A musical dynasty true to its art

Before long there will probably be a Rufus Wainwright song about his mother, the great – and now late – Kate McGarrigle. Rufus’s sister, Martha, might soon be working on a musical tribute, too. There could be something from Kate’s sister, Anna, with whom she sang down the years. A different perspective, more hard-eyed and regretful, might be expected from Kate’s ex-husband, Loudon Wainwright III. It is the family way – get the pain down in song, then share it with the world.

With the death of Kate McGarrigle this week, it is time to recognise that the little dynasty, of which she was the heart, is one of the lasting musical treasures of the past 40 years.

It must be tough being part of a family which is famously creative. It is difficult enough for a writer or performer to find his or her own voice without the pressure to become another harmony in the family choir. Somehow Kate McGarrigle’s family managed it, each developing a different musical personality.

Their achievement is not simply a reflection of talent; it is personal. The older generation, Loudon Wainwright, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, should, by rights, have been sucked into the great sausage-machine of the rock industry to become profitable, money-making celebrities. Each of them, as a matter of instinct, put the music first.

The new generation of singer-songwriters owe much to the family of Kate McGarrigle. It was they who, in their different ways, have shown that the best song is likely to be domestic – it gets into the kitchen, behind the bedroom door. They also showed that musical autobiography can be a messy, painful business. Loudon Wainwright’s public insights into the family’s private life must have contributed to the enduring difficulties between him and his ex-wife and children.

He saw Kate suckling his newborn son and wrote “Rufus is a Tit-Man”. He lost his temper with his children; “Hitting You” was on the next album. In their turn, the rest of the family have played the same game. Dysfunction, divorce, jealousy, booze, thwarted ambition are explored and exposed one generation after the next.

Another great gift from the McGarrigle/Wainwrights to young musicians has been the way they have celebrated being part of music’s great chain of being. However sophisticated the technology, however bizarre the culture of the times, they have connected, when they sing and play, to the past. The great 19th-century songs of Stephen Foster – “Hard Times Come Again No More”, for example, or “Gentle Annie” – have few more sympathetic interpretations than when the McGarrigles and friends have played them.

Perhaps a great musical family needs at its heart someone with that rare combination of talent and selflessness. Kate and Anna McGarrigle – beautiful, melodic, promotable – were never comfortable with the life of touring and commodification offered by the big record companies, preferring to raise children in a world of song, returning to the studio occasionally and on their own terms.

It is a triumphant story in which talent has triumphed over PR, in which the personal and the musical have come together to the benefit of us all.

Independent, Friday, 22nd  January 2010