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Sylvia Tyson remembers Gordon Lightfoot as shy, reserved and a meticulous songwriter

TORONTO — Sylvia Tyson saw something special in a young and unknown Gordon Lightfoot on the night she caught one of his sets in the mid-1960s.
Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, strums backstage at the Westbury Music Fair on Sept. 8, 1987, in Westbury, N.Y. Tributes to Lightfoot continued to roll out after the Toronto singer-songwriter's death on Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Cyrena Chang

TORONTO — Sylvia Tyson saw something special in a young and unknown Gordon Lightfoot on the night she caught one of his sets in the mid-1960s.

He was in the midst of an extended run of shows at Steele's Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto, a series of performances a newspaper advertisement summed up as "Gordon Lightfoot: folk singer — ballads, etc."

Yet it was immediately clear to Tyson, one half of Yorkville folkie duo Ian & Sylvia, that Lightfoot wasn't just any old balladeer.

"We recognized him as a great songwriter," she recalled in a phone interview from her Toronto home.

"It was a small room. He performed alone. He didn't have a band. So really, it was all about his voice, the guitar playing and the songs."

That night, Sylvia, her soon-to-be husband Ian and Lightfoot struck up a friendship that would last for decades. Lightfoot died Monday at age 84 of natural causes.

Back in the 1960s, Toronto's music community was a tight-knit place, which meant one act's success would often trickle down or be shared with others, Tyson said.

For instance, the respect Ian & Sylvia had for Lightfoot's work led them to record covers of "Early Mornin' Rain" and "For Lovin’ Me. The latter Lightfoot song would inspire another take by U.S. trio Peter, Paul and Mary that became a stateside hit.

"Gordon always joked that he knew it was our version they'd listened to because we used a minor chord that he didn't," Tyson chuckled.

The U.S. exposure gave Lightfoot's career a boost, helped further by Ian & Sylvia connecting him with their New York manager Albert Grossman, who took the singer under his wing and got him a record deal.

All of that wouldn't have been possible without Lightfoot's sheer talent, undeniable work ethic, and skill for storytelling, Tyson noted.

"He sweated blood over those songs," she said.

"It's a very special skill to be able to put an entire story into a (three-and-a-half) or four-minute song. You learn a certain economy of language."

Ian & Sylvia saw their own careers blossom shortly before Lightfoot's took off. Their trajectories sent them on different paths.

"We didn't see each other that much, since we were both on the road very busy. You might meet in an airport," she said.

"But because we've been friends you could sort of pick up where you left off even over a year later."

Knowing Lightfoot as long as she did, Tyson said there were a few things most listeners probably didn't pick up on.

"One of the common misconceptions about Gordon was that because his songs were so articulate, he was a great conversationalist," she said.

"He actually was very shy and reserved in that respect."

Tyson also described Lightfoot's tendency to be a "workaholic," which was most apparent to outsiders with his consistent tour dates that continued up until last year when he fell ill.

"He even had separate studio space for many years that was strictly for writing," she said.

Tributes to Lightfoot continued to roll in this week.

Fellow Yorkville folk musician Buffy Sainte-Marie said in a statement there was a "freshman class in heaven with Harry Belafonte."

Neil Young called him "a great Canadian artist. A songwriter without parallel" in a message posted on his website, while Toronto-raised actor Kiefer Sutherland tweeted: "Canada lost part of itself. And I lost a hero."

Amid these reflections, Tyson considered a generation of folk memories that are slowly fading, even if the music isn't.

In December, she lost her ex-husband and singing partner Ian Tyson, who Lightfoot described as "the older brother I never had" in an interview with The Canadian Press at the time.

"One of the things that one realizes as one gets older — and I'm 82 at this point — is that you start to lose people at a rather more rapid rate," Sylvia Tyson said.

"And that one of the things you mourn, as much as the person, is the loss of a shared experience.

"Never again will I be able to say, 'Do you remember that?' Because the person you'll be talking to is much younger than you are. And they won't remember it at all."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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