Dust Bin Shelagh McDonald—Stargazer
posted by January 30 at 13:01 PMon
I wanted to call this post about Scottish singer/songwriter Shelagh McDonald something like, Life Is a Strange Trip or …And the Bad Trip, but that kind of cheekiness isn’t deserved by such an amazingly talented woman with such a sad story to tell.
As the liner notes in the execptional 2005 compilation, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme state:
Still, everyone loves a mystery, and it’s that frozen-in-time, Nick Drake-ish combination of doe-eyed beauty, singular musical talent, and unsullied youthful promise that conspires to make the tale of Shelagh McDonald such a highly arresting one.
Who was Shelagh McDonald? Not much is known of her childhood, only that sometime in the 1960s McDonald managed to make her way down to London where she got involved in the burgeoning British folk scene. Without finding too much success, the exception being two songs recorded on a long out-of-print BBC record entitled Dungeon Folk, McDonald moved to Bristol on the west coast, where the live folk club scene was thriving.
During her time spent there, she became what one could arguably call the farthest east “Lady of the Canyon” in the world. She started writing and performing her own music under the inspiration of Californian singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell. It’s during this period that McDonald probably met and started dating another soon to be popular singer/songwriter, Keith Christmas. They both got signed up under the management of Sandy Roberton of September Productions.
In 1970 Roberton booked time for McDonald at Sound Techniques in London (this is the infamous studio run by legends Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood) to record songs for her first album, The Shelagh McDonald Album. With this album she also worked with Nick Drake’s arranger, Robert Kirby.
The album got great reviews. Melody Maker even claimed:
We’ve been a long time waiting for a successor to Sandy Denny since she abandoned solo singing to join a band (Fotheringay), but at last, in the lovely form of Shelagh McDonald, someone has come forward to fill the solo singer’s place.
It was expected to do well because of the public’s insatiable appetite, at the time, for all things “folk.” But it wasn’t in her cards. The album was ignored by wider audiences.
In 1971 McDonald released one of the best singer/songwriter albums of all time, the exquisite Stargazer. Stargazer includes participation by such guest artists as Keith Christmas, Danny Thompson, Dave Mattacks, and Richard Thompson. There is not a single throwaway track on the entire album. It is a stunning piece of work one could easily compare to Mitchell’s Blue or Court and Spark.
In the liner notes to Let No Man Steal Your Thyme Keith Christmas talks about McDonald at the time, just after the release of Stargazer, when McDonald began to dabble in drugs.
That wasn’t really her—she was too nice for that. But she went and did an acid tab, had a bad one, and wound up in the hospital—which I can only imagine is the worst bloody place to be while tripping. Her parents came down from Scotland and carted her off—never to be heard from or seen again…”
That’s right. Shelagh McDonald disappeared forever.
In 2005 David Wells ends those same liner notes with this:
“As well as a fantastic musician, she was an amazingly nice person—an uncommon combination,” reflects Robert Kirby. Notwithstanding the fact that we’ll probably never know for certain, somehow it’s difficult not to see that remark as something approaching an epitaph.
Or so everyone thought.
In the past few years, tracks by McDonald have been popping up on all sorts of folk compilations by various tastemakers like Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, and her story was getting a fair amount of attention in publications as mainstream as the London Times and The Independent. With 30-plus years since her last appearances, many rumors swirled around about what had happened to this beautiful and talented woman.
Check out this fan website in the internet archives to see how determined one person was to solve the mystery of what happened to McDonald.
Then read his transcription of an article in the Scottish Daily Mail here to learn what really happened to McDonald in the intervening 30 years. What an amazing story. I can’t even paraphrase it. Just go to the site and read it.
As proof as to what a talent McDonald was, I’m giving you some of my favorite tracks to sample from her second and best album, as well as a track she recorded with Keith Christmas, on my blog.