Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Penny Lang: Montreal folk singer had a cult following

In spite of her talent, Penny Lang never achieved widespread fame and recognition for her work.

Claudine Sauvé

Things didn't come easily to Penny Lang. Some things never came at all.

In the late 1960s, she hung up the phone on Leonard Cohen. By the 1970s, she was a folkie out of fashion. And in 2000, a stroke interrupted her revival. In short, her career was of the day-late, dollar-short kind.

Ms. Lang, a beloved cult figure on Montreal's blossoming folk music scene of the 1960s, died July 31, at her home in Madeira Park, B.C. According to Nancy Howell, her partner of 29 years, the singer died in her sleep. She was 74.

Story continues below advertisement

In the liner notes to Ms. Lang's eighth and final album, Stone + Sand + Sea + Sky (2006), the producer-musician Roma Baran recalled the environment in which Ms. Lang excelled: the beery venues near Montreal's McGill University in the mid-sixties. "Penny Lang was on stage pounding on a big Martin Dreadnaught belting out a Bob Gibson tune with that unique husky voice," wrote Ms. Baran, recalling a summer night in 1964 at Café André, a bistro by day and bar by night. "Sweat was pouring off her and the audience was riveted by her performance. I was knocked off my feet, since women folk singers mostly finger-picked nylon-string guitars and had tweety voices."

There was nothing tweety about Ms. Lang. She played the room six nights a week, from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off. During her breaks, she would commune with audience members, all the while enjoying the refreshments available.

Initially her repertoire was composed of American traditionals, including Leadbelly's In the Pines, the slow blues Trouble in Mind, and the Depression-era request of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (which she sang as "Buddy, can you spare a dime"). Later she would update her set list with contemporary folk songs (including Tom Paxton's Bottle of Wine) and material written by Montreal songwriters Chris Rawlings, Bruce Murdoch and others.

In 1966, after three years of performing her regular $5-a-night gigs at the café, Ms. Lang began touring, ultimately ending up in New York's Greenwich Village, the folk-revival epicentre. There she played Gerdes Folk City and the Bitter End. One night a talent scout from MCA Records was impressed with her version of Suzanne, an unknown song at the time, by Leonard Cohen. "She did a really powerful and emotional version of it," Ms. Baran (by then a guitarist in Ms. Lang's band) told The Globe and Mail last week.

The label wanted to record Ms. Lang's version of Suzanne, but with an electric, full-band arrangement. Ms. Lang, an acoustic traditionalist, balked. The American singer Judy Collins did record the song for her album In My Life, thus exposing Mr. Cohen's material to a wider audience.

"I think maybe it was foolish, in hindsight," Ms. Lang told The Globe in 2006, speaking about Suzanne and her decision to resist the flourishing folk-rock fashion. "I don't know. But I don't think I could have handled the kind of success that would have brought me."

It wasn't the only time Ms. Lang missed out on a brush with Mr. Cohen. The story goes that she had been approached for guitar lessons by the young Montreal poet, who had just started playing guitar at summer camp. "When Leonard called he said, 'I'm Leonard Cohen. I was told you'd teach me guitar,'" Ms. Lang once told an interviewer. "I said, 'Not today. I'm very depressed' and I hung up on him. It was the last time we spoke. I didn't know who he was, and I wasn't a guitar teacher."

Story continues below advertisement

She wasn't a songwriter either. Seeing that folk music at the time was moving in a singer-songwriter direction, Ms. Lang decided to leave New York and return to Montreal.

On the scene there by that time was the American Jesse Winchester, who arrived in Montreal not long after receiving a draft notice for U.S. military service. Mr. Winchester remembered Ms. Lang as a robust performer with terrific bonhomie. "I heard passion, I heard vulnerability, and I heard complete candour about pretty much everything," wrote Mr. Winchester, whose recollections are included in the liner notes of Gather Honey, a 2001 compilation of archival recordings by Ms. Lang from 1963 to 1970, on the Borealis label.

Mr. Winchester first saw her play at the Montreal Folk Workshop. After performances, the musicians would retire to La Hutte Suisse, a hangout populated by the city's eggheads and artistes. There the folk musicians would drink beer and debate deep issues. "We all became candid on Molson's ale," wrote Mr. Winchester, who died in 2014. "Penny was a witty and a genial drinking companion."

What Mr. Winchester might not have known, but what others did, was that Ms. Lang struggled with bipolar disorder. "They called it manic-depression then," Ms. Lang would later tell Montreal music journalist and broadcaster Mike Regenstreif. "I'd go from being very high to crashing into severe depression."

The songs in Ms. Lang's repertoire reflected her melancholia: This is All There Is, Howl You Winds, Start Again, No Place Left to Go. In 1968, she was hospitalized because of her condition.

Ms. Lang was a busy performer on the folk circuit in the late 60s. She played memorable coffee houses such as the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Le Hibou in Ottawa, the Riverboat in Toronto and all of the venues that had sprung up in Montreal, including the New Penelope, the Yellow Door and the Blue Lantern. She performed at major festivals including Mariposa and the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where she participated in a workshop with Muddy Waters, Son House, Junior Wells and Reverend Pearly Brown.

Story continues below advertisement

The grind was getting to Ms. Lang though. In 1970, pregnant (with a child whom she said was fathered by the American folk-blues legend Dave Van Ronk) and needing a break from the performer's life, she impulsively decided to self-promote a sort of send-off concert for herself at Place des Arts, a prestigious performing arts centre in Montreal. "It was a suggestion I made in a manic state," she later recalled. The concert was a success, but the high was fleeting.

Two weeks later, she gave birth to her son, Jason (now a professional musician himself).

Though she attempted to continue performing while raising him in Montreal, she eventually retired for a decade or so to Morin Heights, Que., an hour's drive north of Montreal. There she played gigs at Rose's Cantina. "That was a very important place for me at that time," Ms. Lang told The Globe, "because I was a mom and was getting back my mental health."

The move to rural Quebec was a radical departure for Ms. Lang, a natural-born entertainer.

Penelope Lang was born into a musical family in east-end Montreal on July 15, 1942. She began performing publicly as an adolescent, backing her Scottish-born father, John, on rhythm guitar at Legion halls around Montreal. Young Penny and her father also were part of a band with four cousins that would play community events and join in on a Vaudeville-styled revue that played prisons and hospitals.

"It was like an Ed Sullivan Show," Ms. Lang would later recall. "We had everything from comedians to jugglers and tap dancers. It was great training."

(Scot Lang, a younger brother of Ms. Lang, was a gifted guitarist and a professional musician who died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2007. He was 54.)

Ms. Lang left school after Grade 9, eventually landing a job as a secretary at a YMCA. It happened that the wife of the YMCA's program director was Maureen McBride, a teacher and sing-along enthusiast who would serve as a mentor to the teenaged Ms. Lang.

Ms. McBride taught her protégée folk songs, and the pair would lead children in the group-singing of back-of-the-school-bus staples. Meanwhile, Ms. Lang became enamoured with the contemporary folk scene and began listening to the recordings of Pete Seeger, Odetta and others of that ilk. Emerging songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs made an impression as well.

In 1963, at age 21, Ms. Lang joined the ranks of her heroes, as a professional musician, when she landed the gig at Café André.

After her hiatus in the 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Lang re-emerged in Montreal in 1988. She began writing her own material and released a series of albums on the small She-Wolf label. Perhaps the song most associated with her is Ain't Life Sweet, an easy-going contemplation.

Though Ms. Lang became a fixture on the Canadian and international folk circuit, her debut with Canada's top folk music label, Borealis, was delayed by a stroke in 2000.

But she recovered. In a review of a concert by Ms. Lang at Hugh's Room in Toronto in 2001, The Globe's Alan Niester noted changes in the singer, then age 59. "She had an infectious smile and a short, grey fringe of hair where the long, brown tresses once hung. And the sweet, innocent vocal style of 1963 has given way to something more akin to a rasp."

The title of Ms. Lang's Stone + Sand + Sea + Sky album, on Borealis in 2006, referred to her move from Montreal to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Speaking to The Globe that year, she summed up her career simply. "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."

On that final point, her fans and peers would respectfully disagree.

Ms. Lang leaves her partner, Ms. Howell; son, Jason Lang; brother, Pat Lang; and two grandchildren.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.