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Shelagh McDonald - Return Journey

Shelagh McDonald made two albums that were jewels of early 1970s folk rock – and then apparently vanished off the face of the earth. Ian Anderson is ever so pleased to report that she’s now back among us.

Shelagh McDonald 1971
Photo: Keith Morris
Shelagh McDonald 1971
As cult figures go, few come with greater credentials than Shelagh McDonald. A wonderful singer, guitarist and songwriter, beautiful and with a lovely personality, her two LPs (Album from 1971 and Stargazer from 1972) shared musicians, arranger and photographer with her friends Sandy Denny and Nick Drake and were among the jewels of the early ’70s folk rock era.

And then she completely and comprehensively vanished for 33 years, as if off the planet. Vashti Bunyan famously went off in a horse-drawn caravan as part of the legend that aided her old vinyl’s price-inflation. That, it turned out when Shelagh momentarily put her head above the parapet in 2005, was relative luxury compared to McDonald who had been roughing it in tents in the wilds of Scotland for years at a stretch.

But now Shelagh McDonald is back among us, cautiously planning live appearances and hoping to record again. Whilst not exactly a fairytale ending – her emergence blinking into the second decade of the 21st Century was partly brought about by the death of her long-time partner earlier this year – it’s fabulous news for all the fans who have independently discovered her music down the years, and especially those of us who had lost track of a friend.

Now living in Lanark, somewhat startled to find herself owner of a mobile phone and, with the help of her local library, paddling out onto the waters of email and the internet, she’d made contact with old friend Maggie Holland in Edinburgh. Messages and phone calls soon flew thick and fast and in July she came down to revisit old haunts in Bristol, where she’d lived at the turn of the 1970s in the heyday of the Bristol Troubadour club.

I’d first met Shelagh around 1967 when she was emerging onto the English folk scene, playing typical folk club material of the day. We’d stayed friends when I briefly lived in London’s Notting Hill in 1968/9 and she was at Keystone Crescent over in King’s Cross, and continued when we were both in Bristol in the early ’70s. But what was her path before all that?

“When I was about 15 my parents bought me a guitar. I probably saw Peter, Paul & Mary on TV. Then I heard Joan Baez and wanted to be like that; then I listened to people like Isla Cameron and Dorris Henderson. And then I heard Bert Jansch – first album, Needle Of Death – and I thought ‘I wonder if I could do that?’ I played Anji over and over and over, to get every note.”

That was unusual for a girl back then.

“Yes, back then. You were expected to just strum and look pretty. Pretty boring…”

What were her first steps into playing live, I wondered? “Like many people on the Scottish folk scene at the time it was through Danny Kyle. He ran this folk club in Paisley and that’s where Billy Connolly and all sorts of people cut their teeth. And Josh McRae was around. This is where my parents put their feet down because Josh said ‘Why don’t you come round to my flat?’ So I said to my parents ‘I’m just going round to Josh McRae’s flat to look at his etchings’ – quite literally because I was about to go to art school – and they weren’t amused! So I went round to his flat and we played music – and his etchings were bloody good actually, beautiful pastel portraits! He was the one that said to me that I could do it, gave me the confidence. He helped a lot of people.”

Shelagh McDonal live, 1971
Photo: Keith Morris
Shelagh McDonal live, 1971

“When Josh moved over to Kirkcaldy, Hamish Imlach took over. Hamish helped all sorts of people, he was a marvellous man. At that time it was myself and somebody called Ian McGeachy – who later became John Martyn. I loved all the Scottish folk singers of that time – Archie Fisher, Matt McGinn, Josh – they were really nice.”

“I saw the Incredible String Band when they came to Paisley, the trio with Clive, Robin & Mike, I was knocked out by them. But the effect they had varied with clubs. The Paisley club was great and the Glasgow University one that I used to sneak into when I was 15 – but some of the clubs were the very traditional Aran sweater ones who didn’t know how to take anything new – even John Martyn didn’t get the feedback he should have got – it wasn’t what they were coming out to listen to.”

“So I started going out and doing floor spots. There were masses of folk clubs in the west of Scotland. I got the impression that you could make a living just in Scotland. Glasgow Folk Centre was reckoned to be the best club – up a rickety staircase with naked red light bulbs, bits of newspaper on the walls juxtaposed at exotic angles with the newly-appeared colour supplements, a bit like a speakeasy. There were very few female folk singers around then so I’d get lots of floor spots there for variety.”

“I was doing a gig up in Oban and I met a classical guitarist who later became a flatmate, Katie Stuckey – and she asked if I wanted to come down to London. This was 1967. So while I was down in London I was walking in Chelsea one day, and this big red bus stops and out steps John Martyn in his blue denim jacket and blue jeans and his curly hair, looking like a cherub. So we ran towards each other, sort of mock Wuthering Heights thing in the King’s Road, and he said ‘I’m going down to see my agent, why don’t you come along?’ So that was how I met Sandy Glennon. He couldn’t take me on at that time because he had Sandy Denny and he’d decided to not have too many female artists at one go. But he said ‘If anything changes I’ll be on the phone.’ The day she joined the Strawbs he called me up.”

“Then I decided things weren’t going so well, and there was a summer I worked in an art shop in Camden Town. Things stopped in the summer, the folk clubs closed and the colleges, and it was probably then I heard Joni Mitchell. I didn’t start writing until I heard Joni Mitchell, and I had the time on my hands then.”

Shelagh stayed with Sandy Glennon’s agency for quite a while, building up a reputation doing folk club gigs and making her recording debut on a BBC compilation called Dungeon Folk.

From fRoots 353/354, November/December 2012


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