Music

'The Lost Tapes' of Ian and Sylvia and the Great Speckled Bird

Stony Plain Records rounds up lost tapes from Canadian country/folk legends Ian and Sylvia Tyson performing as Great Speckled Bird in 1969. It was a very good discovery, indeed.

The Lost Tapes
Ian and Sylvia

Stony Plain

9 September 2019

Canadians Ian and Sylvia Tyson were an integral part of the American folk scene of the early 1960s whose songs such as "Four Strong Winds" and "Summer Wages" were frequently covered by other artists and became part of the era's shared repertoire. Ian and Sylvia also performed traditional material, such as "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies" and "Nancy Whiskey". They introduced listeners to new songwriters; they were the first to record Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain". Also, they routinely offered their spin on tunes by other folkies, such as Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, from back in the day. The two musicians formed the country-rock group Great Speckled Bird in 1969 with Amos Garrett (guitar), Ben Keith (steel guitar), Ken Kalmusky (bass) and Ricky Marcus (drums). But the band's success was limited for a number of factors including record company problems. Ian and Sylvia duo separated romantically and musically in 1975 and began separate careers.

Earlier this year, Sylvia discovered a box of old analog tapes in her attic of more than 70 songs performed live by the Great Speckled Bird in front of a television studio audience. She and producer Danny Greenspoon selected what they considered the best 26 songs and divided them onto two discs, one called "Classics" and the other "Previously Unreleased" because there were no earlier recordings by Ian and Sylvia or the Great Speckled Bird of these songs. The album, The Lost Tapes was released on 6 September to coincide with Sylvia's induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

However, the double-disc collection only includes three original songs by Ian and none by Sylvia. That said, the performances themselves are lovely, and the sound quality excellent. While one may pine for some of Ian and Sylvia's best-known songs on the "Classics" disc, live versions of "Little Beggarman" (featuring Red Shea's finger-picking guitar work), "The French Song", and "Darcy Farrow" feature strong and clear vocals by the principals and an amiable interplay among the band members. In addition, there are credible versions of "Four Strong Winds" and "Summer Wages". The musicians sound like they are having serious fun!

The same is true of the "Previously Unreleased" disc as well. The group take on everything from blues master Robert Johnson's "Come on in My Kitchen" to a tear in my beer rendition of honky-tonker Lefty Frizzell's "That's the Way Love Goes" to a resolute version of pioneer country-rocker Rick Nelson's "How Long". These are among the highlights of the "Previously Unreleased" record, but there really is not a clunker to be found. Two of the tracks feature Sylvia dueting with Lucille Starr on classic country tunes ("Crying Time" and "Silver Threads and Golden Needles") and point the way her career would take after her divorce.

It's been more than 40 years since these tracks were recorded. The world has changed greatly since then, but these folk, country, and blues songs have a timeless quality. The performers sing and play in a strong and clear fashion that makes the old tunes seem fresh and the newer cuts traditional. The album may bill itself as lost, but unlike summer wages, the material has not been squandered and deserves a contemporary hearing.

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