First family of folk loses its matriarch

By Andy Gill

Kate McGarrigle was a gifted songwriter and part of a performing duo with her sister

The death from cancer of Kate McGarrigle robs music's most multi-faceted family dynasty of the linchpin that held it together through good times and bad.

With her older sister Anna, Kate McGarrigle recorded a string of highly regarded folk music albums which drew on both the standard North American roots traditions and the Quebecois Francophone influences of their hometown Montreal.

As a performing duo, they were blessed not just with the kind of natural harmonic connection that can be discerned in many a family singing group, but were also gifted songwriters in their own right, with a string of notable compositions including Come a Long Way, Go Leave, Heartbeats Accelerating and their most well-known song, Heart Like a Wheel, covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, The Corrs, June Tabor and Billy Bragg.

In 1971, Kate married fellow folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, who at the time was being hailed as "the new Bob Dylan", but who subsequently developed a talent for topical songwriting blessed with a sardonic worldview and a biting wit.

For a while they were American folk's first couple, a less flamboyant equivalent to Dylan and Joan Baez's high-profile alliance in the 60s.

Before the marriage foundered in 1976, they had a son, Rufus, and a daughter, Martha, both of whom inherited the musical bug, albeit in wildly divergent ways - Martha leaning towards indie/folk crossover, while Rufus' distinctive, flamboyantly operatic pop has recently been followed by his first attempt at an opera.

By the mid-1970s, the sisters had secured their first record contract, with Warner Brothers, and made their debut album.

The laissez-faire route they took to fame speaks volumes about their attitude towards the music business.

Until Anna joined Kate in Los Angeles for a Maria Muldaur session that included her song Cool River, the sisters had not played together for years; that afternoon in 1974, they became Kate and Anna McGarrigle for the first time, and within weeks had signed their own deal.

"Warners thought we could become the next Laura Nyro," Kate later recalled. "They saw us as soulful piano-player chicks."

This misconception led to disputes between their producers: Greg Prestopino wanted to record them as pop singers, while Joe Boyd, the American largely responsible for the British folk-rock boom, recognised the folk roots in their sound.

The sessions were accordingly fraught with conflicting notions - most clearly when a song the sisters had regarded as cajun-flavoured (Complainte Pour Ste Catherine) was favoured by Prestopino and Boyd, respectively, as requiring pop or reggae treatment.

Despite the three-way tug-of-war, the resulting album has long been acknowledged as an enduring classic.

Not that it made the McGarrigles their fortune: as Kate was pregnant with Martha when it was released in 1976, they were unable to promote the record, a scenario repeated for both their second and third albums - on those occasions complicated by Anna's pregnancies.

Clearly, the sisters valued home and family over fame and fortune, a situation which was sustained throughout the intervening years.

Kate and Anna returned to Montreal and developed a closer working relationship, but following the 1981 recording of The French Record - an album of French-language songs (including, finally, a cajun version of Complainte Pour Ste Catherine) recorded at the behest of a French-Canadian label during the period of the Quebecois separatist movement - their career slipped into stasis for the next decade, though they continued to write songs that drew on the imagery and myths of traditional folk songs.

Kate's Jacques et Gilles, for instance, used the old nursery rhyme Jack & Jill as the jumping-off point for an investigation into the Francophone culture which still persists in areas of New England, the result of a huge migration of French Canadian workers to work in the mill-towns of the northern United States.

The release in 1998 of The McGarrigle Hour, followed in 2005 by The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, established an intermittent tradition of hootenanny-style get-togethers involving a wide family circle that included Loudon, and Martha Wainwright, Anna's husband Dane Lanken and their children Sylvan and Lily, Kate and Anna's sister Jane, and friends such as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The albums once again placed the focus on the family's somewhat fractious relationships, which thanks to their shared songwriting itch have to a certain extent been played out in public.

Loudon first hoisted his offspring into the public gaze through the songs Rufus is a Tit Man - a notion which has only grown in irony in the ensuing years - and Pretty Little Martha, though his obvious paternal delight was not reciprocated in either Martha's Bloody Mother******* Ass**** or Rufus' Dinner at Eight, an account of a fraught meal in which he tells his father, "I wanna see the tears in your eyes."

For her part, Kate greeted Rufus with her composition First Born, then, when Loudon left her for another woman, sought catharsis by writing the song Go Leave. Despite the lingering animosity, recent weeks apparently witnessed a rapprochement of sorts between the couple.

Both offspring bear grudges - now tempered slightly by time - against a father who wrote songs about his children instead of raising them; and understandably so, given the revelations in Loudon's brutally honest Hitting You, about a moment of rage regretted for a lifetime. Unsurprisingly, they remained closer to their mother, Rufus cancelling concert engagements to be at her side when she died.

However, the competitive instinct shared by all the Wainwright/McGarrigles has served the children well, Rufus admitting that when his life was spiralling out of control, he realised he had to be more like his father - more selfish and thick-skinned, less tolerant and nurturing - than his mother if he wanted to toughen up and succeed.

But it was his mother with whom he appeared just a few weeks ago at the McGarrigles' Christmas concert at the Royal Albert Hall, A Not So Silent Night, where despite her deteriorating condition, Kate sang her haunting new song Proserpina, in what would be her final performance.


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