Finding Peace and Serenity With The McGarrigle Sisters

While some fans of The McGarrigle Sisters know only of Kate and Anna, older sibling Jane was a collaborator in both songwriting and the occasional performance. She also managed their career from the mid-seventies through the nineties. That would be Jane standing in the middle of this photo taken by Michel Gravel, from the archives of La Presse. I published this article on the No Depression dot com website the week after the American presidential elections, and the original title was ‘Hiding Under The McGarrigle Sisters’ Blanket’. I am currently out of bed, taking long walks outdoors, going to work, visiting with friends and family, and living in mortal fear of what is yet to come. 

Hour by hour as the polling places of each state closed across the country from east to west, the speakers of my television seemed to grow larger and louder as fanfares of trumpets and timpani reported the results and announced the arrival of a new world order. For millions of us who chose to cast our vote earlier in the day, it was not simply a resounding political defeat, but a fist-smashing, gut-wrenching challenge and rejection of our core beliefs and values. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but it did, and that old familiar feeling of flight or fight came over me.

Where to go, where to hide, what to do. The initial thought of having a good stiff drink or filling a pipe, neither of which I’ve done for over 20 years, came strong and left quickly. Chocolate seemed a likely alternative, but there’s none of that in my cupboards. So I turned off the sound of one tube and searched through another, looking for a specific musical tranquilizer.

The song I wanted to hear is not very hard to find, but it was this particular video performance that I sought out. It always touches a space in my heart and never fails to prompt tears at the opening shot of Anna’s fingers on the piano keys, Rufus’ first lines of lyric, and watching Martha in the background clutching her arms close to her body until she finally moves to the microphone and raises her voice in harmony, about a minute or so into the song.

Inexplicably, and despite the sadness of knowing that composer, sister, and mother Kate has passed on in the most horrible way, this single performance provides me comfort when none is at easy reach. For someone who often doesn’t pay close enough attention to lyrics, these words shine like gold in a sea of rust:

I bid farewell to the state of old New York
My home away from home
In the state of New York I came of age
When first I started roamin’

And the trees grow high in New York state
And they shine like gold in the autumn
Never had the blues from whence I came
But in New York state, I caught ’em

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”

And it’s on to South Bend, Indiana
Flat out on the western plain
Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California
Out to where but the rocks remain

And let the sun set on the ocean
I will watch it from the shore
Let the sun rise over the redwoods
I’ll rise with it till I rise no more

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”

In November of 2015, when Anna and Jane published their book Mountain City Girls (Amazon USA and Amazon Canada), which is subtitled The McGarrigle Family Album, I decided to take a trip into the city so I could buy it at The Strand bookstore on Broadway. The act seemed more meaningful than choosing the simple method of opening an app on my phone, clicking the “buy” button and having it delivered the next day to my front door. (Yet…I’ve added the Amazon links to make it easier for you not to put off buying this wonderful book. Surrender to the technology I suppose.) When I got home, I placed it on the table next to my bed and it has remained closed and gathering dust. Sometimes when you already know the ending is painful, reliving the journey takes time and courage.

The music of Kate and Anna has not always been prominent in my listening circle, but that changed in October of 1998 with the release of The McGarrigle Hour. A family and friends compilation of sorts, it was an aural scrubbing of whatever else was occupying my musical interests at that moment, and the most perfect introduction to their work. It also introduced me to sister Jane and her daughter Lily Lankin, the Wainwright kids, collaborators Chaim Tannenbaum, Joel Zifken, and Phillipe Tatartcheff, and old friends like Emmylou Harris and Linda Rondstadt.

On the day after the election I began to read Mountain City Girls. I suppose that my expectation that this book was going to follow some standard shallow “musical career memoir” format had likely kept me away for a year, and that was a mistake. It is a rich and dense family history, with personal stories that bring the characters into close focus, and freely shares intimacy. On the back flap of the cover, Emmylou Harris describes it best:

“From the moment I met the Mountain City Girls, Kate, Anna and Jane, I wanted to be a part of that magical McGarrigle circle – the songs, the suppers, the families and fellow travellers, and they blessed me with it all. This book is a charming history, written with affection and wit by Anna and Jane, and now everyone can share in the story of their lives and lineage. It is a love story really, of a time, a place and a remarkable sisterhood that has given the world some of it’s most unique and stunningly beautiful music.”

I told a friend the other day that this is a book I only care to read two or three pages at a sitting, because I want it to last forever. But I have begun to pick up the pace now that I know the story doesn’t end with Kate’s death, but rather in the mid-seventies when she and Loudon split up and Anna goes to New York to bring her and the kids back to Montreal. Anna soon after wrote “Kitty Come Home”:

The birds in the trees call your name,
Nothing’s changed, all the same
Home, come home, home, Kitty come home. 

I’ve told those people who I’m closest to that I fear there will be dark days ahead. Many are scared, as am I. Perhaps I’m finding peace in the pages of this book because history brings context to the momentary fears and sorrows we experience through life. There is a grounding when you can stand back in tragedy or loss … something like that phrase that one “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

I think of this time of the year as “McGarrigle Season,” because it’s when I often listen to their music, and I know that January is the month that Kate passed. My father also died from cancer in that month many years before, and perhaps that’s a connection I subconsciously make. This year brings a new album from Martha Wainwright that I’m enjoying immensely, and I hope to attend her aunt Sloane’s annual Christmas “whiz-bang” concert at the church in Bedford Falls, just down the road from me. (It was wonderful!)

For now, in the aftermath and while awaiting what’s ahead, I’m quite content in hiding underneath this blanket of McGarrigle. And you know what? There’s plenty of room for you too.

Postscript: The videos I shared here were posted on YouTube in 2012,  from the Up Close session at CBC’s Studio 211. For a special holiday treat, if you haven’t seen it or even if you have, I highly recommend watching the film  Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You” A Concert for Kate McGarrigle, which is currently available in the US from Amazon. There is also a soundtrack album that was released by Nonesuch Records that features highlights from the three tribute concerts honoring Kate in London, Toronto, and New York and it is one of my most prized possessions. Net proceeds from the sale are donated to the Kate McGarrigle Foundation—a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money in the fight against sarcoma and also to preserving her legacy through the arts. For further information, visit I’ll close this column out with a clip from the film. Fare thee well.

Discography (Wikipedia)