January 11 – Turntable Talk 10 : Those Prairie Winds

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. Briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columns from other music fans and writers, sounding off on one particular topic. To kick it off in 2023, our topic is They’re a Poet Don’t You Know It... we look at a song that made a great impact on our contributors for its lyrics.

Today we have Randy from Mostly Music Covers. There he largely looks at songs so good they’ve been done time and time again. And he hails from Canada, a land which has produced its share of fine songwriters from Paul Anka to Neil Young to Joni Mitchell and many more. But his pick is…

Four Strong Winds”

by Ian Tyson

This is my song pick for another assignment from Dave at A Sound Day, who suggested:

pick one song that you think has fantastic lyrics, or one you like because of the lyrics, and say a bit about why you love it.”

This clip is from a reunion in 1986, 23 years after the song was first released and eleven years after the divorce of Ian and Sylvia who first recorded the song.

Think I’ll go out to Alberta
Weather’s good there in the fall
I got some friends that I could go to working for
Still, I wish you’d change your mind
If I ask you one more time
But we’ve been through this a hundred times or more

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone
Then I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

If I get there before the snow flies
And if things are looking good
You could meet me if I send you down the fare
But by then it would be winter
Not too much for you to do
And those winds sure can blow cold way out there

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
The good times are all gone
So I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

Still, I wish you’d change your mind
If I ask you one more time
But we’ve been through that a hundred times or more

Four strong winds that blow lonely
Seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone
Then I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

Apart from being a part of Canadiana, for me this evocative song is the first time I recall being able to relate to the lyrics. Originally sung by the author, Ian Tyson, and his partner, also soon to become his wife, Sylvia (Fricker) Tyson. Known as Ian and Sylvia they released it in July of 1963. It would appear on the 1964 album of the same name. I was only four when the song came out so I was a bit too young to be relating to anything beyond “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, but it was such an iconic song in Canada at least, that I would have heard it many times by many singers as I was growing up.

However, the first time I really listened, and now with a bit of life experience was when it was covered by Neil Young. That was in 1978, so I’m 19 years old with a few relationships behind me and I’m very much into music. Now I’m understanding or at least trying to get the message from song lyrics. While I came to appreciate the original just as much, at that age it was Neil that was talking to me.

If you read the lyrics, there is nothing very complicated about them, but then many of the greatest songs are thus due to their seeming simplicity. Ian Tyson was a real Cowboy, I mean the riding, roping, and rodeoing kind. After a serious foot injury, he decided to take up the guitar while he was laid up. Long story short he ended up via the Toronto music scene mingling in New York’s Greenwich Village. This is where he met a guy named Bob Dylan. After a particular encounter he thought if Dylan can write his own songs than maybe he should give it a try. At his manager’s New York apartment, he wrote this song in about 20 minutes.

As I understand the story the first verse tells me the protagonist is looking for a change of scenery and that even though it’s not going to happen, they want a loved one to join them. The second verse is such a brilliant metaphor with “Four strong winds that blow lonely”, I hear that as the winds themselves are traveling in aimless directions and that they come to you and go again just as soon. Sea’s “running high” suggests so many things to me personally. I think of my visits to my mothers native Newfoundland and watching the crashing waves and I also picture my father on a Navy Ship at sea during WWII.

The words to me are saying these things are implacable, and when love is lost, it is us that must realize it’s time to move on, the wind and the sea will not. Again, I am at an age at that time where I was struggling with these very same feelings. I had the impulse to leave, to be “bound for moving on”. As the story progresses there is still a hope, a thought that maybe they can meet again, but reality sets in as does loneliness and “winds sure can blow cold”. Yet the wish to somehow reconcile “I wish you’d change you’re mind” is tempered with “we’ve been through that a hundred times or more”.

To me this song is about relationships and difficult choices. Knowing that its time to move on but at the same time it won’t be easy. If only things were different. The last line “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way” seems sincere but based on the reality of the separation and the leaving it seems unlikely this will happen. It is something I have found people say, perhaps to ease the pain.

Here is a video of the Neil Young version with lyrics.

This song has been covered about 100 times. Notable versions include Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Harry Belafonte all from 1964. There is Judy Collins (1971) and she did a duet with Glen Campbell on his TV show in 1970. Also covered by John Denver (1988) and Johnny Cash in 2006.

I started to write this on the evening of December 28 and just as I was putting in the finishing touches and starting to edit, I learned that Ian Tyson passed away today December 29, 2022, at the age of 89. Rest in Peace, Mr. Tyson and thank-you for the songs and the memories.

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32 thoughts on “January 11 – Turntable Talk 10 : Those Prairie Winds

  1. Thanks Randy! A great song that has both universal appeal because of the sentiment & added meaning to us Canucks because of the geographic markers. The lines about going to Alberta put me mildly in mind if my brother, he & it seemed half his classmates were off to Fort McMurray when they finished HS, assuming they’d get rich quick. Is it just my faulty memory or did Ian & Sylvia have their own TV show at one point?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. someone else mentioned Tommy Hunter and I somewhat remember him having a show too back in the 70s. Thinking about it now, outside of Toronto and Vancouver, Canada seemed very country music based back then.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes I think you’re right, not sure but I guess it sort of fell out of fashion as the baby boomers aged into young adulthood, now many of our kids love it at that age. Of course as in the US county still rules in rural areas and the prairie provinces.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ever changing. It’s been awhile now since I lived there, musically I might not recognize the landscape now. I mean, in the Toronto area in the ’90s, and early-’00s, I’d look at US Billboard charts and there’d be a bevy of artists I’d never heard of on top – Heavy Mo, Little Crackhead G, Fleezy Weezy type names – and in Toronto, turn on the radio and it was REM, Springsteen, U2, walk into a record store and there was a six foot wide display of new Blur or Tragically Hip. Now, it seems like a good chunk of the popular rappers and new R&B stars are coming out of the city. Go figure.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The Neil Young version is the one that nailed it for me too. That plaintive voice fits the song like a glove. I also read it, at times, as a guy who is asking a girl to come along with him, but also putting up a fair old long list of his reasons for her not to. The good times have all gone…
    It is no surprise hearing the writer came from the Great White North when you listen to the lyrics- sure wasn’t written on some balcony overlooking a pool in some Beverly Hills hotel.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. there seems to be a characteristic sense of space, or something, that seemed to arise from being a Canadian musician (especially from the wide open Prairies) that stands out more to foreigners than to Canadians themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Badfinger (Max)

    I just found out about Ian and Sylvia around 10 years or so ago. I saw them on the Festival Express DVD…they were great.
    I’ve known this song by Neil Young for a long time. It’s beautiful and I like the imagery of the lyrics. I also like Ian and Sylvia’s version of it. A completely different feel but the same meaning. Wonderful write up Randy!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Badfinger (Max)

        Just name any modern artist! I probably don’t know them! I live in a time warp.

        Festival Express…it’s a fun watch…like a time capsule if you haven’t seen it. A bunch of drunk and high musicians ride a train across Canada going to concerts… a lot of legends now.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes Tommy had a great show! He’s still kicking and lives in his and my hometown of London Ontario. I have a neighbour named Larry Mercey who appeared on Tommy’s show and they are still friends. Small world is it not?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. certainly is. I must admit while there’s a part of me that marvels at how people think Canadians all know one another – there’s 35 million of us folks, and Cape Breton’s about 3500 miles from Victoria! – it is funny how many tie ins there are, so many ‘I met them once’ or ‘I had a friend who took his kid to the same day care as X did’ or ‘I’ve got a friend who took photos of them for their second album liner notes’ kind of things.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s so true for the distance and diversity these tie ins as you say are frequent. Just this morning a cousin from Newfoundland commented that Four Strong Winds in an anthem there. They sing it for their young men that leave for work in the Oil patch and they sing it to their babies! Since my mother left there after the war it’s something she would not have known, not to mention five of her six children were born before the song came out!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. it seems quite a summation of the feel of rural Canada. Growing up in Ontario, a lot of my schoolmates and then people I worked with not long out of school were from Newfoundland or Cape Breton.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful and heartfelt tune. Shockingly, I had not known it!

    I say “shockingly” since I really dig Neil Young and, as such, feel at least I should have been aware of his rendition. While perhaps not surprisingly I prefer Neil’s version, I also like the original!

    Great choice!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m getting the goosebumps about the very songwriter you chose to write about passed on. What a fitting tribute that you should choose one of his songs to honor the depth of his lyrics. Beautiful and synchronistic choice, Randy.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I’m unfamiliar with the original, but have heard the Young version a couple times. Any time there is a personal connection to a song (Canadian, in this case) it makes it even more meaningful. What a great choice! Maybe it was a coincidence that Ian passed as you wrote this, but maybe it just winds up being an amazing tribute.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you know the Neil Young version, the song surely reached an audience it would not have otherwise. I was hesitant to reveal the timing thinking it would sound opportunistic. I’m relieved at such a warm response.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Pingback: January 11 – Turntable Talk 10 : Those Prairie Winds – Mostly Music Covers

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