Kate McGarrigle, singer and songwriter, died on January 18 2010 aged 63. She was born in Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, in Quebec, about 45 miles north of Montreal. In 2006 she was diagnosed with Clear-cell Sarcoma, a rare cancer like skin cancer but which instead affects soft tissues inside the body. It has a poor prognosis.

I’d like to pay my respects.

They say that death is a tragedy
It comes once and then it’s over

Kate and Anna McGarrigle – Heart Like A Wheel

Despite growing up in the west of Ireland I didn’t hear much Folk music, with the rare exception of a Planxty concert in the local cinema around 1972. We were so desperate to get away from the old-fashioned stuff and well, it was either Roxy Music in full glam or some auld fella with a fiddle.

When I went to University in 1977 there was still competition from punk but I fell in with an arty crowd and they were promoting concerts locally with artists such as Loudon Wainwright, Emmylou Harris and the McGarrigle sisters. These were minority tastes, and I dare say money was lost, but it was an amazing juxtaposition of American/Canadian sounds with their Irish origins. These days it’s all as familiar as white sliced bread, with Celtic Connection festivals here there and everywhere. But everything started somewhere.

Around that time they were playing songs from their 1975 album simply called “Kate and Anna McGarrigle”.

The next time they registered big with me was their 1980 album, in French, from which I borrow the title of this post. They had channelled the 19th century French/Canadian folk ballad tradition to perfection. On their 1996 album Matapédia for example there’s a track called “Jacques et Gilles” about lumberjacks who work in Maine to make extra money, and their children are advised to avoid the “Irish agitators” who would have been advocating better working conditions and setting the roots for the Labour movement. But it is a personal song rather than a political one – although the Canadians can take the train back across the border (“their pockets filled with American money”); the Irish can never go home because they’ve been deported or fled after one uprising or another.

They also captured the essence of Montreal, which I had the luck to visit in the early 90s and rate as one of the best. Montreal has a French and an English quarter, as you’d expect; but it also has a French/english and an English/french quarter. You can eat french food served by english-speaking restaurants. I’m sure the opposite is true too, but no sane person would attempt to find out.

Going back to their “French Record”, there’s a track called “Complainte pour Ste-Catherine” which could be a plea from a young girl to St Catherine who has power in Catholicism as an intercessor for God to answer the prayers of any who invoke her name. St Catherine (“the pure one”) is also one of the Church’s paradigms of female chastity. But it could also be a reference to Rue Sainte-Catherine, a main street in Montreal with a very large red-light district (at least back then). Even the title of the album has a pun, Lajeunesse could be youth (“between youth and wisdom”) or again it could be just the street in Montreal.

Kate McGarrigle was once likened to Emily Dickenson. I think the reference is to the fact that they could both write about the mundane world (eating dinner in your kitchen) and yet bring out the metaphysical. In one of Kate’s best songs “Talk to me of Mendocino” she writes:

Closing my eyes I hear the sea;
Must I wait? Must I follow?
Won’t you say: Come with me?

Kate and Anna McGarrigle – Talk to Me of Mendocino