The first family of folk loses its matriarch

Kate McGarrigle, who held the Wainwright clan together through good times and bad, has lost her fight with cancer

Andy Gill
Wednesday 20 January 2010 01:00 GMT

With the death from cancer of Kate McGarrigle, music's most multi-faceted family dynasty has lost the lynchpin which held it together through good times and bad.

Alongside her older sister Anna, McGarrigle recorded a string of highly regarded folk-music albums which drew on the standard North American roots traditions and the Quebecois Francophone influences of their hometown, Montreal. As a performing duo, they were not just blessed with the kind of natural harmonic connection that can be discerned in many a family singing group, but were also gifted songwriters, 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.

The roots of the dynasty gained hold in 1971, when Kate married fellow folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. He was being hailed as "the new Bob Dylan" at the time, but 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.

They had a son, Rufus, and a daughter, Martha, both of whom inherited the family musical bug, albeit in wildly divergent ways – Martha leaning towards indie/folk crossover, while Rufus's distinctive, flamboyantly operatic pop has been followed by his first attempt at an actual opera.

But the marriage began to founder in 1976, and the family's fractious relationships have ever since been played out in public, owing to their shared songwriting itch.

To this day, both Martha and Rufus bear enduring 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.

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". His obvious paternal delight has not been reciprocated in either Martha's "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole", aimed at him, or Rufus's "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" and then, when Loudon left her for another woman, sought catharsis by writing the song "Go Leave".

Despite the anger, it was to his father that Rufus turned for inspiration when he wanted to break out of his addiction to crystal meth. Rufus realised he had to be less like his mother and more like his father – more selfish and thick-skinned, less tolerant and nurturing – if he wanted to toughen up and succeed. The competitive instinct shared by all the Wainwright/McGarrigles has obviously served the children well.

But it was his mother with whom Rufus 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.

Despite the lingering animosity between Kate and Loudon, a rapprochement of sorts apparently took place recently between the couple.

Unsurprisingly, the children remained closer to their mother until the end, Rufus cancelling concert engagements to be at her side when she died.

Musically, the laissez-faire route that Kate and Anna took to fame speaks volumes about their attitude towards the record 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 with Warner Brothers.

"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.

Their sessions were fraught with conflicting notions – most clearly when a song the sisters had regarded as cajun-flavoured ("Complainte Pour Ste Catherine") was deemed to require pop treatment by Prestopino and reggae by Boyd.

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.

Kate and Anna returned to Montreal and developed a closer working relationship, but after 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 Québécois separatist movement – their career stagnated for the next decade, though they continued to write songs drawing on the imagery and myths of traditional folk songs.

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, Rufus 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.

That circle has been broken.

Family favourites: Telling it in song

Rufus is a Tit Man

Loudon Wainwright wrote about his then baby son Rufus Wainwright breastfeeding (mum was Kate McGarrigle):

Rufus is a Tit Man

Rufus is a tit man

Suckin' on his mamma's gland

Suckin' on the nipple

It's a sweeter than the ripple wine.

Yes its sweeter than the wine.

You can tell by the way the boy burps

that it's gotta taste fine.

Bloody Motherfucking Asshole

Martha Wainwright on dad Loudon Wainwright:

I will not pretend

I will not put on a smile

I will not say I'm all right for you

When all I wanted was to be good

To do everything in truth

To do everything in truth

You bloody mother fucking asshole

Oh, you bloody motherfucking asshole

Oh, you bloody motherfucking asshole... [continues]

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