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Canadian legend lives on

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Sing lustily and with good courage.

Beware of singing as if you were half dead,

or half asleep;

but lift up your voice with strength.

-- John Wesley

Many of the stories that have appeared in the print media and on the Internet reporting the death of Kate McGarrigle last month referred to her as a Canadian folk icon. She certainly was that, but she was more. She, along with her sister Anna, wrote and performed songs that fell within the folk genre, but no single category could contain or encapsulate the beauty of those wondrously light and haunting harmonies, or the art, the musicality and the wit to be found in so much of the sisters' songs and performances.

Indeed, no single descriptor adequately captures the McGarrigles' range -- writers, arrangers, musicians, performers -- overlaid and enriched by unerring taste and talent in almost everything they did.

In their many recordings, beginning in the 1970s, some songs inevitably were less memorable than others; this may attest to nothing more than their willingness to experiment and take risks.

But in the large body of their work -- augmented by the participation of siblings, children (in Kate's case, Rufus and Martha Wainwright), an ex-husband, friends and other singers -- they created something uniquely their own; and, given who they were and what they were about, something particularly Canadian.

Stuart McLean, creator and host of The Vinyl Café on CBC Radio has referred to the McGarrigles' easy use of French and English and the sense of a decent family making joyful music together through which "they showed us the country (and) showed us the kitchen table."

Their songs, he observed "are as close to the heart of the country as a Tom Thomson painting." And he is right. Themselves the products of a French-English marriage and equally at home in both languages, they somehow embodied -- without in any apparent way seeking to -- an important dimension of what Canada is about.

As did their lack of pretension. In the late 1980s, as a board member and volunteer at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, I found myself in the backstage lineup for food with the McGarrigles just behind me. From the release of their first recording a decade earlier I had been an ardent fan and found myself (rather diffidently if the truth be told) chatting with them briefly. They were quietly friendly, there were no airs, no how-great-we-are; they were just members of the festival family and, not surprisingly, enthusiastic and generous about other performers and performances at the festival.

Though I had a hint of it, others can attest better than I, to the proposition that Kate's public persona -- when not actually singing -- seemed that of a clear and bright woman with strong and frankly expressed opinions.

One had the sense that neither she nor Anna had set out to become legendary or iconic -- viewed from the outside, that just seemed to happen -- but, rather, were in it for the joy of singing, and the joy of song.

And what songs they sang: eclectic, magical, traditional, inventive, witty and always sounding -- even in the saddest of songs -- right from the heart. One of their finest albums, The McGarrigle Hour released in 1998, involved all the usual suspects from the family plus several friends, including Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt; and it illustrates many of their gifts. Their versions of old songs, often seem as fresh and bright as newly minted coins but nonetheless sound so absolutely right for the words and music, that one thinks: this is how it was meant to sound when it was new!

Stephen Foster's sad and gentle Gentle Annie (arranged by Kate) sounds this way as do their recordings of songs by such later giants of popular music, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. And just as the songs of Foster, Berlin and Porter have achieved a kind of immortality, so almost certainly will a number of the McGarrigles' songs become standard repertoire -- Heart Like A Wheel and Talk To Me of Mendicino spring immediately to mind.

We've lost Kate McGarrigle far too soon. But so long as songs are sung, be they sweet or sentimental or requiring singing "lustily and with good courage," she will be remembered.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2010 A15

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