Catching Up with Celtic Music Wizard, Laura MacKenzie
Originally Published in the December 2016 Entertainment Guide
When I last wrote about Laura MacKenzie for our annual music issue of June 2013, I said, “You cannot be much more of a ‘townie’ than Laura MacKenzie.” She left Northfield for a while before returning in 2011 to live on the same street where she grew up and she has strong local roots. Her paternal grandfather, Kenneth J. McKenzie (the spelling was changed to MacKenzie by Laura’s father, Donald), was the only Northfield mayor elected to three successive terms and her maternal grandfather, Thomas E. Rankin, was a distinguished Carleton College English professor. Her parents, Don and Marian MacKenzie, ran a well-known Northfield gift shop on Division Street, called MacKenzie’s, for more than 25 years.
I spoke with Laura recently to get an update on the performer called a “Celtic music wizard” by the Star Tribune, which acknowledged her as “one of the Land of Lakes’ best-known exponents of pan-Celtic culture on flutes, whistles, bagpipes, concertina and vocals.” I had seen those talents on display last October when the Laura MacKenzie Trio (with Dáithí Sproule on guitar and voice and Mary Vanorny on fiddle) was featured with Paul Niemisto conducting the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra in concerts at Cannon Falls and Northfield. This month Laura is performing extensively with Billy McLaughlin’s SimpleGifts holiday tour, including locally at Crossings at Carnegie in Zumbrota on Dec. 3 and the Lakeville Area Arts Center on Dec. 11.
Laura can also be found sharing her love of Celtic music with one and all at Traditional Irish Music Sessions which she organized shortly after returning to her hometown. They are held every Wednesday from 7 to 9pm at the Rueb ‘N’ Stein (503 Division St.). She describes the sessions as a “gathering of folks who enjoy playing, singing and listening to traditional Irish music in a relaxed setting.” Laura said that the musicians learn from each other, make notes each week and return to play again.
Laura started playing flute in fourth grade at Washington Elementary School, taught by band director Jim Anderson. In junior and senior high school, she sang in choir under Yosh Murakami (an inspiration to many students from 1951 to 1968) and played flute in both the band under Russell Pesola and the orchestra under Paul Stoughton in high school.
Her Scottish heritage was not emphasized as she was growing up, although one Christmas in the ’60s, her father, Don, gave her an envelope with $50 in cash with a note that it was “For bagpipes.” Since they had never talked about her playing bagpipes and Scottish music was not heard much amidst the Scandinavian songs more common to Northfield, Laura accepted the money politely but was “kind of embarrassed by this present.” It was not until after her father died in 1971 that “Something snapped for me and now I play at least a half a dozen different types of bagpipes and never looked back.”
After Laura graduated from Northfield High School in 1969, she went to Beloit College in Wisconsin and was able to spend a term working in the music archives of the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies. She found herself “stunned” by the traditions found at “this treasure trove of field recordings of traditional singers and pipers and fiddlers and Gaelic speakers.” She also took lessons from an elderly musician, George Stoddart, “on the practice chanter for the highland pipes,” an instrument for learning piping techniques for the Scottish highland pipes. He introduced her to the classical music, called pibroch, as well as marches and reels and jigs. She earned a degree in anthropology but her studies of music brought her to the study of ethnomusicology, the anthropology of music, which “made me think about the context I wanted to practice music in, in my own community.”
After graduation from Beloit, Laura spent half her time in Northfield to be with her widowed mother, Marian, and half her time in St. Paul where she found others who shared her passion for traditional music. In Northfield she worked for S. Eugene Bailey, the Carleton College Orchestra director who had a rare music business downtown.
In St. Paul, she went to Irish music sessions at an old Irish pub called O’Gara’s, presided over by Martin McHugh, a musician who had emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s. “He taught us tunes and how to play for dancers,” said Laura, and she and others who were “hooked” on this music formed an Irish dance band called the Northern Star Céilí Band with McHugh. Laura played flute, Irish style wooden flute and tin whistles with the band from 1976 to 1983 in dance halls around the upper Midwest, helping spark a revival of this form. She also studied Irish step dancing herself.
In the mid-70s, Laura and friends decided to go to Ireland “to see if we were getting this music right.” Every year or so Laura (with or without companions) would “save up all my pennies and take a backpack and a tent and a sleeping bag and go over for a few months just for the music,” hitchhiking from place to place and playing with legendary Irish musicians. Then, in 1984, Laura worked as a production assistant for Garrison Keillor’s show Prairie Home Companion for a year but left to concentrate on her music and impending motherhood of son Dugan with her then-husband, musician Dean Magraw.
By this time, Laura’s mother Marian had reconnected with Karl Rolvaag at their 50th Northfield High School reunion in 1981 and married the former Minnesota governor in 1982. After living in northern Minnesota, the Rolvaags returned to Northfield before his death in 1990. Laura said that Karl Rolvaag had gotten through rough patches in his life, was still a beloved politician and was a great stepfather for her and a wonderful grandfather for her young son. Laura said, with a laugh, “I got to be half-Norwegian for a few years.” (Laura’s mother died in Northfield in 2003.)
In 1985, Laura was selected to be in the original concert series in New York City called “Cherish the Ladies,” which featured noted women in Irish music in America. In 1992, Laura performed for several months with Sean O’Driscoll (currently a member of the Irish Rovers) and Frank McCourt in Irish Stew at the History Theatre in St. Paul. The work was made up of portions of what came to be published as McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Angela’s Ashes. In 1996, Laura produced the music and performed as an onstage musician in the cast of She Stoops to Conquer at the famed Guthrie Theater. Laura told me that was the “best job I’ve ever had, for the wonder of working so closely and for so long with that level of professional artistry.”
From 1997 until 2005, Laura did extensive touring with Lorie Line’s Pop Chamber Orchestra. It was a time of Riverdance, of jumping on the “Celtic bandwagon,” and Laura said she was hired “as kind of a novelty/specialty act in her ensemble, playing pipes and some whistle and flute.” Laura found that she was adept at theatrical choreography and what Laura calls “stunt piping,” as she made her way through throngs on stage. Vast sums of money were spent on “fantastic costumes,” with frequent changes of clothing, jewelry, wigs and shoes. “I learned how to run in stiletto heels as well as dance in them,” Laura told me.
Laura has been given many awards and honors, including recognition as a Master Folk Artist by the Minnesota State Arts Board in 1998 and receiving a Bush Foundation Fellowship in Traditional and Ethnic Performing Arts in 2009. She won a $25,000 McKnight Artists Fellowship for Performing Musicians for 2012-2013 by demonstrating before the judges her versatility on wooden flute, tin whistle, concertina, Scottish smallpipes and border pipes while also singing, doing some pieces accompanied by piano, percussion and guitar and talking a bit about traditional music. She told me, “I worked h-a-a-a-a-rd during those 20 minutes!”
Laura made use of some of her McKnight funds on a trip to Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland she attended a flute meeting of 48 wooden flute players in a small village in West County Cork, with five master musicians of different styles giving presentations and classes. Even traditional music does not stay static, Laura told me, as playing styles are still evolving. It was exciting for her to learn firsthand from the players things which can’t be taken from recordings or YouTube. She also went to the Lowland Border and Piper Society annual meeting in Scotland. One of the few Scottish smallpipe players in Minnesota, Laura enjoyed the chance to get “kind of refreshed” with these players.
In May of 2013, she produced the CD The Master’s Choice, launching it at the Celtic Junction Arts Center in St. Paul. The CD featured her mentor in Irish music, Martin McHugh, playing traditional Irish music on button accordion with Laura on flute, whistle and concertina and Dáithí Sproule of the Irish super group Altan on guitar. Then, in the fall of 2013, Laura helped provide music for Steerage Song at the Theater Latté Da of Minneapolis, an account of the immigrant experience in word and song covering the years 1840-1924. The Pioneer Press of Sept. 28 wrote, “Laura MacKenzie’s flutes and pipes are especially poignant on Celtic melodies."
In November of 2014, the Irish Music and Dance Association had a tribute event for her and St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman declared Nov. 22 to be “Laura MacKenzie Day” for her contributions to traditional music in Minnesota. In 2014, she released a CD From Uig to Duluth which celebrates Minnesota’s Scottish Gaelic music legacy and, in 2015, Heigh Ho, The Green Holly, traditional Christmas music arranged with Celtic instrumentation.
For the past two summers she was honored to be invited to the Pipers’ Gathering in Litchfield, Connecticut, the premiere North American workshop for alternative piping, to teach Scottish-style flute and smallpipes. This past August she also taught Scottish-style flute and whistle, Scottish smallpipes and Scots Gaelic songs for a week at the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School held on Thompson Island in the harbor.
Laura presents concerts, programs and workshops at festivals, schools and other community venues, both as soloist and with others. She has formed duos with Dáithí Sproule, Ross Sutter (Ross & MacKenzie), harpist Andrea Stern (Willow Brae) and ensembles of the Laura MacKenzie Trio, Northern Gael (with Sutter and Danielle Enblom) and a new 10-piece band Brass Lassie. Laura described Brass Lassie to me as “my dream band” which had been “percolating in my mind for a good few years,” inspired by hearing a French Canadian horn-driven band which played French Canadian dance music. With her imagination fired-up, Laura decided to search for females who could fulfill her dream by playing along with her on French horn, trombone, bass trombone and trumpet (also flugelhorn) and fiddle. The project would combine horn and rhythm sections playing arrangements of traditional Scottish and Irish music and some from France. She handed out flyers at Jazz Central in Minneapolis to help spread the word about her vision and to recruit musicians. Brass Lassie made its debut at the Minnesota Scottish Fair last July in Eagan. The fair had such confidence in Laura that they wrote a grant to pay for the band’s appearance even before it was formed. On Nov. 5 Brass Lassie had an enthusiastic reception at its St. Paul debut at the Celtic Junction Arts Center.
Earlier this year, Laura had the opportunity to join professional storyteller Kevin Strauss in Rochester for three different performances in stories and music about “Heroes and Heroines” at the Community Education Center. She called this experience “stretching” for her, as they used music from around the world. Then, on April 2, she was pleased to do a program of poetry and music at the White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi with Minnesota poets Angela Shannon, Deborah Keenan and Michael Dennis Browne. That was followed on April 21 by an Earth Day concert at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls when she joined One World Consort, which combines a classical string quartet with a jazz combo, in performing arrangements of Celtic-inspired music, including some new tunes Laura had written. On April 23 Laura was guest artist with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Jazz Ensemble where some of her tunes were given big band treatment by the 40-piece band, an experience which she described as “very thrilling.”
Laura also had a Folk and Traditional Arts grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board which enabled her to provide workshops on Scottish and Scots Gaelic songs and Scottish instrumental tunes at her Celtic Junction Arts Center studio in St. Paul. She also produced two of the Scottish social gatherings called ceilidhs at Celtic Junction. It started with an open mike for anyone to tell a story, sing a song or play a tune. Then the chairs were pushed back for what Laura said was the “wild, good fun” of dancing to a Scottish band, which included some young Scottish immigrants.
Laura gives lessons on an array of wind instruments at both the Celtic Junction Arts Center in St. Paul (thecelticjunction.com) and in her Northfield home. Tracks of songs can be heard and CDs ordered from her website, lauramackenzie.com, which also has biographical information, pictures and her upcoming schedule.
Laura returned to live in Northfield for the “quality of life of the home base,” at a time when she still has the “strength and energy to keep bouncing all over with my career” while also becoming “a contributing member” of her hometown. She appreciates the many cultural advantages of living in a town with two colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf, which are “so open and welcoming” to collaboration with the community. And she loves being able to go out and about “without fear, for the most part,” having lived before in parts of the Twin Cities where “I would run from my car to my back door.” She said, “My first few months in Northfield, every day I could feel that the built-up layers of the city defense shell were cracking and shedding and falling into the streets as I would go for walks. A wonderful feeling.”
And, as I first wrote in 2013, it is wonderful for Northfield to have the “Celtic music wizard” back home.
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