by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
February 6, 2010
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- No matter where it's performed, on the stage of Carnegie Hall or around a wood-burning stove, folk music is redolent of hearth and family. Maybe it's because so many folk songs are rooted in character and place. Maybe it's because a good tune can turn a local story into a legend. Maybe it's because a lot of people can play and sing together -- the very opposite of performance.
Few did family and folk as well, as stylishly, as intelligently and as long as the French-Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle. But now their ethereal sound is silenced, because Kate died last week at the age of 63 from a rare form of cancer - clear-cell carcinoma - after a three-year struggle with the disease. She died with her family and friends around her, singing her goodbye. Since her two children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, are also famous and gifted performers, and her ex-husband, Loudon Wainright III was there, and Emmylou Harris, you can imagine the quality of the music that helped her leave this world.
Although Rufus wryly said later on his Web site (rufuswainright.com), "We sang to her as she lay there, a fact that certainly might have made her go that little bit faster."
Kate and Anna grew up in a rural and musical home and started performing during the height of the 1960s Montreal folk scene. They went on to build careers and reputations around the world while still making their families their first priority.
Their high, reedy voices blended together seamlessly. As another of their friends, Linda Ronstadt, who recorded Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel" in 1974, said, "It was a sound from another time, an earlier century, but something you knew would be very comfortable in the centuries to come."
When I heard that Kate died, a sharp sense of loss sent me searching for my favorite recording of theirs, "Matapedia." When it was released in 1996, I played the first two songs over and over at least a hundred times.
The first song "Matapedia," which is written by the sisters together, is an almost perfect folk song. It has a quick French-Canadian-cum-Irish beat under it, mimicking the rushing river that they are singing about - it's a truism that in folk you hear the rivers the way that in jazz you hear the trains; a sign of time and technology. The song starts with -what else - a description of Martha at 17. If there was one thing the McGarrigles knew how to do, it was put their family in their music.
"That's why the stage felt like a living room," Anna said recently. "It's where (we) met and talked."
The song goes on to tell about a former lover who mistakes Martha for Kate at that age. They were lovers in their teens, and Kate sings about a time they raced down the Matapedia River to catch a ferry home. It's a simple story, but then the music and the harmonies lift the lyrics as they transcend the specific and became an anthem: "And I was not afraid/And I could not slow down." Ask any adventurous woman what those words mean; you'll get a smile in return.
The sisters toured to support the CD, so I got to do a phone interview with Kate. I learned that sometimes, there was competition between the sisters. The second song on the CD is Anna's "Goin' Back to Harlan," (recorded by Emmylou on her best-selling "Wrecking Ball"), which brings the titles of several beloved folk songs right into the story line. I made the mistake of telling Kate how much I loved the song, and got a frosty, "I didn't write that one." The interview went south from there.
Their concert, however, was magnificent.
It's a tragedy that Kate has died so young, but since folk music is all about communication, it's no surprise that Anna, Rufus and Martha have all been writing since then. You can read their tributes at the london Time's Web site, TimesOnLine: entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article6997351.ece.
Anna said, "Kate was one of the finest songwriters: her soul told her hands what to do."
Martha wrote, "Kate, Rufus and I saw ourselves as the three musketeers... She had incredibly good taste and made sure we did too. She made us into the musicians we are, and influenced the music that we loved... As a young woman I tried to distance myself from my mother. I was overwhelmed by her beauty and talent. I tried to play the independent girl. But I always came back, needing her cash, her assistance, her suggestion. In the last five years I totally gave in and realized I needed to be with her all the time."
And Rufus brought it all back home. "I would like to thank the Canadian health care system as a whole, and thus the whole country for allowing Martha and I to walk away from this massive process financially intact... With the ever darkening situation brewing south of the border over basic rights of human dignity when faced with illness, actually in truth, when faced with life in general, we feel profoundly privileged... The U.S. has a lot to learn... God bless socialized medicine."
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.