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Kate & Anna McGarrigle: French-Canadian Folk Traditionalists

from Folk & Blues: An Encyclopedia, St. Martin's Press, 2001

 

KATE AND ANNA McGARRIGLE

Vocal duo, songwriters, guitarists, pianists, accordionists, banjoists.  Anna, born Montreal, Quebec, Canada, December 4, 1944.  Kate, born Montreal, Quebec, Canada, February 6, 1946. 

 

Kate and Anna McGarrigle have not achieved the level of popularity and record sales of contemporary performers such as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, the Roches, Leonard Cohen, or Maria Muldaur, but they comprise one of the most musically and lyrically gifted sister folk duos originating in the early 1970s second- generation folk-pop movement.  They went their own musical way, never slavishly imitating anyone for the sake of tagging onto a popular style.  Because of their iconoclasm they are all the more adored by their devoted musical followers. 

 

Kate and Anna were born in 1940s Montreal.  An older sister, Jane, also sang professionally with them for a short period.  They grew up in St.  Saveur-des-Mont, in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, about forty-five miles north of Montreal.  Their interest in music came from their father, Frank, and his side of the family.  Frank's father became the first movie theater exhibitor in New Brunswick around 1906, according to an article by Mike Regenstreif, Kate & Anna McGarrigle: On Their Own Terms (in the February-March 1997 issue of Sing Out!).  Between screenings, the young Frank and his sister, Anna, would sing Stephen Foster tunes and turn-of-the-century parlor songs. 

 

"Music was always there at home," Kate told Regenstreif.  "My father would sit at the piano at night and play those songs.  At parties, somebody would get up and sing, and my father would accompany them and sing the harmony.  There were lots of friends and uncles and each would get up and give their big song."

 

Kate continued, in an interview with Richard Silverstein: "We were children of the middle class.  My dad played funny ditties and drinking songs from the 1930s.  We didn't really have an Irish folk tradition even though we were half Irish.  .  .There was no Irish folk tradition because they were subsumed under the prevailing English Canadian culture.   The French, on the other hand, were quite the opposite.   As an oppressed people, it was quite important for them to remember their language, history, and music.   No conqueror would take that away from them."

 

The McGarrigle sisters' mom, Gaby, was also musical.  She once played violin in the Bell Telephone Orchestra.  Gaby loved the old music hall songs that were popular in the era after she was born (1904).  The daughters told Regenstreif the story of their mother accompanying her father to the burlesque shows at Montreal's legendary Gayety Theatre during World War I: "Gaby's dad was French Canadian and didn't understand English that well and she used to go to translate for him.  " One morning during that period, she came to school quite late.  "Gabrielle, why are you late?" demanded a nun.  "I had to go to the Gayety with my father," she replied, to the consternation of her classmates.

 

The young McGarrigle sisters took piano lessons from the nuns of St.  Saveur.  At the age of ten, Kate remembers her dad showing her guitar chords.  There were also a ukulele, a banuke (a banjo with a ukulele neck), and a zither around the house.  In the 1950s Kate and Anna listened to popular music of the era: Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers.  "Janie had gone away to boarding school in Ontario when she was fourteen, and she really got into country blues and folksongs as well as McGarrigle originals.  music.   She introduced us to a lot of songs that otherwise we might not have heard," Anna told Regenstreit.   On Saturday nights "on a good night, the clear signal [of WWVA] from Wheeling, West Virginia, crossed hundreds of miles and international borders" to be heard by two sisters hungry for this music from another world.  In the 1960s the McGarrigles were Montreal high school students.  They once sneaked out of the house to see a Pete Seeger concert with an older friend of whom their parents disapproved.  They discovered folk music and from that moment Kate wanted her own banjo.  Then they saw the Weavers and quickly formed a folk- singing trio with a high school friend.  They sang songs like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and appeared at the Finjan, an early-'60s Montreal coffeehouse owned by Simon Asch.

 

In 1962, they met Peter Weldon and Jack Nissenson, members of a Montreal traditional folk group called Pharisees.  Weldon and Nissenson knew folk legends like EwanMacColl and Peggy Seeger.  They even owned Montreal's first Joseph Spence albums.  The McGarrigles joined Nissenson and Weldon as the Mountain City Four.  Kate told Silverstein: "We entered into the folk scene through the records of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.  But when we met Nissenson and Weldon, they introduced us to music at the sources and said, Forget about Joan Baez! Go to the sources at all times.  Don't copy styles, just learn the original music.' I think that's why we have an original sound.  We didn't try to imitate anyone, with the possible exception of Dylan, who everyone tried to imitate at one time or another." While performing with the Mountain City Four, Kate and Anna began singing traditional standards like Willie Moore; Carter Family songs like Lonesome Valley; French Canadian songs like V'La L'Bon Vent; contemporary folksongs like "Land of the Muskeg"; and Arthur Crudup's Mean Old 'Frisco" In the Montreal folk scene, the McGarrigles met Galt McDermott, who later composed the music for Hair; Broadway's first rock musical.  McDermott songs No Biscuit Blues and Cover Up My Head made it onto the McGarrigles' second and third Warner Brothers albums, Dancer with Bruised Knees and Pronto Monto.

 

Eventually, Chaim Tannenbaum, Dane Lanken (who later married Anna), and others joined the Mountain City Four.  Meanwhile, Kate studied engineering at McGill and Anna took painting courses at L'Ecole Beaux Arts.  It was during this period they met the French lyricist Philippe Tatartcheff, who studied at McGill and eventually completed his Ph.D.  at the Sorbonne in Paris.

 

Kate decided to pursue a musical career in New York after college.  She and Roma Baran formed a duo with Kate on piano and Roma on guitar, performing old blues and folksongs as well as McGarrigle originals.   They played the Gaslight and Gerde's Folk City in New York.  They received a record offer but turned it down.  In this period, both Kate and Anna began to write their own songs.  Anna's first song was Heart Like a Wheel.  Incredibly, (when one thinks of the song's subsequent popularity after it was recorded by Linda Ronstadt), Anna had no performing ambitions.  The way Anna tells it, her lack of interest in performing helped her hone her writing skills.  Kate's musical maturity came slower, until, inspired by the burgeoning folk songwriting scene, she wrote The Work Song and one of their most haunting ballads Talk to Me of Mendocino.

 

Kate and Roma's musical breakthrough came at the 1970 Philadelphia Folk Festival, where their Saturday night performance drew a rave New York Times review.   They opened for Jerry Jeff Walker at the Gaslight.   When Jerry Jeff heard their closing tune, Heart Like a the Wheel, he asked for a demo tape to send to Linda Ronstadt, who was putting together songs for a solo album.  In 1971, Roma and Kate split up.   Roma returned to school and Kate married Loudon Wainwright III, who covered We've Come a Long Way.   Maria Muldaur covered The Work Song.   The group McKendree Spring recorded Heart Like a Wheel in 1972.  Kate and Anna's big break came in 1974, when Ronstadt put Heart Like a Wheel on her album by the same name.  Maria Muldaur invited Kate to sing harmony on a gospel song for one of her records.  Muldaur also chose to sing Anna's Cool River, for which producer Joe Boyd asked Kate to play piano.  As Regenstreif recounts, when Kate told him she didn't know the piano track, he said, "What do you mean you don't know it? You wrote it!" She explained that Anna, her sister, wrote the song.  Soon Anna said good-bye to her coworkers in Montreal and boarded a plane to L.A.   When they entered the studio to make a demo tape for Warner Brothers, they didn't know each other's tunes very well because they hadn't performed together in years.  "It was that afternoon [in 1974] that we became Kate and Anna McGarrigle," Kate told Regenstreif. 

 

In May 1974, Warners offered them their first record contract.  During 1975, they recorded their first album; Kate and Anna McGarrigle.  The McGarrigles and their two producers, Greg Prestopino and Joe Boyd, had conflicting musical visions during the recording process.  "Warner, at first, thought we could become the next Laura Nyro," Kate told Silverstein.  "They saw us as soulful piano player chicks.  When we first got into studio, there were fights between Greg, who wanted to have a pop sound with no folk instrumentation, [and] Joe (who claimed to have created the English folk-rock sound), who wanted an eclectic folk-pop sound.   When they recorded Anna's 'Complainte Pour Ste.  Catherine,' for example, we heard it Cajun," Kate recalls.  "Greg heard it pop and Joe heard it reggae."

 

Remarkably, they completed the album, which has gone down in history as a classic.  It made an auspicious debut in February 1976.  Stereo Review named it Record of the Year, and Melody Maker called it Top Rock Album. 

 

The McGarrigles had a surprise in store for record executives who saw them as the "next Nyro." It was their "quaint" idea to put childraising before their career.  They never toured to support their first album- certain death for a new release-because Kate was pregnant with her second child when it came out.  They went so far as to hire a band of studio musicians and book a series of dates at a Boston venue, but when they were dissatisfied with the band, they decided to bag the tour.  Similarly, as they completed their second and third albums, Anna's two pregnancies complicated plans for extensive touring-enough to drive record executives to an early grave. 

 

The debut album contains the gorgeous Talk to Me of Mendocino, a description of a cross-country car trip in which the songwriter takes leave of the mountains of Quebec and other natural markers of her youth, only to come face-to-face with the majestic power of the Mendocino redwoods: Talk to me of Mendocino / Closing my eyes I hear the sea: / Must I wait? Must I follow? / Won't you say: Come with me? Rarely have poetic image, natural sound, and musical setting wedded so touchingly. 

 

In 1976, Kate's marriage to Loudon Wainwright ill ended.  Returning home to Montreal with her young children, Rufus (who now has a successful recording career) and Martha, she began to collaborate more closely with Anna.  They made Dancer with Bruised Knees (1977), which contains the gothic, alternately charming and horrifying Perrine Etait Servante, in whose lyrics you have the diabolical charm of the McGarrigles' star-crossed lovers mixed with the no- nonsense "make something funny and useful out of a hard life" attitude, which represents traditional French Canadian life. 

 

Pronto Monto (1978) contained the wonderfully quirky NaCl, a song dedicated to the romantic possibilities inherent in physical chemistry: Just a little atom of chlorine, valence minus one / Swimming through the sea, digging the scene, just having fun .  .  . 

 

They toured sporadically, joining Bonnie Raitt, playing New York's Bottom Line, and doing foreign gigs in England and Holland.  In 1980 they played Carnegie Hall and were featured in a National Film Board of Canada documentary. 

 

Also in the 1980s, they released The French Record (1981) and Love Over and Over (1983) (re-released on CD in 1997 by Rykodisc).  The former was originally commissioned at the height of the Québécois separatist movement.  Says Kate: "There was a French-Canadian record company which wanted to extend a hand of friendship to us and asked us as English Canadians to produce a record for a French audience.  It was a political gesture in a sense.  The odd thing is that it never came out in France and we've never played in France and weve never played in France!"

 

When asked why, Kate suggests, "I think their music can be insular.  Also, with few exceptions, music doesn't play that large a role in French culture.  You just don't hear in French music the kind of cross-fertilization that you hear in American music, for example.  If you listen to Chuck Berry, the influence of New Orleans blues is unmistakable."

 

The French Record contains one of their finest efforts, a rocking Cajun rendition of Complainte pour Ste.  Catherine, and their first collaboration with Philippe Tatartcheff. 

 

Much of their recording during the 1980s came about through happenstance.  The mid-1980s were a fallow time for the McGarrigles and their relationship with the industry.  After a National Public Radio interview, a Private Music executive called and offered them a contract to make Heartbeats Accelerating, which came out in 1990.  "Musically, Anna and I like all different styles of music.  Heartbeats Accelerating was written completely on synthesizers.  But the record company wanted more of a folk sound, so we toned it down for them."

 

Kate bemoans the stresses and strains of a large touring band.  "For a while that was fun," she told Regenstreif.  "But then it got to be less fun.  We couldn't say to so-and-so on the drums, 'Why don't you sit this one out.'"

 

The McGarrigles are sometimes compared to another folk-pop sister group, the Roches; in a strange coincidence, Loudon Wainwright later married Suzzy Roche.  While the Roches are a trio of New Jersey native Irish-Americans whose first musical encouragement came from Paul Simon, the McGarrigles are usually a duo, except when sister Janie sings with them.  The lyrics of both are lushly, even tragically, romantic.  The Roches have slicker production values, and their sisterly harmonies are breathtakingly beautiful.  Many listeners who enjoy the McGarrigles will also find themselves taking to the Roches. 

Matapedia was the first new McGarrigle recording in six years.  Bob Franke, the great songwriter, wrote an homage to the album: "Anna's Goin' Back to Harlan celebrates the role that traditional music took in the lives of those of us who first discovered it in the mid-1960s.  The myths it offered were not the ones that our parents, damaged by the traumas of World War and Great Depression, sought to create.  Ozzie and Harriet had little to offer us compared to the likes of Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender.  The original singers of these songs had a different relationship to history and culture than our parents did."

 

The McGarrigles' songwriting is drenched in musical and lyrical references to traditional songs and heroes, from Shady Grove to Barbara Allen.   "Anna and I make references in our own songs to traditional folk songs because these people lived lives of great drama," Kate told Silverstein.  "In modern life, you cannot find the same pure passion and romance.  Yes, people love and die today, but where is the grand passion that unites the hearts of Barbara Allen and her lover?"

 

Kate's brilliant Jacques et Gilles speaks to us in two ironic contexts.  Again, to quote Franke: "She creates a myth-to a wonderful variation on the tune of the old nursery rhyme 'Jack and Jill'-that turns a loving but not flattering eye on her mill worker forebears.  In doing so she crosses a line, becoming a social historian, coming to terms with her history, [and becoming in turn] something of a tradition-bearer herself."

 

Kate described how she came to be interested in the New England mill towns that she writes about in Jacques et Gilles: "I came to write it because of my interest in Jack Kerouac and On the Road.  Ten years ago, I realized the similarities in Kerouac's and my own backgrounds.  Though he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, his family came from the same Quebec region as mine.  Like him, I learned French in school and spoke English at home.  Both of our upbringings were terribly insular.  Our contact with the outside world was minimal.  Perhaps that's why he wrote a book about traveling.  But you'll recall that all his traveling, searching for a better life, ended up back in his mother's home, where he died a terrible death. 

 

"I didn't come to understand any of this until I took a trip to Lowell.  I brought along a video camera and asked a local woman for permission to film the local cemetery, where Kerouac is buried, from her balcony.  When we got to talking, I realized how similar her background was to Kerouac's and my own.  She was born in the States, yet she knew almost no English and spoke only French.  I found it amazing that you could live in this country for so long, yet still be apart from it.  This woman lives through French Canada.  Those are the only photographs on her wall. 

 

"It wasn't until I began doing research on this subject that I discovered that fully half the population of French Canada left for the factory mills of New England! That's an astounding fact, yet very few people are aware of it.  Despite these huge numbers, French Canadians have had nowhere near the impact on the greater American culture that Italian, Irish, and Jewish Americans have.  There are no traces of their cuisine, language, customs, etc.  I think Kerouac responded to this insularity by writing On the Road.  Yet his search for freedom and liberation ended with death."

 

In the McGarrigles' 1998...  Rykodisc release, The McGarrigle Hour; they have created yet another under-stated musical masterpiece.  They hit upon the brilliant idea of integrating all of the values in life that they hold dear, most notably family and music, in a single musical recording.  As Jane McGarrigle states in her liner notes: The McGarrigle Hour reunited many of the same people who worked on the first Kate & Anna record in 1975."   It also brings together the sisters with their respective spouses, an ex-spouse (Loudon Wainwright III); their children, including Rufus and Martha Wainwright; several distinguished musical interpreters (Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris); and current and former musical collaborators (including Joe Boyd, producer of their first two recordings). 

 

The song selection, too, epitomizes the celebrated McGarrigle eclecticism: new versions of previously recorded material (Talk to Me of Mendocino and NaCl), plus the old pop standards like Gentle Annie (Stephen Foster) and What'll I Do (Irving Berlin).   Unlike Matapedia, there is no newly written here; but neither is there anything stale or nostalgic about this record.   It gives fresh new perspective on individuals we felt we knew all along. 

 

In a professional music business increasingly dominated by a frenzy for the next sensation or smash hit, Rykodisc deserves enormous credit for its commitment to the McGarrigles' musical canon. 

 

In addition to releasing their previous Matapedia, it re-released on CD such long-out-of-print titles as Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Dancer with Bruised Knees, The French Record and Love Over and Over.

 

Entry written by Richard Silverstein based on an interview with Kate McGarrigle