I grew up surrounded by music. Dad Red has quite an ear for music, was high school drum major, and played sax and clarinet in jazz bands in college for a little spending money. Mom Red was an operatic alto and has sung in church choirs and municipal choruses all her life. I didn’t hear pop music until I was in 5th or 6th grade, which probably explains a great deal of my Odd musical taste. Instead I listened to classical music (even calling in to the local NPR station when I was 7 or 8 to request Beethoven. The DJ was so nonplussed that he took the call and played the composition.) and folk music. Peter Paul and Mary? Yup. Johnny Horton? Oh yes. The Irish Rovers, Odetta, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, the Limelighters and the New Christie Minstrels, and Ian and Sylvia and Gordon Lightfoot, among others. The ones I always go back to are Lightfoot and Ian and Sylvia.
I think in part its pure nostalgia. “Go-Go Girl” is not exactly great music by any stretch of the imagination. Ditto some of Ian and Sylvia’s selections. But I listened to them with my parents, singing along with the LPs or learning to play the songs on the piano. I memorized all of “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” when I was 8 or 9, and could sing along with a lot of “Four Strong Winds.”
That both Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson are baritones plays a role, because I can sing along with them without hurting myself. The same is not true of altos (Kathy Matea) and tenors.
But they also have songs that make sense (OK, “Don Quixote” may be an exception.) Even the less pleasant songs, like “Cherokee bend” and “Circle of Steel” are matter-of-fact about the problems they present and the narrators make no excuses for their circumstances. I’ve always been amused that the ultimate love-’em-and-leave-’em song, “(that’s what you get) For Lovin’ Me” is paired with “Did she Mention my Name?”, as if the cold-hearted man of the first song is not quite as unscathed as his words suggest. Both Lightfoot and Tyson show the underneath of life, in the city and on the ranch and rodeo circuit, without wallowing like so many modern singers seem to.
And both have songs you can hum, with melodies and harmonies. “Circle of Steel” is a bitter song about a woman in public housing and the child that will soon be taken from her. But the melody is so pretty that I memorized the song and sang it to myself for many years. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” actually has three tunes and would be a great one to analyze for music theory class.
Ian Tyson is famous for “Four Strong Winds,” but also “Claude Dallas,” “Gallo de Cielo” about a young man trying to make enough money to recover the family property in Mexico after the revolutions of the early 1900s, and one of my favorites, “The Gift,” about Charlie Russel.
Both men are folk singers, one of the cities and coasts (Lightfoot) the other of the prairies and mountains (Tyson). Right now I have the second volume of Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits (Gordon’s Gold Vol. 2) playing, and “Edmund Fitzgerald” is ringing through my headphones as a 50 mph wind rattles the roof and sends the leaves skittering and dancing under the half-moon as a cold front blows through. I suspect I’ll be listening to Gordon Lightfoot and Ian Tyson long after CDs become obsolete and my parents’ LPs are in a museum.