by Lindsay Cobb
The first thing to strike you about Penny Lang, twenty-one years old in 1963, is the expressiveness in her voice. Singing the traditional ballad In the Pines, she sounds already full of sad wisdom beyond her years. Later, when she sings Trouble in Mind - "You been a hard-hearted poppa, you treated me so unkind, I'm gonna be a hard-hearted momma, gonna make you lose your mind" - you can tell by the way she spits out the words that she's said them to someone before, perhaps more than once. Clearly this is the voice of a woman not to be messed with, but also the voice of a woman who has seen hard times, and it's only by the grace of whatever she calls a higher power that she's come through.
Penny Lang seems virtually unknown here in the United States, although in the Sixties and Seventies she was a driving force on the Montreal folk music scene, and an inspiration to scores of performers who carried on after Lang herself had dropped out. The present recording, Gather Honey, is a compilation of bootleg tapes and archival recordings from her pre-dropout period, 1963 to 1970, with a few other assorted recordings from 1976 and '78. Rather than trotting out juvenilia or half-conceived out-takes (like retrospectives of a few bigger names), Gather Honey displays a talented and soulful young woman already coming into her own at an early age.
The full story, with all its shining moments and heartache, can be found in Gary Cristall's extensive liner notes. To summarize: Penny Lang came from a musical family and found herself a gig at a "bistro-by-day bar-by-night" called Cafe Andre, working six sets a night, six nights a week, three weeks a month, five bucks a night, for three years. Not a songwriter herself, she was a brilliant interpreter of other people's work. The time came when, had she made the right move, her career could have skyrocketed; however, motherhood, as well as insecurities and other personal demons, caused her to forsake her career, move to a cabin in the Quebec wilderness, raise her son, and take care of herself.
In 1988, Lang returned, having gotten her life together and her energies focused on songwriting. Since then, she has produced six recordings - a feat in itself since she had not released a single album in her earlier career. She has received much acclaim in Canada for these recordings, but the personal strength that has sustained Lang throughout the years is every bit as remarkable as her talent; without it, she could have been unfairly relegated to some footnote of folk music history.
Included in Gather Honey are songs by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Janis Ian, and Bonnie Raitt, all of which Lang sings as if they were her own. Of particular note are Sainte-Marie's song Broke Down Girl, a bluesy tune that could have been written with Lang in mind; Lady Nancy, a jaunty pop-rocker circa 1970; and Paul Lauzon's Start Again, a free-wheeling, stoned messiah of a tune with lyrics like, "The landlord retired forever on a pension of curses and dollars / While the grey flannel drunkard ran free whistling a ballad off key." Two bonus tracks, taken from a radio interview in 1976, find Lang in a more relaxed, whimsical mood, singing songs she used to hear her father and grandmother sing, as well as a tender, wistful tune of her own called "Papa Don't."
It perhaps goes without saying that these remastered recordings are not of the best quality, but the sheer passion in Penny Lang's voice comes through loud and clear. You will agree with Jesse Winchester's description of her as "a gospel singer with the blues."