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Penny Lang: Forever unplugged Add to ...

The detente between acoustic and electric is decades old. But for Canadian folk-music legend Penny Lang, honoured Sunday night at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, the decision not to follow Judas and go electric in the mid-1960s when the debate was still raging feels like the right one to have made. It happened in New York around 1966.

From 1963 to 1966, Lang went from being a secretary at the YMCA to becoming a central figure in the Montreal scene. Her regular sets at Café André near McGill University helped to establish the Montreal coffee-house scene. Even now, you can hear her folk-revival roots in her music.

In 1966, after three years of performing her regular $5-a-night gigs at the café, four or five sets a night, six nights a week, bigger opportunities began to beckon. She toured the region and inevitably landed in New York's Greenwich Village, the folk-revival epicentre.

Despite being among the second wave of young hopefuls, and therefore a little late, executive types at MCA Records came a-callin' and wanted to record her singing Leonard Cohen's Suzanne with some electric accompaniment. It was a fateful meeting.

As Gary Cristal mentions in the detailed linear notes for Gather Honey, a 2001 retrospect of Lang's earliest recordings, this offer to amp up couldn't have been more badly timed. It was right around then that an electrified Bob Dylan was being called Judas and was booed in Manchester (and most everywhere else for that matter).

Over the phone from Edmonton, Lang, now 64, seems thankful for having stayed on the acoustic side of the folk divide. "I think maybe it was foolish in hindsight. I don't know. But I don't think I could have handled the kind of success that would have brought me. I wasn't very smart," she said yesterday with a laugh. A lifelong Quebecker, she moved to British Columbia's Sunshine Coast about a year ago. But she was still in Edmonton yesterday, on the morning after the folk-music awards, where she won for best solo artist and best contemporary album Stone + Sand + Sea + Sky.

She writes much of her own material now. Originally, however, Lang mainly sang other people's songs, having grown up with a massive library of folk tunes in her head from learning to play and performing around Montreal with her father as a kid.

But folk, of course, changed. By the time she reached New York, mainly playing Gerdes Folk City and sometimes the Bitter End, the music was evolving into singer-songwriter mode. At that point, she wasn't writing her own material, so Lang decided to leave New York.

Back in Montreal, she once again was a star on the now burgeoning coffee-house scene and in clubs around the region such as Toronto's Pornographic Onion. But in the late 1960s, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she retired for 10 years or so to Morin Heights, Que., an hour's drive north of Montreal, to take care of her baby boy and play regular gigs at a little café that was called Rose's Cantina (itself a legendary spot in the region's folk-hippy historic geography).

"That was a very important place for me at that time, because I was a mom and was getting back my mental health. That's where I played at the time for years," Lang said. "And then I came back."

Back in Montreal by the late 1980s, she returned to music professionally and has been a regular on the Canadian and international folk circuit since, continually gaining accolades. "I just play guitar, and I sing what I like. And I've always just done that. To make it any more than that is kind of silly.

"[I've]gotten classified as a folk singer and a blues singer and a gospel singer, and a this and a that. But I'm just a girl with a guitar -- now just an older one," she said.

But where would folk music be without the accompanying anecdotes? Bob Dylan famously has his, particularly from his time in the Village. But Lang has many of her own.

Her manager at one point in New York knew the manager of the Bitter End club, who knew Leonard Cohen, as Lang retold the story yesterday. Cohen called her up. He wanted to know if she could give him some lessons. He could already play. He just wanted to play better.

But when he called, she said, "No, I'm too, too depressed." A golden Canadian girl in the Joni Mitchell style, she didn't consider herself a guitar teacher. And it was around the beginning of her mood-disorder cycles. Yet she breaks into a laugh remembering it all today. "It's kind of funny, but I think he probably understood," Lang said.

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