Sunday, 7 February 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee with the McGarrigle Sisters

This week’s “show” is touched with sadness: Kate McGarrigle, aged 63, died only  a few weeks ago after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.  Sicily Scene was where I learned the sad news.


There is only one place to start and this is at the end: her last performance.  On the 9th December 2009 she played piano and sang at the Royal Albert Hall with her family and friends in a concert, ”Not So Silent Night”.


This is Kate’s new and haunting song which she performed in London.  In my ignorance, I had never heard of Proserpina and so I had to look up Wikipedia to find out.

Myth of a Springtime
Venus, in order to bring love to Pluto, sent her son Amor also known as Cupid to hit Pluto with one of his arrows. Proserpina was in Sicily (an island outside of Italy), at the Pergusa Lake near Enna, where she was playing with some nymphs and collecting flowers, when Pluto came out from the volcano Etna with four black horses ….  He abducted her in order to marry her and live with her in Hades …. of which he was the ruler. Notably, Pluto was also her uncle …. She is therefore Queen of the Underworld.

Her mother Ceres, the goddess of agriculture or of the Earth, went looking for her in vain to every corner of the earth, but wasn't able to find anything but a small belt that was floating upon a little lake (made with the tears of the nymphs). In her desperation Ceres angrily stopped the growth of fruits and vegetables, bestowing a malediction on Sicily. Ceres refused to go back to Mount Olympus and started walking on the Earth, making a desert at every step.

Worried, Jupiter sent Mercury to order Pluto (Jupiter's brother) to free Proserpina. Pluto obeyed, but before letting her go he made her eat six pomegranate seeds, because those who have eaten the food of the dead could not return to the world of the living. This meant that she would have to live six months of each year with him, and stay the rest with her mother. This story was undoubtedly meant to illustrate the changing of the seasons; When Ceres welcomes her daughter back in the spring the earth blossoms, and when Proserpina must be returned to her husband it withers.”

Initially I was put off by the start of the song but then I relaxed and  ….. listened and ……

Less than 6 weeks later Kate had left us but what a song to leave for us.


I fell in love with the McGarrigle’s music at the start of their recording life but this was a long long way into their musical life.  The McGarrigle sisters (Kate, Anna – the recording sisters – and Jane) were born in Montreal and brought up surrounded by music.

“Music was always there at home,” Kate McGarrigle said in a 1997 interview in Sing Out! magazine. “At parties, somebody would get up and sing, and my father would accompany them and sing the harmony. There were lots of friends and uncles and each would get up and give their big song.”


Heart Like A Wheel

We move on with a track from their first album.  This was Anna’s first song which was also covered by Linda Ronstadt whose album carried the song as its title.

Quite a song for a first!


The music of the McGarrigles will live on not only through their own music but through that of Kate’s children, Rufus and Martha Wainright, with Loudon Wainwright III.

Next up is a lovely version of Stephen Foster’s famous 150 year-old song.

Hard Times Come Again No More

This song starts with the lines,

“Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;”

The video is from the Transatlantic Sessions and features Kate, Anna, Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black and two Scots, Karen Matheson and Rod Paterson.

If you watched this on YouTube You may have noticed this comment,

“All these wonderful singers and harmonies but it still feels like Kate's song ....”


I Eat Dinner

We return now to one of their own songs, another song whose setting is so simple – eating dinner – but whose words bring home the heartbreak of lost love.

Kate is like Eric Bogle, able to conjure up images which go way beyond the apparent simplicity of their words.


Complainte pour Ste-Catherine

I haven’t a clue what this song is about but I have always liked it’s bouncy nature.

Oh, by the way, I know even less about the video. 

If you have any thoughts about the words or the video please let me know.


Only two more songs now so you should be getting towards the end of your coffee.

Kitty Come Home

This is another beautiful song by Anna for her sister who is having some relationship problems. “Home, Kitty Come Home

Sisterly love!  Beautiful.


With the last song now we return and remember Kate’s recent death. Here is the song chosen as a tribute to Kate at Sicily Scene although with a different video. 

Talk to Me of Mendocino

This describes the journey from New York, her home from home, to Mendocino in California.  I hadn’t heard of Mendocino other than it was in California but three lines give the clue.

“Rise up over the Rockies and down on into California
Out to where but the rocks remains
And let the sun set on the ocean

A quick look on Google Earth shows the most amazing setting


and does this not fit the words perfectly!

Enough of my words.

I have loved the music of the McGarrigles for more than 30 years and this I shall continue to do despite Kate’s leaving.

Kate McGarrigle   6 Feb 1946 – 18 Jan 2010

Thank you, Kate


Well, that’s it for another week.  Tune in again next week and thanks for listening.



  1. What a lovely tribute! Thank you from a French-Canadian also born in Montréal. The McGarrigle Sisters' mother was Gabrielle Latrémouille. You couldn't be more Québecoise than that. They grew up in St-Sauveur, in the Laurentians. I heard them, first, with Le Trio Canadien in the 60s. We loved them instantly. Whether in French, or English, they spoke our language, our way-of-life, and they sang with our heart. They got the Order of Canada in 1994, and the Governor General's Performing Arts Award in 2004. When Kate died, we (of that generation) felt we had lost a sister.

    Complainte pour Ste Catherine (Lament for Ste Catherine) is a humourous monologue on life's tribulations. It's spoken (in French slang) by someone walking on Ste Catherine, the main commercial street of Montréal. It's very amusing. It mentions Hockey Night on Sunday. It's the favourite sport of Montréal!

    It ends:
    We've been in politics for a long time
    Twenty years of war against mosquitos.
    Don't believe that we're not Christians
    On Sundays we walk our dogs.

    I could translate the whole song for you if you wish. Thank you for this moving post.

  2. Claudia Thank you! Your praise means a lot to me!

    Yes, please! If it really isn't too much trouble could you translate the song for me.

  3. Claudia I meant to mention that,

    "Whether in French, or English, they spoke our language, our way-of-life, and they sang with our heart."

    is so poetic!

  4. Lament for Ste-Catherine

    Me, I walk along Ste-Catherine
    Getting the warmth from the Métro
    I don't look myself through shop windows
    When it's thirty below zero

    We've been in politics for a long time
    Twenty years of war against mosquitos

    I don't feel intrepid
    When it snows I don't go skiing
    I don't have a motel in the Laurentians
    Sunday night is hockey night

    We've been in politics for a long time
    Twenty years of war against mosquitos

    Don't think that I'm a fool
    Because I don't drive a convertible
    The glory is fairly useless
    At the price of gas it's too painful

    We've been in politics for a long time
    Twenty years of war against mosquitos

    We're all brothers, and it so happens
    That we've always had a good time
    Because we're on the earth of men
    With the women and the children

    We've been in politics for a long time
    Twenty years of war against mosquitos

    Don't believe that we're not Christians
    On Sundays we walk our dogs.
    La La La La La La La La La
    La La La La La La La La La
    Words by Philippe Tatartcheff, Music by Anna McGarrigle

  5. Hi! Calum - I'm always a bit late going to bed on Saturday. I was very happy to do this. It was fun. It's not perfect. Slang French is a bit hard to translate. The song is a good description of Montreal's life: the stores on Ste-Catherine street, cold in winter, mosquitos in summer, hockey night on Sunday...

    If you want the lyrics in French, I'll be glad to write them down. Or email them if you prefer.I've been singing the song with the Sisters all evening.

    Thank you for your appreciation. Cheers! :)

  6. A touching tribute, Calum. Am I imagining it or are you happier these days? Perhaps the opposite and it is spurring you to greater blogging feats.

    Don't take this the wrong way but you're now becoming a daily "must read".

  7. James
    Yes, I am happier,much happier than I was at the end of 2008 when I retired from blogging. Probably I'm happier than I should be given the problems / issues we have but I have hope whereas a year ago I was mired / stuck.

    Now I'm not fighting NHS Lothian to get help for Mrs Carr: her new NHS locale is understanding and she is receiving great private but free counselling. There is a long road for Mrs Carr yet but, at least, I am not on edge all day every day.

    My blogging then reflected my state of mind. My current blogging reflects much more of my personality than did my old blogs although I do feel that more thoughtful posts are missing.

    I'm not going to push for these "better" posts: just going with the flow and if that brings you in each day then I must be doing something right.

    Thanks, James

  8. Claudia


    I have now found the French words on the web.

    Again, so many thanks for your efforts and your kind words.

  9. Calum - Also just found the lyrics on the web. English a bit different than mine for a few words. But not much as they are both a literal translation. Some comments on YouTube also helped me a lot. Truly a fun song. And singing along with the Sisters is very enjoyable. Again, a great post. I'll share it with my family in Montréal. Cheers!

  10. Claudia,

    Thanks for sharing this with your family. That means a lot to me but says much much more about the Sisters.