Jonathan Law returns to The Dabbler with the first in an occasional series looking at people who chose to disappear… Here he tells the remarkable tale of folk singer Shelagh McDonald…
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
(Philip Larkin: ‘Poetry of Departures’)
Whatever else they may have been, the 1970s were the great era of the disappearing act: people chucking up and clearing off, audaciously and elementally and too often disastrously and pathetically walking out of their own lives. Most obviously, there is the long, weird list of celebrity disappearances – a trend that began with Harold Holt’s ill-fated dip from a Queensland beach at the end of 1967, peaked in the famous cases of Lucan (1974), Stonehouse (1974), and Perrin (1976), and found a fitting sort of close when L. Ron Hubbard, head of the worldwide Scientologist empire, successfully disappeared himself in the early 1980s.
Less well known but hardly less intriguing are a clutch of stories involving figures from the worlds of music, literature, and art, some of which I mean to explore in this sporadic series of posts. Here we are dealing not with any great scandals or secrets but with people who for reasons of their own chose to step aside from the world, leaving little or no clue as to their fate, whereabouts, or motives. I suppose it happens all the time, but there seems to have been a heck of a lot of it about back then, in the days of the maxi coat and the Barber Boom and the Yom Kippur War. Doubtless the drugs played a part, as did the angry mad utopian politics and the fashionable interest in fringe religions. But surely these stories point to something still more pervasive – a general sense of weightlessness, a feeling that anything could be imagined and attempted, anything (or anyone) left behind.
As Larkin realized, we can’t help loving this stuff, even as it saddens and alarms: such cases provide endless grist to the imagination as well as succour to the daydreamer or escapist or ratfink deserter in us all. Deplore it as we may, the idea of making such a move in our own lives exerts its vertiginous pull – the almost seductive, nearly impossible idea of drawing a line under everything and starting out over.
Although bewilderingly sudden and complete, the disappearance of singer-songwriter Shelagh McDonald in 1972 was hardly unique for its time and milieu. The British folk-rock scene of the early 1970s seems to have been awash with mysterious, alarmingly free-spirited women, a remarkable number of whom walked out on burgeoning careers in order to disappear in one way or another. There’s the gossamer-voiced Vashti Bunyan, who famously turned her back on a conventional recording career to travel the roads in a horse-drawn caravan, retreating to the Hebrides and then the far shores of Ireland before disappearing off everyone’s radar for 35 years. There’s also the very strange Anne Briggs, another one-time caravan dweller, who fled in panic from her one major gig (at the Albert Hall) and gave up making records and then any kind of public performance when she decided that she hated the sound of her own voice. By most accounts, Briggs was lucky not to have checked out more permanently: apart from prodigious drinking, her hobbies included climbing and jumping off builders’ scaffolding. On another occasion, she is said to have leapt impulsively from Malin Head in order to commune with the seals.
A strange sort of disappearance would also befall Briggs’s only real rival as the English folk voice of the 1960s – the more down-to-earth and stolid seeming Shirley Collins, a woman once described (admiringly) as having a voice like a potato. Collins was appearing in the National Theatre’s famous production of Lark Rise (1978) when the adultery of her husband (Ashley Hutchings, ex of Fairport and Steeleye) brought on an attack of ‘acute hysterical dysphonia’ – a mysterious psychosomatic condition that completely destroyed her singing voice. She would never give a concert or make a recording again. Almost unbelievably, the same rare condition struck Linda Thompson when Richard T. left her in 1982: she was unable to speak for a year and barely sang for 20. Her remarkable comeback in 2002 was made possible by a regime of Botox injections directly in the throat.
Lastly, and perhaps most hauntingly of all, there are the weirdly contrasting fates of the two female members of the Incredible String Band: Christine ‘Licorice’ McKechnie and Rose Simpson. Licorice, as she was always known, joined the Church of Scientology in the late 1960s, left the band in 1972, and drifted to California, where she apparently ended up sleeping rough. In 1990 she moved to Arizona and on a certain day walked out into the desert alone, from which point nothing is certainly known of her (although sources claiming private knowledge insist she is still alive). Simpson’s dance to the music of time was if anything more peculiar: after a similar fling with the Scientologists she disappeared into private life for some 20 years before re-emerging, quite wonderfully, as the lady mayoress of Aberystwyth in 1994.
On the face of it, Shelagh McDonald hardly belongs in this menagerie; those who knew her best recall a shy, serious-minded woman with no taste for wild living. Although little is known of her early life, it seems she enjoyed an impeccably bourgeois upbringing in the nice part of Edinburgh, where her parents were devout Christian Scientists. Shelagh’s singing voice is often compared to the young Joni Mitchell: but when she spoke it was pure Jean Brodie. At the end of the 1960s she made her way south to Bristol, drawn by the vibrant folk scene around the Troubadour club in Clifton. Here she made two crucial contacts: the guitarist Keith Christmas, who became her collaborator and on-off boyfriend, and the impresario Sandy Robertson, later the manager of Steeleye Span. At this point things began to move fast – perhaps too fast – for McDonald, who was still barely in her twenties. Robertson whisked her off to London and set up a recording contract. Owing in part to her striking looks – she had the sort of fey, late 60s beauty that is invariably described as ‘elfin’ – McDonald began to attract coverage in the music press and was talked up as a rival to Sandy Denny. Fame and success were surely just around the corner. An assured debut album, Shelagh McDonald (1970), was followed by the more ambitious Stargazer (1971), something of a critics’ favourite.
So how good was she after all? During the long years of McDonald’s disappearance her two albums would become much sought-after rarities and change hands for silly money. Inevitably, it’s hard to listen to this music now without bathing it in a retrospective pathos – a quality summed up by one writer as “that frozen-in-time, Nick Drake-ish combination of doe-eyed beauty, singular musical talent and unsullied youthful promise”. If you could taste these records blind, forgetting the whole strange S. McDonald story, you’d probably say they show a heap of talent and more promise while being just a tad unexciting. They seem nicely representative of the genre – 1970s English folk-rock, shading into standard singer-songwriter fare – without really pushing the boundaries. The main exceptions are a handful of tracks – ‘Ophelia’s Song’, ‘Peacock Lady’ – where McDonald taps into a vein of dark pastoral that really does make you think of Nick Drake (not surprising, as the strings and woodwinds here were arranged by Robert Kirby, who did the same on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter). Sadly, these songs are not to be found on YouTube, but for a taste of Shelagh, here’s something else: a rocked-up version of the traditional ‘Dowie Dens of Yarrow’ that seems to me as good as anything Fairport Convention did in the same vein.
Excellent stuff, surely. But present-day interest in Shelagh McDonald owes little to performances like this and everything to what happened next.
One day in April 1972 McDonald walked out of her London flat, locked the door, and apparently vanished into thin air. Phone calls and letters went unanswered: no messages for anyone. As Sandy Robertson recalled in 2004 “I never heard from Shelagh, ever again. I tried to call her… but the number was cut off. She just vanished.” For over thirty years friends and fellow musicians would have no idea of her whereabouts or even if she were still alive. The most widely credited story involved a bad acid trip, a spell in hospital, and a rescue mission by her parents, who dragged her back to Scotland. Beyond that, nothing but rumours: she was working as a librarian, had fled to Canada, was writing children’s books under another name, had become a religious recluse…
With no more to go on, interest soon faded and the name Shelagh McDonald was forgotten by everyone except a tiny band of devotees. If she had set out to wipe herself from the public record, she could hardly have succeeded more thoroughly. All this changed, however, in 2004, when the Sanctuary label reissued McDonald’s work on a double CD; although the music was warmly received –the whirligig of time making early 70s folky stuff sound fresh and interesting again– attention focused mainly on the thirty-year-old mystery of her disappearance. Websites sprang up dedicated to tracking down the missing singer and, crucially, the Scottish Daily Mail ran a full-page story. Some months later a greying woman in her fifties walked into the newspaper’s Glasgow office and announced that she was Shelagh McDonald.
The story she told was intriguing, not least because it involved two quite separate disappearances. As suspected, it all began with some bad acid (there seems to have been some fearsome stuff on the streets in those days): “I thought it would be out of my system within 12 hours, but three weeks later I was still hallucinating … I was walking around the shops and looking at people who had no eyes or features, their faces were just blank. … I forgot to eat and was just skin and bone.” Out of mere self-preservation, she turned tail and fled back to Scotland. This may have saved her sanity but – like Shirley, like Linda – she found that her singing voice was completely gone: another case of acute hysterical dysphonia. With a return to music making ruled out, MacDonald settled down to a quiet suburban life with her parents, working nine-to-five in an Edinburgh department store.
This went on for about a decade before something gave. In the early 1980s McDonald fled the parental home, took up with an eccentric bookshop owner named Gordon, and embarked on a wandering life with no obvious purpose or means of support. After years of moving from one short let to the next, the couple effectively made themselves homeless and took to drifting about the Scottish islands, pitching a tent wherever the mood took them. Years passed again – six, seven, eight years in a tent – and Shelagh lost all touch with family and friends; only when she read her story in the Scottish Daily Mail did she learn that her parents had died with no idea of what had happened to their daughter. After making herself known to the Mail she did, however, ring her old boyfriend Keith Christmas, who had long assumed she was dead: “I couldn’t believe it when I heard her voice on the phone – I recognized it straight away.”
Somewhere along the trail, the singing voice also chose to reappear. Last month, at a small club in Camden Town, Shelagh McDonald gave her first public performance for over forty years.