your impressions?
It was definitely a transition year. But my feeling about the whole night that Bob Dylan with the electric band, which basically was the Butterfield Band, was -- it was really terrible. They played badly. They played so loudly you couldn't hear him. It was not they hadn't rehearsed it, because Dylan doesn't like to rehearse anything. It was terrible! And, it just -- it could have been great, and it wasn't.
Do you feel that the audience's reaction was...
I think it was a mixed reaction. I think it was certainly a visceral reaction against Dylan doing anything that wasn't acoustic. But Paul Butterfield had played at the festival, they knew his band. Dylan wasn't up there with a bunch of strangers.
So part of the mixed reception was due to the performance itself.
It just wasn't very good. And I'm sure you'll find people who will argue with me that it was brilliant. It wasn't. It wasn't good. It was all over the map, and the sound levels were totally fucked.
I do have a bootleg of that show, and certainly on one of the songs they're keeping terrible time.
I mean, there's Pete Seeger wandering around backstage with tears running down his face, as if it's some great betrayal.
Was that something you found to be a widespread sentiment among the folk community, or among people at the event?
Well, again, about 50-50. The people who really hated it, really hated it. I mean, were quite volatile about it. And then -- you see, what happened after that was that at the end of that, the whole audience was in a very unsettled state. And the organizers didn't know what to do. So they turned off the stage lights. And that whole audience was sitting there, not knowing which end was up. And -- this is an interesting story, and probably you know this, but that was when Mel Lyman went out with his harmonica, in the dark, and played "Amazing Grace," and settled down the whole audience, totally cooled them out. And I think that's when Mel started thinking he was a messiah (laughs).
The whole schism between purists and musicians moving away from protest or acoustic folk into folk-rock, was that as wide as has been sometimes portrayed by historians?
We had our experiences with members of the audience walking out when they saw the steel guitar. Again, I have a difficult time getting a total handle on it, because we were on the road all the time. We didn't see other people going through it. They maybe were, but when we did see each other, we were like ships in the night. We'd see each other in airports, you know. So that's very hard for me to get a sense of.
For all the conflict between acoustic purists and rock performers and listeners, my feeling is that the purists definitely lost the battle pretty decisively, no matter how bitter a fight they might have put up initially.
Yes. And, I mean, you have to face the fact too that a lot of the so-called folk fans were not traditional music fans. They were fans of the Limeliters and the Kingston Trio and it was a form of pop music for them. And that transition, I think, wasn't as hard for them as it was for the real purists.
And also the audience for pop and folk music was changing and becoming more open-minded, with so many people reaching college age in the '60s who weren't as rigid about what they wanted. I would think that you were reaching a lot more of those sorts of listeners as the years went on. By '65 or '66, there would be a lot of those people in that age group accepting of good music however it was being made.
I think you're quite right. Certainly the college audience was more open. However, when Ian and I first started playing, especially in the south, we did a date in West Virginia one time. This is the early '60s, when we were doing almost strictly traditional music, and most of it Appalachian-based. And we actually had a couple of kids come up to us after the show and start yelling at us, because they said they didn't come to university to hear the same songs their grandmothers sang. And I'm not saying that that was common, but it did exist. I mean, a lot of those kids had come from small places, and that was an era when people made their own music in those places. And probably they didn'tcome to university to hear somebody sing a 200-year-old song.
Although my book isn't going into country-rock much, it will be treated as a branch of folk-rock. What was spurring your move into that form?
What Ian and I did in Nashville was not specifically country, either.
How would you describe your musical direction then?
Well, because we were using the young hot players. We certainly used some of the older players, some of the best ones. But what we, I think, had to offer them was a chance to do something other than country. Because our music was the music we wrote, and it wasn't certainly traditionally country.
Dylan went to Nashville first. And it wasn't that we were copying Dylan, but just that we thought that was a really good idea. Because there were wonderful players down there. There were writers down there that we admired, producers. We got to record in the studio that Elvis Presley recorded in. How great is that, you know? I mean, we got to play with people like Jerry Reed. What a guitar player, holy shit.
There had already been some country material on most of your prior albums, so was it a case of fully expressing something you already had leanings toward?
I think that everything that we did evolved sort of naturally. Especially as we started to write. I can't really speak for Ian, but I would suspect that he has somewhat the same view that I do, in that we came to think of ourselves as songwriters first, before performers. And that as a result of that, my tendency certainly is to want to give the song the treatment it requires, rather than try and fit all the songs into some overall sound. So I think that probably one of the, what would be perceived as one of the failings of Ian & Sylvia, is that we were so eclectic. But that really was that philosophy of making each song sound the way it should, rather than having an overall sound.
I would contend that's a big part of what makes the albums more interesting today than a lot of folk albums from the early-to-mid-1960s are for listeners now.
I think that it has certainly helped them not become dated.
What do you see as the main legacy of that era, in terms of how it's affected music since then?
I think that, coming out of the folk era as we did, where lyrics were so important, that it created an awareness of good song lyrics. Certainly the rock and roll of the '50s, although not all of it, as is always the case, and even into the sixties, and god knows through the disco era, where the words were almost meaningless, there was that thread of songwriters where the lyrics really became important. It's interesting, one of the ladies who sings in Quartette with me, Cindy Church, is doing a show which actually is from an idea that I had, which is the music of Hoagy Carmichael. And the show has come together beautifully. She's working with a jazz guitarist, and a standup bass player. And they really are a trio, a voice and piano and bass. And listening to all of that material, I got this incredible flash of a chain of a certain kind of songwriting that persists, starting with Stephen Foster, as an American writer. Going through writers like Hoagy Carmichael, who are out of that kind of heartland thing, and write about real things. Going up to, of course, Randy Newman. And then on onto -- well, even John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Not all the time. But in their writing is that sensibility.
And with people like Hoagy Carmichael, those are not people that would be associated with either folk or rock.
No. But it's a thread of a certain kind of writing from the heart. It's not gimmicky, and it touches people.
So you're doing an autobiography now?
I am working on an Ian & Sylvia book, but that's in such early stages, I'm still collecting material for it. I haven't actually started writing. But I did co-edit a songwriter book, with Tom Russell, which came about four or five years ago, called And Then I Wrote: The Songwriters Speak.
When do you think the autobiography will come out?
The question becomes when I actually have time to work on it. I thought that turning sixty, things would slow down. But no (laughs). I don't think I've ever been so busy. It's good, but you don't bounce back like you used to. In fact, it's more like a dull thud.
I'm glad to hear you're doing a book, because I saw a book on Ian Tyson and wasn't impressed. Not only was it very slim anyway, but the coverage of the Ian & Sylvia years was so perfunctory it was almost meaningless.
The only thing I enjoyed about that book was the fellow who put it together actually did speak to me on the phone and to give Ian credit, he allowed some of my asides to be in the margin (laughs). One thing that I do have which is quite interesting is copies of the Ian & Sylvia work calendars from '62 on. So I know where we were at all times, where we were playing, how much we were making, that sort of thing. So that's a useful reference, and it really helps me to kind of give it some perspective.
Is there anything else you want to add that I didn't ask about?
As I say, we were really just on the road so much at that time that there's probably a lot of stuff that we weren't even aware of that was going on, in terms of what an audience would be aware of, or a reviewer, or a writer.
One other interesting little side note is when we played at the old Gate of Horn in Chicago, was when we met Jim McGuinn, later Roger of course, who was playing with the Chad Mitchell Trio at that point. And it was quite amazing, he looked like he was right out of prep school, you know, the blazer and his gray flannel pants. It was quite something, to see how he developed later on.
Did you have any interaction with him, prior to the Byrds? Because he did some session work on folk albums, for Judy Collins most notably.
We'd see each other from time to time, especially when we were out in California. Him and Chris Hillman. Because they'd played, Chris certainly, within bluegrass groups before he was in the Byrds. So we would run into those guys from time to time. There was a scene out there. We didn't get to spend a lot of time in it, because as I say, we were on the road almost the whole time. But whenever we played California, we would hang out with those guys.
Did you have any notion that Roger would move into pop and rock as strongly as he did?
When we first heard about the Byrds, we did think that that was a good idea. And we felt, certainly, that it was the next logical step towards a more popular music than, say, Peter Paul & Mary.
For what specific reasons?
Well, umm....I'm getting into touchy territory here (laughs). But Peter, Paul & Mary was a manufactured group. I mean, those people never had sung together before Albert Grossman and Milt Okun put them together. And I, although Milt certainly did a great job with their arrangements and they were deservedly very popular, the next step on that thing of doing the contemporary songwriters of that day, would be some group that did it with perhaps a little more abandon.
Although to play devil's advocate, I would note that although three of the Byrds met on their own, Hillman was brought in by Jim Dickson, and the drummer had hardly ever played before, and was chosen just because they thought he looked right.
But they all had -- I don't know about the drummer, but they all had some sense of where the music comes from.
Yes, they'd all been in folk groups, sometimes very square commercial ones. It was an amazingly fast change.
Well, I don't know, California does something to people.
Were you ever tempted to base yourselves out there, like a lot of people who moved from the East Coast to California?
I don't think we ever were. We enjoyed
it out there. We usually went out there sometime in February or March,
when we were tired of the weather up here, and spent about a month.
was great. But no, I don't think we ever considered moving there. I had
lived in New York for quite a long time. I think we were more of an
Coast act, really.
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