Partying with Joplin
One of the few people who actually slept on the Festival Express, the subject of a just-released documentary, remembers a time when musicians didn't have entourages

Saturday, Jul 31, 2004

You'll forgive me when you look at Sylvia Tyson's photograph. I had to start with a beauty question. You would have, too.

She is 63. "Oh, I'm just lucky, I guess," she says with a laugh, as she pushes her long greying hair over her shoulder. Dressed in jeans, a jean jacket, dangling silver maple-leaf earrings and a chunky necklace, she certainly isn't an old-folk folkie. Her skin is clear and smooth. (Her only secret, she says, is that she walks every morning near her 1920s house in Rosedale, one of Toronto's wealthy neighbourhoods, and lifts weights three times a week.) She certainly doesn't look like one of those hard-living sixties legends who boozed and doped themselves through the psychedelic era of rock 'n' roll.

Rather, she looks like an exemplar for clean living. As it turns out, she didn't drink or do drugs in her youth, at the top of her fame as one half of the folk-music duo, Ian and Sylvia. (Together, they recorded 13 albums.) Hey, maybe that's why she's such a good witness to the era.

We're discussing her participation in what has been described as the greatest and longest non-stop party in the history of rock 'n' roll. In the summer of 1970, she was on the Festival Express, a five-day party on a customized train that travelled from Toronto to Winnipeg to Calgary, stopping at each destination for an enormous open-air concert. Promoters Ken Walker and Thor Eaton, scion of the Eaton's retail family, had promoted the train extravaganza as a way to attract top talent. And it worked. Janis Joplin was onboard. So was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Rick Danko of the Band, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Ian and Sylvia, who are often called the founding family of Canadian folk music.

The event was filmed at the time by a young cinematographer, Peter Biziou, who would later win an Academy Award for Mississippi Burning. But when the travelling concert rolled into its final destination, after losing money due to criticism from protesters (fans thought the $14 admission for the concerts was too expensive), the promoters and the original film producer, Willem Poolman, couldn't agree on what to do with the footage, of which there was approximately 75 hours. Several unpaid cameramen took some. Others snatched some reels as keepsakes. Fortunately, some reels ended up at the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, where a young documentary filmmaker and music fan, Garth Douglas, and his friend, James Cullingham, found them after searching for the lost film of what had become known, in the telling of the tale, as the Canadian Woodstock.

After 10 years of additional work, filming contemporary interviews and clearing performance rights, among other things, Festival Express, a 90-minute documentary of the train ride and the concerts, opened yesterday in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and will be released in other major Canadian cities on Aug. 13. It is a nostalgia trip so rich in seventies atmosphere, it makes you want to tie-dye a T-shirt.

Directed by Bob Smeaton, the two-time Grammy award-winning director of The Beatles Anthology and Hendrix: Band of Gypsies, Festival Express is an astonishing piece of rock 'n' roll archeology. Joplin is her outrageous, glorious self. Two months later, she died of a heroin overdose. Garcia is captured jamming with other musicians and relaxing.

"Janis was not a woman's woman," Tyson recalls. "She really liked being one of the guys." There were two rail cars designated for music. One was the blues and rock car; the other was country and folk music. "Janis was more into the blues and rock car. She found her drinking buddies there. She liked to party. There's no question of that. She liked her scotch and her Southern Comfort. She gave the impression of being really out of control on stage, but my analysis of that is absolutely not. She knew exactly what she was doing. And that was true of her performances always. She was doing what she wanted to be doing, and she was on top of it. The out-of-control person you saw on the train, singing and so on, was not the person who performed. The real tragedy of this film is that she was just beginning to become the singer she could have been. It's true of everyone in this movie. You see them at peak performance, when they perhaps weren't quite the stars they would become. But there was so much energy and joy in the music."

Tyson, who has been divorced from Ian for more than 20 years, remembers Joplin as being insecure. One time, they were all in New York having dinner together with Albert Grossman, who managed Ian and Sylvia, Joplin and the Band, among other artists. "Janis was very jealous of other artists and she felt Albert's attention should be on her. She was extremely needy. She didn't like it that we were with Albert, that he was our manager, too. At one point, she threw her leg over Albert's, wrapped her arm around his shoulders and said, 'Why have we never made it?' And he said, 'Well Janis, if we did, and you didn't like it, I'd never hear the end of it.' "

On the train, there was liquor and "mainly acid or grass," Tyson notes. At one point, the train stopped in a small town and the musicians clambered off to raid a local liquor store. "When we were on the way to Winnipeg, the Grateful Dead had gone through [the drugs] that they had, so they started drinking. One of them said it was a new experience for them," she recalls, with a laugh.

Motherhood kept her from partying too much, Tyson says. In 1970, she had a four-year-old son, Clay, at home. "Women had a survival rate much higher than the guys did. Having kids made the difference because you had to be sane. You couldn't be this wild and crazy person, drinking and doing drugs."

Recently, Tyson ran into a friend, actress Jackie Burroughs, who told her that her lasting impression of Tyson on the train, when she dropped in on the party, was seeing her seated in a corner, reading a book. "I was probably one of the few who actually went to sleep at night," she says.

Festival Express celebrates an era in which music was inventive and unpackaged, Tyson reminisces. "The group of people on that train were totally self-invented."

It was also a safer time, she says. "No one had an entourage. Nobody had their own security. There wasn't the paranoia you find now. The idea of some of the top performers today getting on a train together with no security, no entourage, well, it wouldn't happen. They'd want to know where their hairdresser was."

Having flourished in a time when media was not so pervasive and image less important, Tyson is critical of today's music scene. Asked about Canadian Idol, she scoffs, "I think it probably makes entertaining TV, but I don't think it has anything to do with music. They're not bad singers, but they have no control over their material, and God forbid, if they should actually get to the top, because their lives will not be their own for the next two or three years, however long it lasts. They're a product."

Still, over the years, she has managed to find an audience for her kind of music. When she fell out of favour in the eighties, she started up her own record label, Salt Records. She has also done stints hosting shows: CBC-TV's Country in My Soul and CBC Radio's Touch the Earth. Ten years ago, she founded Quartette, a group of four female singers, including herself, Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford and Gwen Swick. In the fall, she plans to do some solo concerts "just 'cause I've written some new stuff that I want to try out." She has also been busy writing a novel.

She has always been a determined person, she tells me. Born Sylvia Fricker in Chatham, Ont., she grew up the second child in a family of three girls and a boy. Both her parents were musical, having met in London, Ont., where they worked as piano and sheet-music demonstrators for Eaton's. But they didn't encourage their daughter's ambitions to become a professional musician. Even her guidance counsellor at her high school suggested she should consider teaching as a career. Tyson wouldn't listen. "I always knew what I wanted to do. I was like a mule. People would tell me it was impractical. But I just did it."

In 1959 at age 18, she set off for Toronto and soon met Ian Tyson. They performed together for two years before marrying. (Ian Tyson now lives a reclusive life on a ranch in Alberta.) Was it difficult to be married to a fellow musician? "When Ian and I would hire a new musician, I would always say to him, 'If Ian and I get into argument about music, don't get involved. It's not about music,' " she says, laughing. Eventually, they grew apart as a couple and as musicians.

Tyson is an observant, bookish type who appreciates the passing parade of life, with all its colours, fanfare and participants. "I will say this," she comments in conclusion about the party that was Festival Express. "No one is aware of making history at the time."