Monday, August 1, 2016

Penny Lang 1942-2016

I woke up this morning to the sad news that Penny Lang passed away peacefully yesterday at her home on the Sunshine Coast of BC (where she moved some years ago with Nancy Howell, her partner these past 29 years). She had celebrated her 74th birthday on July 15 during a visit with her son, Jason Lang.

Penny was the first of Montreal’s folk artists that I met soon after moving there in 1968 when I was 14 and she and her band played at Sir Winston Churchill High School. I would go on to know her well, seeing her at Montreal folk clubs like the Back Door, the Yellow Door and the Montreal Folk Workshop – and producing concerts with her at Dawson College and the Golem, the Montreal folk club I took over in 1974. In the 1990s and 2000s, Penny was my frequent guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio program and I wrote about her for the Montreal Gazette and Sing Out! magazine. In 2004, I did an oral history session with Penny for a Folquébec event in Montreal and in 2009 I hosted a “Montreal Folk Reunion” at the Apple Hollow Folk Festival with Penny, Willie Dunn, Ron Bankley, Bruce Murdoch and Marc Nerenberg.

Montreal Folk Reunion, Apple Hollow Folk Festival (2009)
As a performer, Penny was spontaneous, often improvising lyrics on stage that equaled the originals, open and friendly. Nothing was ever held back and her stage was almost always like a kitchen table or back porch session.

Condolences to Nancy, Jason, her brother Pat Lang, and all who loved her.

Mike Regenstreif & Penny Lang (2005)
The obituary I prepared for the Montreal Gazette is available at this link and here is a spotlight article I wrote about Penny for the Spring 2002 issue of Sing Out! magazine. The article was adapted and expanded from a feature I wrote for the November 17, 2001 issue of the Montreal Gazette.

Penny Lang

By Mike Regenstreif

Penny Lang, the much-beloved doyenne of the Montreal folk music scene, was in St. John’s, Newfoundland and about to start a concert tour when she suffered a stroke on April 17, 2000. “It was a strange feeling,” she recalled in a conversation last November, “it was like I no longer had any control.”

The concert tour was cancelled and Penny spent a week in hospital in Newfoundland before returning to recover at home in Montreal. It would be more than a year before she performed again. Talking with Penny, there’s no obvious sign that she’s been through a stroke and the subsequent speech and physiotherapy.

And in November 2001, Penny began relaunching a career put on hold by the stroke. Gather Honey, a new CD of previously unreleased recordings made between 1963 and 1978, has been issued and she’s begun performing concerts again, often on split bills with multi-instrumentalist Michael Jerome Browne who backs her after performing his own set.

Penny, who is now 59 and a grandmother herself, comes from a line of music makers. “Both of my grandmothers sang and I was very influenced by them,” she said. “One sang hymns and the other, who came from Scotland, was a drinking and smoking woman. She had a good time singing funny, goofy songs.” At home, both of her parents played guitar and sang old-time country music, Carter Family songs and the like, around the kitchen table. By the age of 10, young Penny was playing guitar and would soon be accompanying her dad when he sang at local Legion halls.

In her late-teens, working as a secretary at the Montreal’s YMCA, Penny discovered the folk music revival that was breaking out all over North America. At the Y, Penny met a woman named Maureen McBride, who proved very influential in the development of Penny’s performing style. McBride sang traditional folk songs, especially sing along songs, and used them to teach music at a summer camp for inner city kids. Penny worked with McBride at the camp, picking up songs and learning how to involve people in music.

A couple of years later, Penny happened onto a performance by the Mountain City Four, a now-legendary Montreal folk group that included Jack Nissenson, Peter Weldon and the teenaged McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna. “They were playing in a little coffeehouse called the Seven Steps and they just knocked me out,” Penny recalled. Penny became friendly with the group, and through them she was introduced the music of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Odetta and many of the other popular folk artists.

Inspired by the folk music scene, Penny decided to take her shot at performing for a living. She’d worked day jobs, she’d tried university, and felt they weren’t for her. So in 1963, at the age of 21, she auditioned for her first paying gig at Café André, a bar near McGill University that featured folk music.

Penny passed the audition and worked at Café André for the next three years.  It was a grueling schedule. “I did five or six sets a night, six nights a week for three weeks of each month.” The long running gig made Penny a star in her hometown. She started there as an unknown but was soon filling the club every night with crowds drawn by her stark but effective guitar-playing, her throaty voice, and most of all by her astonishing ability to connect with audiences.

But three years into the Café André gig, Penny had had enough of the heavy grind. “I was ready to quit and look for another way to earn a living,” she said. But on her last night at the club, Penny was approached by an agent for the Bitter End, a club in Greenwich Village, New York City’s folk music Mecca.

Working with side musicians like guitarist Roma Baran, harmonica player Don Audet and, briefly, pianist Kate McGarrigle, Penny became a touring musician. “I played in New York about four times a year for about three years,” she said, “at the Bitter End, but mostly at Gerde’s Folk City.” She also played at fabled coffee houses like the Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York and  Le Hibou in Ottawa, Ontario and at all of the gigs, big and small, that had sprung up in Montreal in the late 1960s like the New Penelope, the Yellow Door, the Back Door. Penny also played at folk festivals and was in demand for bookings at high schools and universities. My own first encounter with her was in 1968 or ’69 when she played a memorable afternoon concert at my Montreal high school.

Although Penny was in high demand as a performer in the late-‘60s, a recording contract never quite happened for her. Once, while performing at Gerde’s Folk City, she was approached by a couple of record executives who’d heard her sing “Suzanne,” a haunting song written by Montreal poet Leonard Cohen. “They knew it would be a hit, but they wanted me to record it with an electric band,” Penny recalled. “I told them ‘no thanks, I’m an acoustic musician.’” Not long after, “Suzanne” was a hit for both Noel Harrison and Judy Collins.

Looking back, Penny is glad now that she didn’t have that hit with Suzanne.

“I probably would not have lived,” she said. Penny didn’t yet understand that she was living in the grip of bipolar disease. “They called it manic-depression then. I’d go from being very high to crashing into severe depression.”

Luckily for Penny, her band mates Don Audet and Roma Baran realized something was very wrong. “In 1968, those two close friends dragged me kicking and screaming to the psych ward at the Vic (Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital). Later, I was hospitalized for four or five months.” More than 30 years later, Penny is grateful to Audet and Baran for their intervention and has remained under care for her bipolar condition. 

Penny also credits control of the condition with allowing her to find her muse as a songwriter, something she hadn’t had before. Her repertoire until then was all songs that she’d found from folk, country and blues sources or from the many contemporary songwriters of the day.

In 1970, Penny was pregnant with her son Jason, himself now a professional musician. She realized that her years as full-time performer were coming to an end, at least for a while. On a whim, she decided to do her last gig in grand style before giving birth. “I was driving with my band and we passed by Place des Arts,” Montreal’s high-end performing arts complex. “I had always wanted to play there, so we parked the car, went in and rented the hall.”

The concert, in the sold-out 700-seat Port Royal Theatre, was a triumphant success for Penny. “It was very exciting, it felt right to be doing it,” she said. Penny’s Montreal fans cheered her on and she remembers the night as a high point in her career. Two weeks later, Jason was born.

Life as a single mother was difficult for Penny. “I tried working as a performer in bars, leaving Jason with baby sitters, and it was terrible.” Over the next several years she played only occasionally in Montreal, in bars and coffeehouses and on the occasional concert bill [some of which, at Dawson College and the Golem Coffee House, I produced].

In the mid-1970s Penny and Jason moved to Morin Heights, a small village in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. Occasionally, Penny gigged at Rose’s Cantina, a tiny coffeehouse there.

Penny eventually moved back to Montreal so that her son could have the advantages of city life as a teenager. But, she’d only rarely perform. In 1989, she reluctantly accepted an invitation to do a concert at the Golem, then Montreal’s prime folk music venue. She accepted the invitation with a condition.

Dave Clarke was booking the Golem then and it’s his fault I became a performer again,” Penny said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to come back and just do one show. So I told Dave if he found a manager who would see me perform and maybe work with me, I would do it.”

Clarke booked the show and arranged for an agent, Heidi Fleming, to come and hear her.  Soon after, Fleming and Penny were working together and Fleming remains Penny’s agent and manager to this day. Before long, Fleming had Penny touring regularly again and in 1990, 27 years after her first gig at Café André, Penny finally recorded Yes, her first album. By the end of the decade, she’d record five more CDs to much critical acclaim.

Penny’s first six albums were all released on the She-Wolf label, a boutique record company operated out of Fleming’s office. In 2000, she signed with Borealis Records, a Toronto-based label at the forefront of Canada’s folk music scene. However, Penny’s stroke brought her career to a halt.

Making a new album for Borealis would have to wait.  In the meantime, Fleming put out a call for old tapes of Penny’s performances from the 1960s and ‘70s. They quickly began to surface. A performance at the YMCA in 1963, a couple of songs from gigs at Expo ’67, a couple more from the Place des Arts concert, some coffeehouse recordings from Ottawa, some studio demos and CBC recordings. As Penny recovered from the stroke, Fleming compiled 18 of the songs onto Gather Honey. It became Penny’s first release on Borealis. The CD will bring back fond memories for Penny’s legions of fans from those years, and for the new fans she’s gathered more recently.

And since the release of the CD, Penny is performing again. “Performing is something I’ve always loved,” she said. “I have a big heart for the music and I love passing it on.”


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--Mike Regenstreif

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