Ian Tamblyn of Chelsea, Québec, has been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada “for his enduring contributions as a folk music icon, adventurer and cultural ambassador for Canada.”
Tamblyn’s accomplishments encompass a dizzying array of music, playwriting, community work, and cultural activities in northern Canada. A respected singer-songwriter who released a whopping 45 recordings from 1971 to 2021, he helped other musicians shine by producing dozens of their albums. He has also written 16 plays and composed over 100 theatre soundtracks. These are an unusual intersection of talents. Did I mention that Tamblyn is also an accomplished instrumentalist, photographer, nature guide, and educator?
I first became aware of Tamblyn’s music in the 1970s on CBC Radio and CKCU-FM and in concert at venues such as the Acoustic Waves Concert Series at GCTC, the Ottawa Folk Festival, and the National Arts Centre. One memorable concert at the NAC in 2015 featured music from his album Walking in The Footsteps – Celebrating the Group of Seven.
A native of Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, Tamblyn relocated to the Ottawa area in the 1970s, eventually raising two sons with his wife Amanda Shaughnessy in Chelsea. He sings and plays guitar, piano, hammered dulcimer, and synthesizer. While Tamblyn is an accomplished composer who creates evocative lyrics, he has also released several albums of instrumental songs. Some were inspired by trips to places such as Lake Superior and the Nahanni River. Others were created after Tamblyn participated in scientific research expeditions to remote locations like the Chukchi Sea and Afognak Island off the coast of Alaska, and McMurdo Base in Antarctica.
Some themes that run through his work are a love of nature and fascination with the Canadian landscape, which yielded classic folk songs such as “Woodsmoke and Oranges.” Tamblyn often recorded nature sounds like birdsong or the cracking of ice that he incorporated into his music, such as on the albums Magnetic North, Antarctica and Over My Head. He also celebrated Canada’s cultural heritage with iconic tunes like “Tiger Lily Road.”
Arthur McGregor, owner of the Ottawa Folklore Centre, hired Tamblyn to perform at Rooster’s Coffeehouse at Carleton University in the 1970s. “Ian’s song ‘Long-Lost French Café’ was in Coast to Coast Fever, which was the first songbook I published in 1980,” recalled McGregor.
Tamblyn chose an alternative route to conventional commercial success, one he calls the Fragile Tangent. This approach partly relies on community support and can involve “producing your own records, booking your own gigs, offstage sales, and travelling the road less taken,” as he explained in a column about the subject for Roots Music Canada.
Karen Flanagan McCarthy was an emcee at the Ottawa Folk Festival from 1994 to 2012 and has introduced Tamblyn onstage on several occasions. “Ian’s work is an extension of who and what he is: authentic, honest, caring, engaged, generous… although he probably wouldn’t use any of those adjectives to describe himself,” Flanagan McCarthy said. “Ian uses his tremendous talents as a musician and storyteller to put the focus on others: to give a voice to those who don’t have one, to tell us stories about places we might not know and may never visit, except through his work… He puts into words and music what the rest of us can’t express. And for that, we are grateful.”
In 1993, Tamblyn joined the staff of Adventure Canada as a guide and “singing Zodiac driver,” travelling to remote places such as Haida Gwaii, the Northwest Passage, Labrador, Cape Breton, and Sable Island. He also participated for years in the Students on Ice program, which allowed him to interact with Inuit students on two-week educational trips in the Arctic, and visited Ireland and Scotland more than a dozen times with Adventure Canada and Polar Star.
Tamblyn has been honoured numerous times for his work in various fields, including with an honourary doctorate from Lakehead University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society and has been awarded both the Estelle Klein Award and the Jackie Washington Award from Northern Lights/Festival Boréale and a Canadian Folk Music Award. Along with co-designers Mike Bowness and John Walker, he won a Juno Award for Best Album Cover for the album Ian Tamblyn in 1976, and was nominated for Best Instrumental Album for Magnetic North in 1990. Locally, he was presented with the Victor Tolgesy Arts Award in 1996 and the Helen Verger Award in 1997.
In the fall of 2021, Tamblyn was appointed Artistic Director of the Ottawa Grassroots Festival and nominated as English Songwriter of the Year by the Canadian Folk Music Awards for his most recent album, A Longing for Innocence.
“I have a very clear memory of the day in 1989 that I first heard an Ian Tamblyn song,” said Chris White, co-founder of the Ottawa Folk Festival, who has booked him several times. “I was spellbound by the gorgeous sounds coming from my friend’s sound system and asked excitedly who it was. All these years later, after having had many more opportunities to revel in Ian’s music, I remain in awe of his amazing range of talents and his impressive achievements in numerous artistic forms.”