Sylvia Tyson, novelist

Sylvia Tyson at seventy is an artist whose life’s work goes well beyond playing music.

Fifty years after her debut as one-half of Ian & Sylvia, she’s still busy performing with the group Quartette and as a solo artist.

But Tyson also established an independent record label—long before they were as commonplace as they are today—and has served on the boards for FACTOR and the Junos, hosted a roots music show on CBC radio, co-edited an anthology on songwriting with Tom Russell, and is currently President of the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

Tyson’s latest career move is her recent novel, Joyner’s Dream, a historical page-turner that weaves a story of family and music, written in the form of a diary that’s been handed down through generations.

Sylvia Tyson has claimed that she wrote her biggest hit song, “You Were On My Mind,” in the bathtub in a suite in a Greenwich village hotel in 1962 (the punchline is that’s the only place where she could escape the roaches). Nearly fifty years later she wrote much of Joyner’s Dream during walks through the ravines at the Evergreen Brickworks in the early morning near her Toronto home.

During a recent appearance and reading at the Toronto Reference Library, Tyson said she had always wanted to write a book, but that the time hadn’t felt right until now. She also joked that she hoped it might take her off the road!

Like Tyson, who started writing late in life, the characters of Joyner’s Dream are well along in their journeys (sometimes even on their deathbeds) when entering the events of their lives into the inter-generational diary.

Inheritance is a theme woven into the work with many threads. An old violin is passed down, along with less tangible gifts: a handiness at stealing and gambling; bipolar disorder; and a talent for music among them.

Tyson said she choose the violin as the family instrument because “the violin is most like the human voice, and this violin has a voice of its own.”

Music plays such a large role in the book that Tyson worked with strings expert Terry McKenna to create an album to accompany the novel, featuring songs mentioned in the book.

Though it’s told with a backward view, Joyner’s Dream is very fast paced. Despite the diary form, no single character reflects much on the events of the stories. Yet the overall feel of the book is of reflection over the whole course of the more than 400 years it spans. Individually each character is too close to his or her own life to understand any kind of trajectory. Together, the voices begin to blend and take on collective meaning, as they do in music.

The final recipient of the diary, Leslie, is the modern day member of the family. He’s the one who introduces the book, and narrates it with the occasional administrative annotation. (Leslie seems to be copying it, or perhaps preparing it for publishing) Leslie, perhaps like Tyson at this stage in her career, has the ability to see the arc of his own family’s path and to find an identity within the characters that have come before him.

Given Tyson’s great gifts as a songwriter, and her respect for the musical traditions she’s inherited, it’s no surprise that Joyner’s Dream is like a catchy country song. It has great hooks, but it tells a story that’s heavy with truth, full of wisdom for the ages.

Above all, Joyner’s Dream proves that a good writer isn’t limited by medium. Sylvia Tyson, novelist, is that good.


If you are enjoying this content, please take a second to support Roots Music Canada on Patreon!

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Tony Burns 1 June, 2011 at 11:10

    I just finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it. The change in voice as we moved from one character and time frame to another was so striking that at one point I was convinced the font had changed too and had to look back to find out that it hadn’t. It’s a wonderful piece of writing. I hope the story of Old Nick’s travels really is going to be told. (In the meantime I will have to re-watch The Red Violin.)

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *