In the early morning rain: Ian & Sylvia Fall 1965
Williams Web Team member Lloyd Thomas brings to life one of the most memorable concerts during our time at Williams.
The musical event at Williams College that made the biggest, most lasting impression upon me was a concert that I did not even physically attend. To be sure, I saw and heard lots of great music at Williams: the cool, accessible jazz of Dave Brubeck one year, and then the passionate anthems of Buffy Sainte- Marie another year in Chapin Hall. I sweated and stomped to the driving R&B of Junior Walker and the Allstars one year, and then enjoyed the gritty strutting of the James Cotton Blues Band another year in Baxter Hall. I even remember dancing in the mud which stretched beyond Gladden House and Route 7 while Percy Sledge mournfully crooned “When a Man Loves a Woman,” early one Spring.
But I have a special reason to treasure the appearance of Ian and Sylvia during the Williams Homecoming Weekend in the Fall of 1965. And, I owe it all to my freshman roommates: Jeff Williams and Steve Essley. Actually, we got along so well, we were roommates for both our freshman and sophomore years. Jeff was the musician, and Steve was the skier–both snow and water. Steve and I both profited from Jeff’s obsession with music.
Back during our freshman year when we lived in Williams 38E, Steve and I quickly got used to Jeff’s devotion to classical guitar. His entire record collection consisted of a heavy stack of vinyl 33 ⅓ LPs of the music of Andres Segovia. Maybe he had some discs of Flamenco guitarist Sabicas and a few albums of jazz and classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida thrown in as well. But Andres Segovia was his idol. Jeff politely but firmly made sure Steve and I said “Andres”– with the “s” emphasized–when we pronounced the master guitarist’s name. But, though he venerated Segovia above all other musicians, Jeff really loved all styles of guitar-playing and music generally.
So, it was no surprise that Jeff quickly got involved with the college radio station. And in the Fall of our sophomore year, when the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia were scheduled to appear at the Lasell Gymnasium for Homecoming in 1965, Jeff had enough seniority at WCFM to somehow finagle a position on the sound team.
However, in the weeks before Homecoming, despite Jeff’s knowledgeable assurances that Ian and Sylvia would deliver a “stupendous” performance, I decided not to attend. I knew their music was beautiful. I owned their “Four Strong Winds” album with the picture of them on the sand dune and Ian cradling that expensive slot-headed Martin. But, I had other ideas about how my date from Wellesley College and I were going to spend our time during Homecoming. And so, in my callow ignorance, I decided that being crowded into Lasell Gymnasium with hundreds of other Ephs and their dates listening to wonderful music was not how I wanted to spend that evening. My Wellesley date was a really good friend I’d known since high school back in Los Angeles. I’d taken her to see a very early Byrds’ performance at the Hollywood Palladium. Together, we’d seen The Dillards at the Troubadour. We should have known better. But, we unwisely decided to skip the Ian and Sylvia concert.
A few days after Homecoming Weekend had ended, the dimensions of my glaring mistake became clear, when Jeff showed up with a pristine, analogue, reel-to-reel, bootleg tape of Ian and Sylvia’s concert. I don’t know whether the tape was AMPEG or BASF, but it was glorious. We played it over and over again in our third floor room in the East College dorms. Upon request, Jeff would set up speakers in the hallway and blast the music from one stairwell to the other. No one ever complained. Jeff’s bootleg tape was my Ph. D. course in folk music appreciation. I learned everything from it.
Ian was a very skillful acoustic guitar player, and his vocal harmonies with Sylvia were famous. I knew from photographs on album covers and reviews in fan magazines, that Ian usually played a big Martin D-28 or even a more luxurious D-45 with hand inlaid, mother-of-pearl quietly sparkling around the soundhole and the front, top and back bindings. Ian always held his guitar high on his chest, maybe to protect it from the big silver cowboy belt buckles he wore. At many concerts, he wore a cowboy hat and a satin scarf loosely knotted around his throat. The tape Jeff had secured brought everything to life. The recording was so clear that I could hear Ian’s fingers brushing the bronze-wound lower guitar strings and sometimes squeaking on the treble strings as he glided up the fretboard for a solo. He was travelling with a fellow Canadian, a superb second guitarist Monte Dunn, and the counterpoint between their two instruments was just as exquisite as his singing with Sylvia. Maybe I’d missed the actual live concert, but it seemed as if I could savor it forever in that bootleg tape.
With their voices blended together, Ian and Sylvia created a special harmony. It was not the lively, enthusiastic but predictable harmony of Peter, Paul, and Mary. Instead, Ian and Sylvia veered off into a slightly sad, even melancholy region. They imbued every verse they sang with a poignant sadness–forlorn, forsaken, forsaking. Ian was a tall, handsome cowboy who’d been a rodeo rider before having a serious riding injury. He’d earned the right to wear as much cowboy gear as he wanted. Sylvia was a fascinating brunette with the long bangs and straight hair that were requisites for authentic folk singers in the 1960s. Sylvia also had quite a bit of mischief, mystery, and magic in her eyes.
In their voices, you really understood the “story” deep within the song lyrics. When Ian sang Gordon Lightfoot’s song about standing on a lonely airfield “In the Early Morning Rain,” you felt cold, wet, and abandoned. Nothing in your life would ever go right again. In contrast, when Gordon Lightfoot sang it, you knew he could sweet-talk his way into any woman’s heart he wanted. Lightfoot would have the flight attendant’s phone number before the big 707’s wheels lifted off the tarmac. But Ian seemed permanently wounded. And when, near the end of “Four Strong Winds,” Ian sang, “But our good times are all gone/ And I’m bound for moving on/ I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way,” you didn’t have to be an expert in Existential Philosophy to realize that there was nothing to come back for. Equally as distinctive a personality as Ian, when Sylvia wrote and sang “You Were on My Mind” you felt troubled and excited at the same time.
Thankfully, falling in love with Ian and Sylvia’s songs was less dangerous than falling in love with the personalities revealed in those songs. After nearly memorizing Jeff’s bootleg tape, I walked around reciting the opening lines of “Darcy Farrow” as if it were a geographic talisman that could help me discover one of the world’s most magic places: “Where the Walker runs down to the Carson Valley Plain,/ There lived a maiden, Darcy Farrow was her name.” I felt that single couplet as sung by Ian and Sylvia was better than every lyrical ballad Wordsworth ever scribbled out. It might even be better than anything Robert Burns wrote.
As I listened to the concert tape, I marvelled at how Ian and Sylvia wrenched every drop of shame and regret from “24 Hours from Tulsa” written by Burt Bacharach and a big hit for Gene Pitney. Together, they ruefully acknowledged the impossibility of true, enduring love when they sang Ian’s own big hit “Four Strong Winds.” And when they joined in “Someday Soon,” Ian’s tribute to his wild, crazy days in the rodeo, it became an exuberant cry of freedom.
But, out of all the songs captured on that bootleg tape, I have always treasured my memories of “Spanish is a Loving Tongue.” Based on “A Border Affair” a poem written by the South Dakota cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark in 1907, it was set to music way back in 1925 by Billy Simon. Truly a timeless song, when Ian sang it, you felt like he was humbly, but proudly confessing to an affair from which he would never recover: “Still I’ve always kind of missed her/ Since that last sad night I kissed her/ Broke her heart, lost my own /Adios, mi corazon.”
So thanks to my roommate Jeff, melodies and lyrics from that 1965 Williams Homecoming tape have never stopped echoing in a quiet part of my mind. For over fifty years, I’ve remembered Ian’s excellent guitar playing. I can still hear Sylvia’s haunting voice coiling around and tugging at Ian’s lyrics. I’ve never been tempted to “put a bullet in my brain” over a pretty girl like Darcy Farrow, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to confess to a “24 Hours from Tulsa” lapse. But, as in “Spanish is a Loving Tongue,” I bet we’ve all had to bid “Adios” to someone, for better or worse, at the end of a relationship, or as happens more and more frequently as we move through our seventies, at the end of someone’s life.