Cover Story: (37) Heart Like a Wheel. Mary Black, the McGarrigles or Linda Ronstadt
Songs you cannot get out of your head: from Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny to Dolores O'Riordan, Nic Jones and Kate Rusby

Hard Times/Complainte pour Ste-Catherine: a Kate and Anna McGarrigle feast

Author Colin Randall: (re-posted on Jan 17 2021, the eve of the 11th anniversary of Kate McGarrigle’s death at 63). There has been significant interest at the excellent Facebook 1960s/70s Folk Music group  and I have reproduced in Comments below the responses received there

What a find. Bill Taylor, responding to my Cover Story piece on Anna McGarrigle's Heart Like a Wheel and its versions by the McGarrigle sisters, Mary Black and Linda Ronstadt - posted a comment with a link to a quite spellbinding rendition of Hard Times Come Again No More, Stephen Foster's song from the US Civil War.

"Brings me out in goosebumps every time I hear it," wrote Bill, mentioning also the contribution of Rufus Wainwright, the son of Anna's sister Kate.

Kate&anna3
Great photo of Kate and Anna at Charnock Richard, Chorley in 1976, courtesy of Roger Liptrot

 

He might have gone on.

Not just the wonderful McGarrigles and son/nephew but as grand a live ensemble of singers as you are likely to find: Mary Black, Capercaillie's Karen Matheson and Emmylou Harris.

Led by Kate's accordion introduction, everyone plays a part and in spite of the 90 "thumbs down" (out of nearly a million views) at YouTube - the place is inhabited by trolls, but each to his or her taste - this is music, goosebumps and all, at its most elevated.

Re-acquaintance with the McGarrigles prompted something I should perhaps do more often, dip into all that work I did for The Daily Telegraph as a sideline to being a news reporter.

Look at a piece (see footnote*) that I think survives the passage of time, an interview with both sisters though predominantly Kate.

Painful to think that we spoke only a few months before her long, ultimately losing battle with cancer began (she died eight years ago this month, aged just 63).

 

**** And as a closing treat, I offer the song that brought the McGarrigles to my attention in the 1970s and remains my favourite morsel from their repertoire:

* Dane Lanken on Kate (obituary published at the sisters' site) Brainy, well-read, full of obscure information, forever theorising in politics, mythology, science, mathematics, literature, history, human relations.
Ambitious, determined, opinionated. Impetuous, adventuresome. Lovely, lively, sweet, quick-witted, charming, beautiful.
A delight and a challenge to her family and friends. Outrageous at times, but anything was more fun when Kate was along.
Mcgarrigles - 1
Difficult to locate albums that contain both songs but there may be one out there. Check the Salut! Live Amazon link for their French Record and navigate from there.
* The article, timed in Nov 2005 to coincide with release of The McGarrigle Christmas Hour read:

 

Nuns suffer such a bad press as severe figures of Catholic education that it is reassuring to come across two successful women with positive memories of their convent schooling.

At their school in St Sauveur-des-Monts, a village in the mountains north of Montreal, Kate and Anna McGarrigle profited hugely from the dedication to music of members of a tiny Quebecois order, the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

The classical piano tuition was invaluable in itself. But for the McGarrigles, whose enchanting harmonies and gorgeous, melodic songs have graced Canadian music for 40 years, the nuns' role went further.

Although the family background in Quebec was a mixture of French-Canadian and Irish, only English was spoken at home. So Kate and Anna were sent to the French-speaking convent school where the nuns' fondness for organising playground singing games became crucial to their linguistic development.

"We were pretty much surrounded by music the whole time," Kate recalls. "And the nuns were so significant in helping us overcome the initial language barrier. Music has no barriers."

As a result, the girls grew up able to sing as readily in French as in English. On a recent British tour, they introduced concert-goers to extracts from their last album, La Vache qui pleure, sung almost entirely in French. The title track, a cute refinement of those popular, foil-wrapped French cheese portions, La Vache qui rit, tells of a poor cow parted from her calf - hence the tears in place of laughter.

The McGarrigles never compose in French, relying instead on the prose of their French-Canadian collaborator, Philippe Tatartcheff. Kate says her elder sister has always spoken the language better. "I suppose I'm more pernickety about grammar," Anna retorts later, "but Kate doesn't see the need for all that, and good luck to her."

Later this month, another album - The McGarrigle Christmas Hour - is released, and that has only one French song. In any case, the sisters' charm has always transcended linguistic differences: they have enthralled audiences from their earliest days as coffee-shop folk singers in Montreal. Their plaintive, often captivating songs have been covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Maria Muldaur.

Kate is at least as well known for being the former wife of the wayward American songwriting genius Loudon Wainwright III and the mother of their two children, Rufus and Martha, both acclaimed singer-songwriters.

Some entertainers cry foul if an interviewer strays into their private lives. With Kate McGarrigle's family, the most sensitive issues get a public airing, whether in the spoken word or song lyrics.

Thus, Loudon wrote about competing for Kate's attention when she was breast-feeding Rufus (the song was called Rufus Is a Tit Man) and smacking Martha as a child (Hitting You). Rufus, who grew up to be probably the world's most openly gay songwriter, would many years later write Dinner at Eight about a disturbing row with his father in a restaurant. Martha took her revenge by listing some of Loudon's parental deficiencies, notoriously calling the song Bloody Mother F***ing Asshole.

Kate is fiercely proud of her offsprings' work, and surprisingly gracious about her ex. "Brilliant," she exclaims, "I have never understood why he didn't become a much bigger star." But she does not overlook the flaws in his personality, and admits that after years of fairly convivial, post-divorce relations, they haven't spoken for some time.

"He isn't very forgiving," she says, recalling the time he refused to send Rufus a birthday card when he was 11 because his son had forgotten his own birthday. Luckily, grudges do not seem to endure. "The kids adore him," Kate says.

Kate is now 59, Anna a year older. Not quite in the age bracket of Dylan, Baez and other, generally bigger names from North American 1960s folk and its offshoots, but old enough to inspire the thought that they might want to take it easy.

The sisters argue a lot when on the road. The tiffs, and even the reasons for them may be "forgotten by morning", but is it really worth the bother? It is, for two reasons. The McGarrigles still get a great buzz from live work, and there's a practical consideration.

"We have to keep going," says Anna, whose family is altogether more low-profile (her husband, Dane Lanken, is a freelance journalist, their daughter Lily and son Sylvan both sing without noticeably seeking their cousins' celebrity). "Either that, or hope for someone to make a really successful cover of one of our songs. Trouble is, we don't have pension plans."

 

Comments

Bill Taylor

Two of Canada's finest. Seldom equalled, never bettered.

Pete Sixsmith

Matapedia is one of my Desert Island/ Stranded in Middlesbrough Discs. I saw them at The Tyne Theatre in Newcastle 20 years ago. Ethereal is the word to describe them....

Linda Thompson

11 years. That is crazy. I miss her.

Michael Murray

Simply the best songwriters, and singers of their era, Heart like a Wheel’ in fact anything from that album makes me happy.

Steve Robotham

Fantastic. Thank you for introducing me to them.

Robert Smyth

Young Chaim Tannenbaum at right ["in Roger Liptrot's photo]. For those who may not have heard it, the 2016 solo album he took most of a lifetime to make is a pure treasure. This plangent recollection of his early days in London blows me away: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0upKZIWT2Q

Peter Learmouth

What a find, indeed! Glorious. And 'Complainte...' has always been my favourite too.
Thank you for this!

Sholem Epstein

Beautiful

Colin Randall

All the Comments posted so far result from my republication of the article in modified and extended form on Jan 17 2021. They first appeared as responses to my references at Facebook, either my personal page or - more commonly - the 1960s/70s Folk Music Group (see link at the start of the article). I am very grateful to all.

Jane Ralph

That was wonderful! Thank you!

David Baker

Wonderfully sung with such emotion - thank you!.

Marion Seaman

Doesn't get much better than that👍thanks for sharing

Tilo Musser

Gefällt mir sehr, wunderbare Künstler wunderbares Lied

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