Canadian folk music icon Penny Lang passed away in the early morning of July 31 at her home in British Columbia. Penny had celebrated her 74th birthday two weeks earlier surrounded by family and friends. It is believed that Penny suffered a massive stroke.
Penny emerged on the folk scene in the mid-1960s and her interpretations of folk, blues and Canadian singer songwriters earned her a loyal following and influenced many artists. She overcame some hard struggles and continued singing to the end.
Born in Montreal in 1942, Penny grew up around music. Penny’s mother was raised on a farm in Glengarry County, Ontario where she listened to her grandmothers sing around the house. Penny’s father was a street singer and step dancer in his native Scotland, and after emigrating to Canada he became fond of country music and the songs of Jimmy Rogers, and also learned Hawaiian guitar. When her father was taking guitar lessons, a 10 year old Penny developed a crush on the teacher and sat in on the instructions. She soon became accomplished at playing chords and would join her father onstage at local Legion halls around Montreal. The Lang Family formed a group along with four cousins, performing popular music from the first half of the 20th century at local events, prisons and hospitals.
Penny left school after the 9th grade and got a job as a typist. She became a secretary at the YMCA where she met Maureen McBride, a teacher of recreational singing. Maureen taught Penny the skill of getting people to sing along as well as sharing folk songs. Penny gravitated to the blossoming folk clubs in Montreal, immersing herself in the music of the Folk Revival and becoming friends with many of the artists in the rising Montreal folk scene. When she was 21,with her repertoire of folk songs growing, Penny auditioned for a spot at the Café Andre in Montreal and was hired on the spot. For the next three years, Penny held court at the Cafe and her repertoire grew from mainly American folk songs to the new songs written by her Montreal folk peers, although Penny was not yet writing her own songs.
When her gig at Café Andre came to an end, she began touring. She came to New York City at the invitation of David Wilkes, the manager of the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. Playing clubs like the Bitter End and Gerdes Folk City, Penny would later say that she arrived years too late. She was part of the “second wave” of folk singers following the folk boom of the early 1960s. As the decade advanced, folk singers were starting to write their own songs and Penny was still interpreting the songs of others. Executives from a record label heard her sing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” a song that had not yet been recorded. Penny was invited to record the song, but the label wanted to add electric guitars and Penny refused.
Returning to Canada where she remained popular, Penny kept performing and began writing her own songs, but as the decade drew to a close, Penny was battling bipolar disorder as well as alcohol problems. She was hospitalized following an intervention by her friends and eventually got her life back on track.
Penny gave birth to her son Jason Lang, two weeks after a pinnacle concert performance at Montreal’s prestigious concert hall, the Place des Arts. She tried to keep her career moving forward, but she found that caring for a new baby as a single mother proved too difficult and she put her music on hold. Penny moved to Morin Heights, a small village in the Laurentian Mountains to raise her son. For the next 18 years she would play occasional gigs at small coffeehouses. Money was tight, she eventually sold her guitar but her health improved and her voice remained strong.
She moved back to Montreal in 1980, performing only on rare occasions. In 1989 she was invited to sing at Montreal’s legendary nightclub the Golem, and the enthusiastic response from the sold-out club would reinvigorate Penny to return to performing again. Penny would travel all over North American and toured Australia as well, often sharing the stage with diverse artists including Utah Phillips, Ani diFranco and Steven Fearing. She recorded several albums in the 1990s with guest artists including Garnet Rogers, Mose Scarlett, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Moxy Fruvous and her son Jason Lang, who has his own performing career.
In 2000, Penny suffered a stroke. She recovered and would continue to perform. Her final studio recording, Stone + Sand + Sea + Sky, was released by Borealis Records in 2006. In many ways, the CD is a snapshot of Penny’s career- traditional songs such as “Careless Love” and “Let Me Fly”, songs written by friends such as Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels and an original song called “Diamonds on the Water”. The CD captured Penny’s diverse range as well as her beautiful voice and exquisite guitar playing.
Penny’s story was the subject of the 1999 documentary Stand Up: On High Ground with Penny Lang by Jocelyne Clarke. She received the first Prix Folqui awarded by FOLQUEBEC in 2003.
Penny will be fondly remembered for her work on the concert stage. Her intimate performances were filled with laughter, tears and a bonding with the audience to create a community through song.
Penny is survived by Nancy Powell, her partner of 29 years, her son Jason, a brother Pat, and two grandchildren.