Ian Tyson began making a living as a rodeo rider. After breaking an ankle in a spill, Tyson began playing the guitar. As things turned out, rodeo riding was not to be his destiny. Tyson went on to become a famous Canadian folksinger and songwriter. After spending an evening with Bob Dylan, Ian wrote his first song, namely “Four Strong Winds.” It is widely recognized as one of the best folk songs ever written.
While singing in clubs and on college campuses, Tyson met Sylvia Fricker. The duo began singing together and eventually became known throughout North America as Ian & Sylvia. After some time on the road, the duo decided to go to New York to seek a manager and a record label. They succeeded. Vanguard records released their first album titled “Ian and Silvia” in 1962. The couple married three years later. Ian & Silvia, along with Gordon Lightfoot, are the most popular folk and pop recording artists to emerge from Canada.
“Four Strong Winds” is another song about lost love, but I find great beauty in the words and the melody. I hope you can too. The song is usually strummed, but I’m using a finger-picking method. Here’s my cover.
Have you heard of Steve Gillette? If you were alive in the 1960s and liked folk music, there’s a chance the name rings a bell. Gillette never reached the top of the charts, but he’s a very talented singer/songwriter. Many of his songs have been performed by artists you have heard of including John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Nanci Griffith, and Linda Ronstadt.
The Bells in the Evening appears on Gillette’s debut album released in 1967. The album, simply titled “Steve Gillette,” stands as one of Steve’s finest recordings. “The Bells” is a bittersweet (actually sweet bitter) song of love blossoming in the spring and fading away in the fall. It’s a song full of immense joy and sorrow that combine in a mixture of incredible beauty. The song is also replete with imagery. When you listen, what images come to your mind?
I’ve revisited “The Bells in the Evening” adding some embellishments and the sound of my new guitar. Here’s my cover.
“Song for a Winter’s Night” is one of Gordon Lightfoot’s earliest love songs. It is also one of his biggest hits.
As folk music became commercially viable in the late sixties, clubs blossomed featuring promising folk musicians. Gordon Lightfoot landed a job in one of them in downtown Toronto. He stood apart from the crowd because he performed many of his own songs in a characteristically pure voice. After he developed a following, a club owner invited Lightfoot to perform at his club across the street at twice the salary. Lightfoot gratefully accepted the invitation to perform at the Riverboat, Toronto’s premier folk music club.
With his beautiful voice and prolific outpouring of quality music, it was only a matter of time before Warner/Reprise records rewarded Lightfoot with a one million dollar recording contract, an unheard-of number for a Canadian singer.
Lightfoot recorded “Song for a Winter’s Night in 1967 on his album, “The Way I feel.” Many recording artists covered it, including Sarah McLachlan in the soundtrack for the film “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Gordon wrote the song on a hot summer night while performing in Cleveland. He missed his wife at the time, Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, and his thoughts turned to winter. Here’s my cover.
I’ve always wanted to learn Kate Wolf’s guitar-picking style. Granted, she plays every song she’s written differently, but I just wanted a glimpse. Since Kate has mostly been an under-the-radar, brilliant singer/songwriter, no one has taken the time to create an accurate tutorial of her guitar method. That is until now. My go-to-teacher, Jerry Lamberth, best known for his unequaled guitar tutorial site (Jerry’s Guitar Bar) has finally posted the first of what I hope will be many lessons of Kate Wolf’s songs.
We lost Kate almost forty years ago to Leukemia, but her music has endured across the barrier of time. Coincidentally, the song is about memories of times past.
Not surprisingly, “Across the Great Divide” is one of Wolf’s most popular songs. Without Jerry’s help, I would never have figured out how to play the song Kate’s way. She uses a simple and at the same time complex alternating base method the likes of which I’ve never seen.
Kate wrote “Across The Great Divide” specifically for Robbie Osman’s folk-oriented show of the same name on KPFA radio, San Francisco. Robbie and Kate were friends who shared similar experiences.
This exercise might be a case of “careful what you wish for.” I busted my ass and fingers to learn this. Here’s my cover of the song.
If you love life with abandon, everything you want will come to you quickly and freely.
I’m watching an interesting film titled “If You Could Read My Mind.” The Canadian documentary is about the life and career of Gordon Lightfoot.
Lightfoot arrived in downtown Toronto as a young man after growing up in Oridella, a small rural Canadian town. Since there were no clubs to play in at the time, Gordon landed a job in a bank to earn a living. Lightfoot was about to earn a promotion when he told his manager that he had decided to leave the bank to accept a role as an extra on a square dancing Canadian TV show. Lightfoot’s manager found it hard to believe that the young man was leaving a good job with a future to go square dancing.
As folk music became commercially viable in the late sixties, clubs began to spring up featuring promising musicians. Gordon landed a spot in one of them. He stood apart from the crowd because he performed many of his own songs in a characteristically pure voice. After he developed a following, a club owner invited Lightfoot to perform at his club across the street at twice the salary. Lightfoot gratefully accepted the invitation to perform at the Riverboat, Toronto’s premier folk music club.
With his beautiful voice and prolific outpouring of quality music, it was only a matter of time before Warner/Reprise records rewarded Lightfoot with a one million dollar recording contract, an unheard-of number for a Canadian singer. His first album with the new label was released in 1970 when Gordon was forty-two. Lightfoot had left United Artists after five albums because he felt they did not represent him adequately. “Sit Down Young Stranger” shipped 80,000 copies before sales stopped dead. The album “had no legs” in the industry’s parlance. Warner changed the name of the album and picked a new single to lead it off. “If You Could Read My Mind” became a runaway hit when an announcer on an important local radio station kept playing it. Sales of the album ballooned to 650,000 copies. The rest is history.
Here’s my cover of the song.
Gordon Lightfoot is not a “legend in his own mind” as Dirty Harry said about the perp he was about to blow away. Lightfoot is a genuine “legend in his own time.” He has been performing live well into his seventies and beyond. It is said that time waits for no man. Time may have made an exception in Mr. Lighfoot’s case.
In 1964, Gordon Lightfoot wrote one of his most memorable songs: Early Morning Rain. Lightfoot, a Canadian singer-songwriter, has become a folk legend. Along with his crystal clear singing voice and accomplished guitar playing, Lightfoot has written a library of outstanding folk songs depicting historical events and all manner of love relationships. To single out a smattering of Lightfoot’s top hits is to do the man an injustice. “Early Morning Rain” appears on his 1966 debut album Lightfoot! Before he released the song, another Canadian duo, Ian and Sylvia, recorded it in 1964. Many other folk singing notables (Peter, Paul, and Mary) also adopted the song.
The genesis of “Early Morning Rain” can be traced to Gordon’s 1960 stay in Westlake, Los Angeles. At the time, Lightfoot became homesick for his Canadian roots. He remembers going to the Los Angeles International Airport on rainy days to watch the aircraft take off and land. The memories of the flights launching into the overcast skies stayed with him. In 1964, while caring for his 5-month-old son, Lightfoot remembers thinking, “I’ll put him over here in his crib, and I’ll write myself a tune.” In that moment, “Early Morning Rain” was born.
The lyrics refer to someone down on his luck who stands at an airport fence to watch the thunderous take-off of a Boeing 707 airliner. The theme of the song suggests a jet-age musical allegory to a hobo of bygone days loitering at a railroad yard to steal a train ride home. Lightfoot credits the popularity of the song to his steady improvement as a songwriter.
I’ve always loved this song. Lightfoot strums it. When I heard Eva Cassidy perform the song using a picking technique, I had to learn it her way. Unfortunately, there were no guitar tutorials available. Since Eva plays “Early Morning Rain” close to her version of “Kathy’s Song,” I was able to figure out how to play EMR three-quarters of the way she does.
Why do I bother to learn how to play these songs the way these great artists do? It’s simple. I become a better guitarist with each song I learn. Most importantly, I enjoy it immensely. Here’s my cover of the song.
Thought for the Day
Am I doing the world a favor if I add one more sad voice to the wailing, no matter how artfully I express it?
Paddy and Tom Clancy came to America intending to develop lucrative acting careers. Little did they know they were destined to succeed enormously in the music business while making a tremendous contribution to the form, awareness, and appreciation of classic Irish folk music.
After arriving in Greenwich Village in 1951, the enterprising duo quickly established themselves as successful Broadway, Off-Broadway, and television actors. During this period, the brothers also created their own theater production company which they named: “Trio Productions.” To help raise money for the new company, Tom and Paddy sang old Irish folk songs they had learned as children. They rented The Cherry Lane Theater in the Village and performed shows regularly on Saturday nights. Soon, they were joined by notable folk singers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Jean Ritchie.
Liam, the youngest of the three brothers, came to America in 1956. He joined his brothers in the singing group, along with his good friend, Tommy Makem. The group came to be known simply as “The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.” The group distinguished themselves with their rousing style of singing Irish folk songs and ballads, while staying true to some of the slower and more mournful tunes.
The group adopted a trademark uniform after their mother, it is said, read about the inclement New York winters. She sent her boys Aran jumpers (sweaters) to keep them warm. The boys wore the sweaters for the first time at the Blue Angel nightclub in Manhattan as part of their regular winter attire. The group’s manager, Marty Erlichman, had been searching for a kind of logo-look for the group. When he saw the sweaters, he knew he had found the “special look” he was searching for. Erlichman asked the group to wear the sweaters for their first TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. After that appearance, the Clancy Brothers and Makem wore the sweaters whenever they performed.
The Sullivan TV appearance aired to an audience of forty million. The TV show and the group’s nightclub appearances attracted the attention of a Columbia Records executive. They signed a $100,000 recording contract (a staggering sum at the time) with Columbia and recorded seven albums with the studio. While the members of the group changed from time to time, their success and influence on modern folk music has endured. In all, the group recorded 24 albums on various labels. In 1964, their albums accounted for one third of all the record albums sold in Ireland.
I first saw the Clancy Brothers at Carnegie Hall when I was a callow lad of seventeen. I went to the concert with my best friend. He remains my best friend today, even though he is half a world away. The song I’m about to sing has two names: “Will Ye Go Lassie Go” and “The Wild Mountain Thyme.” It’s a Clancy Brothers favorite. This one’s for you, Danny Boy.
“I live for a sense of a feeling of purposefulness in this world, you know, that I could stop my life at any point and feel that my life has been worthwhile; that the people I’ve loved and my children have all reached a point where their lives are now going to come to fruit. And as far as something I live by, it’s to try to be as alive as possible and feel free to make my mistakes and try to be as honest as I can with myself.”
Kate Wolf–Singer Songwriter–1942-1986
Perhaps Kate Wolf had these thoughts in mind when she wrote the song “Unfinished Life.” It’s a haunting ballade filled with hard won wisdom, exquisite beauty, grace, and focused determination. The song is also ironically prophetic. Kate Wolf died tragically of Leukemia at the age of forty-four. Despite her abbreviated life span, she wrote over two hundred songs and performed them at venues in her native state of California and around the world. Kate’s life was, indeed, unfinished, but she left behind a treasure trove of beautiful music.
I first recorded “Unfinished Life” using a free-form guitar strumming method. Recently, while driving in my car, I listened to the song with a different pair of ears. I noticed the unique and highly effective guitar picking technique Kate used to express the words and melody of the song. After some trial and error, I’ve come up with a version that approximates Kate’s unparalleled recording.
“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”
“Lay me Down Easy” is technically a blues song. To me, the song sounds upbeat with a whisper of the blues in the background. And there’s definitely an element of wry humor in the mix. Maybe “bitter sweet” is a better description of “Lay Me Down Easy.”
I’ve been playing many of Kate Wolf’s songs lately. The beauty of Kate’s music steals its way into my heart the more I listen to one of her songs. As illustrated by the photos, I’m feeling the joy and the love in the song more than the backdrop of the blues. Listen, and let me know how you receive it.
Photo by Vlada Karpovitch on Pexels
We must continually choose love in order to nourish our souls and drive away fear, just as we eat to nourish our bodies and drive away hunger.
I first heard “Cornflower Blue” as the opening song on Kate Wolf’s 1983 double album “Give Yourself to Love.” As I listened to the album many times over, “Cornflower Blue” grew on me (no pun intended). I began to appreciate the exquisite beauty in the lyrics and in Kate’s lovely singing voice.
Oftentimes, songs like this one will find their way into my heart and I feel compelled to play them myself. With this song, I had my doubts. The chances were good that I might not pull it off. Learning how to play “Cornflower Blue” like Kate does was like learning how to walk again. The style is completely counterintuitive to what I’m used to, but I’m glad I made the effort. I hope my cover of the song conveys some of the mystery and beauty of the original.