For three decades and a half more, she was as much a creature of myth as she was a creator of music sublime – Shelagh McDonald was. She illuminated the London folk music scene with two brilliant albums, the simply titled debut ‘Album’ and the stellar ‘Stargazer’. And just a few months after the release of the second, she disappeared without a trace. For close to 35 years, she remained one of music’s great mysteries. In that time, all that she left behind were her two albums and some live recordings and demos/outtakes. In 2005, all of that was put together in one package, ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’.
The world of British folk music was looking for a solo act in place of Sandy Denny who had become a part of Fotheringay when McDonald landed up with that beautiful, clear, haunting voice of hers. Songs like ‘Rod’s Song’ showcased her folk sensibilities but she could add an edgy rock feel when she chose to, as on ‘Mirage’. And every time I hear ‘Waiting For The Wind To Rise’, I imagine someone like Flea taking the bass part. Ah! the possibilities. While Shelagh started out with playing traditional folk and country/blues tunes like ‘Street Walkin’ Blues’, both her albums – particularly ‘Stargazer’ – were distinguished by her own very strong compositional and songwriting skills. Take for example the musically ambitious title track of ‘Stargazer’ which goes way beyond standard folk tunes, and this piece of writing from ‘Canadian Man’:
He said that he’d left fortune, He said that he’d left fame
I left him on a busy street, And I wonder if we’ll ever meet again
With such a super-abundance of talent, why did she vanish, and vanish so abruptly and completely? The answer, when it came, was tragically commonplace. In 2005, after the re-release of her works, there was a slew of articles in the press. After seeing one such, Shelagh McDonald approached the newspaper that had published it and after decades she cleared everything up. An LSD trip gone haywire had left her voice ruined and she just walked away from it all, married a bookseller and went on to lead a nomadic existence.
I sometimes wish I had not known that final answer because it only further sharpens the sadness that her music evokes in me, the grief at the passing of what was once fair – even if flawed. I wish it were not so, but it is.
The world burns, she was only 22.