Disappearing Acts: Shelagh McDonald

Shelagh McDonald

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,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

(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.

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About Jonathan Law

Jonathan Law grew up in Westonzoyland, Somerset. He gained a degree in English from Oxford University and has subsequently followed a career in reference publishing. His books as editor or co-editor include European Culture: A Contemporary Companion (Cassell, 1993), The Cassell Companion to Cinema (1997), The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable (2002) , Perfect Readings for Weddings (Random House, 2007) and The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2011). Since 2009 he has been a director of Market House Books Ltd. As well as being a regular contributor to The Dabbler, he has also written for the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. His book The Whartons of Winchester is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Jonathan lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.

13 thoughts on “Disappearing Acts: Shelagh McDonald

  1. Marvellous stuff, JL! There’s something suitably folkloric, even fairy tale, about these folk singer stories. Incidentally, the trigger for McDonald’s re-emergence goes to show that the most unlikely people can be Mail readers.

  2. Pearl’s a singer And they say that she once cut a record They played it for a week or so On the local radio, it never made it

    She wanted to be Betty Grable But now she sits there at that beer stained table Dreaming of the things she never got to do All those dreams that never came true

    Pearl’s a singer She stands up when she plays the piano In a nightclub

    So it was Shelagh McDonald in that tent on Tanera Mor, I thought it was Lucy Irvine.

    It’s a pity Cilla didn’t follow Shelagh’s lead, saving us an ear bashing. Very interesting post Jonathan, the description of the folk-rock scene brought it all back.

    Will the person who took Judy Tzuke please return her to the recording studio.

  3. Fascinating, this. I wonder if it’s still possible to disappear so easily these days? Maybe it’s a pity Amy Winehouse couldn’t…

    And that ‘Dowie Dens of Yarrow’ (great Folk title!) is stirring.

  4. Good to read you again, Jonathan. On the evidence of this first post, the series, however spasmodic, should be as big a treat as those blistering two-parters: John Ferrar Holms and Tarka the Rotter (not forgetting Anne Williamson’s contribution to the latter).

    I wonder how much the accrued record royalties amounted to in Shelagh’s absence? Probably not a lot, based on her meagre output. It would be interesting to know, but I suppose that’s a matter between the singer and her record company. And someone who turned her back on it all probably won’t tell us. Perhaps I’m just a nosy sod? I also wonder how many of her work colleagues in that Edinburgh department store knew that a highly talented folk singer, who had recorded two LPs, was selling linoleum on the fifth floor? And for almost ten years? Perhaps she used a pseudonym.

    The Dowie Dens of Yarrow is wonderful. I think I detect a hint of strain in her voice at times, but she was very inexperienced at that stage. I know Shelagh’s voice has, at times, been compared to that of the great June Tabor. I was hoping to discover that Tabor had recorded Dowie Dens of Yarrow and it was available through YouTube, allowing comparison, but if she did I can’t find it. One third and final wonder: If Shelagh had not left us, would she have been right up there with June Tabor at the pinnacle of British folk/rock?

    I simply can’t resist it: here’s Tabor with False False:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Njs3UBRj4zY

    • Lovely stuff John, Tabor a class act. I was up the Yarrow valley last week, we often drive to Peebles that way, the long way round. The upper valley is a wild, barren place, could be in the north west. This is Scott country, Selkirk the location of Bowhill, the home of the dowager duchesses of Buccleugh, and soon to be the home of the present duke, moving from Drumlanrig, all Scotts and Walter Scott (Maxwell-Scott branch) was a relative, his house, Abbotsford is nearby. Another Scott is Clarissa Dickson Wright’s mate Johnnie, from the TV series, he farms in the Yarrow. The oldest inhabited house in Scotland, Traquair near Peebles is owned by another branch, the Maxwell-Stuarts. It is possible that the ballad the dowie dens of Yarrow refers to the battle of Pauperhugh but more likely an incident in the lawless Border Reivers years.

      • Thanks for that background, Malty. I saw June Tabor on a broadcast from the Cambridge Folk Festival last summer. I thought her voice had weakened a little but perhaps we should expect that in a singer of 64. But all the old magic remained. That clip of False False is wonderful; I bet Jools was spellbound.

    • That’s an interesting point about the royalties and one that was picked up by at least one of the newspaper articles that came out on Shelagh’s reemergence. Apparently, the accrued royalties made up quite a useful sum and the fact that McDonald had made no attempt to claim them led many people to fear the worst.

      I think you’re right, too, about the slight sense of strain in some of her singing — it’s a gorgeous voice but to my ears she has a wee tendency to go just a little sharp (usually a sign of pushing too hard).

      Thinking some more about this whole story, I find myself becoming steadily more curious about Gordon Farquhar, the second-hand book dealer who abetted her second disappearance. He seems to have been behind the whole let’s-live-in-a-tent idea and it may be significant that Shelagh only felt ready to face the world again after he had passed away. Reading between the lines you could get the impression of a pretty controlling character — although that might be very wrong, of course. In one of her post-reemergence interviews McDonald admits to finding the Scottish winters pretty challenging, in a two-man tent; Gordon, however, was alright as he had once wintered in Antarctica. You want to know more.

  5. great post JL! One can’t help feeling for her parents not knowing where she was up to their deaths. I’m off to youtube to find out more!

    (pedantry that I hope doesn’t distract from an excellent post but Harold Holt disappeared from a Victorian beach rather than a Queensland one – I only know because I’ve been there and the water did seem very ‘sharky’)

  6. It is a fascinating story and, as you state, we are left wanting to know more. I must admit, like Worm, to a feeling of sadness for her parents plight in not knowing what had happened to her? But had the relationship broken down to a point where there was no way back? Or was the parting amicable: “Good luck, Shelagh. Be happy and don’t be worrying about us; we’ll be fine.” I always know with your posts, Jonathan, that I’ll be prompted to try to find out more. In the last few minutes I’ve googled ‘singers who disappeared’. I’ve no idea if Hereward the Wake would have won Britain’s Got Talent but his name came up. According to one source he went missing almost 900 years to the day Shelagh left, no doubt crooning as he went, without a backward glance:

    I’ll be seeing you
    In all the old familiar places
    That this heart of mine embraces
    All day and through

    In that small cafe
    The park across the way
    The children’s carousel
    The chestnut trees, the wishing well

    I’ll be seeing you
    In every lovely summer’s day
    In everything that’s light and gay
    I’ll always think of you that way

    I’ll find you in the morning sun
    And when the night is new
    I’ll be looking at the moon
    But I’ll be seeing you

    • Thanks so much for that Ian — she looks and sounds just great.

      By the way, I assume you are not the “hairy monopod flautist” alluded to by Mr Key the other day — but are you perhaps the guy behind the Ghosts from the Basement project and the splendid Weirdlore album, which has just arrived from Amazon? If so, respect …

  7. Fascinating post, but the phrase ‘acute hysterical dysphonia’ troubles me. All three women were probably afflicted by spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that presents as a sudden loss of vocal fluency due to spasmodic stiffening of the vocal folds. This is in fact the medical diagnosis given to Linda Thompson. Although the disorder is probably genetic in origin, it is often triggered by an episode of vocal strain or a respiratory infection, and symptoms can last for months, years or a lifetime. Since spasmodic dysphonia can be triggered by vocal strain, it most commonly afflicts singers, announcers, broadcasters and others who place regular demands on their voices. It is not psychological in origin, and affects as many men as women — hence my problem with the use of the word ‘hysterical’, with its whiff of 19th-century assumptions about the frail nervous systems of women. The country singer Johnny Bush, writer of the classic “Whiskey River”, and Darryl McDaniels of the rap group Run DMC, both suffer from spasmodic dysphonia, and I wouldn’t want to call either ‘hysterical’ to his face.

  8. It’s a very interesting article, Ian; Shelagh’s own words add greatly to an already fascinating post. If all goes well with her comeback, perhaps we’ll get an autobiography in which she will lay bare all that she can recall of that LSD trip, and its aftermath.

    It was wonderful to hear her voice again. I guess it was recorded in a small, intimate space; perhaps surroundings ideal to allow her to fully settle, but with a very dry, unflattering acoustic. I look forward to the output from future studio recordings. I do hope she achieves the ambitions she has set for herself.