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Northfield’s Laura MacKenzie: ­Celtic Music Wizard

Picture of Susan Hvistendahl

Susan Hvistendahl

Susan Hvistendahl wrote 119 monthly Historic Happenings columns for The Entertainment Guide between 2007 and 2016. After she moved from New York in 2004, she assisted the Northfield Historical Society as a researcher, editor and collector of oral histories. She has a B.A. in Spanish from St. Olaf College and an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. In 2014 and 2015, The Entertainment Guide and Northfield Historical Society partnered to publish three volumes of Historic Happenings about Northfield, St. Olaf and Carleton. In 2019, By All Means Graphics published Milestones and Memories of the St. Olaf Band 1891-2018, which she co-authored with Jeffrey M. Sauve.
Laura MacKenzie with pipes, concertina and gemshorn on settee from MacKenzie’s Gifts;

You cannot be much more of a “townie” than Laura MacKenzie, even though she left Northfield for a while before returning in 2011 to live on the same street where she grew up. Laura’s roots here are strong: 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. Laura has been making a distinctive mark on the local music scene while continuing her career of accomplishments beyond her hometown.

Laura with wooden mid-19th century style flute;

After meeting Laura a couple years ago, I started taking note of references to her that were popping up in the media. The Star Tribune called her a “Celtic music wizard” who is “one of the Land of Lakes’ best-known exponents of pan-Celtic culture on flutes, whistles, bagpipes, concertina and vocals.” I saw regular news items about her appearances at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, known as one of the best world music venues. Last year she was awarded a $25,000 McKnight Fellowship to pursue her musical passions.

her senior photo, Northfield High class of 1969.

I knew of her talent, and her sheer joy in sharing her love of music, from going to Traditional Irish Music Sessions, which she organized soon after she moved back to Northfield. They were held first at the Contented Cow, then Hogan Brothers and now are at the Rueb ‘N’ Stein (503 Division St.) every Wednesday night from 7 to 9 p.m. Musicians and listeners come to enjoy “jigs, reels, airs, the occasional song, good spirits and good company,” as the gatherings are described in the Entertainment Guide. Laura told me participants learn from each other by paying attention to what the others are playing: “They make notes and they go home and learn the tunes and come back – that’s just exactly what it’s all about.”

Laura (known as Laurie in her youth) started playing flute in fourth grade at Washington Elementary School, taught by band director Jim Anderson in what she remembers as a “chilly, dark, kind of dank basement” of the school. Choir and madrigals were also important to her in junior high and high school, under Yosh Murakami (an inspiration to many students from 1951 to 1968). “Yosh was very charismatic,” Laura said. “We all just loved him, would do just anything for him and sang well for him.” She also played flute in both the band under Russell Pesola and the orchestra under Paul Stoughton in high school. All in all, she had “wonderful, wonderful musical experiences” in Northfield schools.

Her Scottish heritage was not emphasized as she was growing up. In fact, Laura didn’t realize until she was in college that the Rankin name on her mother’s side of the family was Scottish. She did know the MacKenzie name was Scottish, of course, and she got a somewhat odd reminder of that from her father, Don MacKenzie, one Christmas in the 1960s. He 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.”

Anna Vasquez, Carolyn Boulay and Laura MacKenzie as the Supremes in Lorie Line’s Pop Chamber Orchestra, c. 2004.

After Laura graduated from Northfield High School in 1969, she went to Beloit College in Wisconsin with a double major in classical music and anthropology. Beloit had a system where students took a term of four months off to work somewhere in a field connected with their major. Laura went to Scotland because her sister, Rhoda (a Carleton College graduate), was living there. Laura worked in the traditional music archives of the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies and found herself “stunned” by the traditions found at “this treasure trove of field recordings of traditional singers and pipers and fiddlers and Gaelic speakers.”

Sean O’Driscoll, Frank McCourt and Laura MacKenzie in McCourt’s “Irish Stew” at St. Paul’s History Theatre, 1992.

Through her work Laura was able to meet “some real traditional Scottish musicians,” including an elderly piper that her supervisor took her to meet at the end of a long, narrow, “kind of mysterious” alleyway not far from the Edinburgh Castle. She took lessons from him “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. Laura said she was “enthralled with my lessons and I loved it so much that I went back to Beloit and wanted to dedicate my recital to this pipe major, George Stoddart.” Her approach to music had changed and she “wasn’t so keen” on being a musician in the Western classical sense, which created a falling out with the music professors at Beloit. So Laura cancelled her recitals for the music major and spent time finishing up a degree in anthropology. But her studies of anthropology and 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.

“Laura and the Lads” – Michael Bissonnette, Laura MacKenzie and Gary Rue

In St. Paul, an old Irish pub called O’Gara’s hosted Irish music sessions a couple times a week, 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 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.

Laura MacKenzie and Daithi Sproule

In the mid-’70s, Laura and her group of 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. Laura said she was just “compelled to do this” in order to play with musicians at their sessions and she called it a “golden period of time, really wonderful.” She was able to learn from many musicians “that are considered legendary in the history of Irish music,” most of whom are now deceased.

In 1984, Laura worked as a production assistant for Garrison Keillor’s show Prairie Home Companion for a year and could have continued working for National Public Radio, but “I wasn’t interested in becoming a lifer there.” She wanted to be able to concentrate on her music and impending motherhood, as she and then-husband, musician Dean Magraw, were expecting their son Dugan.

Andrea Stern performs with Laura MacKenzie as “Willow Brae”

Motherhood and music worked out well, with Dugan going along with her to many kinds of musical events and with Laura’s mother Marian helping out with her grandson. By this time, Marian MacKenzie was Marian Rolvaag, since she had reconnected with Karl Rolvaag at their 50th Northfield High School reunion in 1981 and married the former Minnesota governor in 1982. MacKenzie’s Gifts was closed and the couple resided in northern Minnesota before returning to Northfield a few years later, before Rolvaag’s death in 1990. Laura said that Karl Rolvaag by that time 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, as well. Laura said, with a laugh, “I got to be half-Norwegian for a few years.” (Laura’s mother died in Northfield in 2003.)

“Ross and MacKenzie” – Ross Sutter and Laura MacKenzie.

Laura’s talents have provided her with many unique professional opportunities. In 1985, she 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 a musician in the onstage 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 (1998), receiving a Bush Foundation Fellowship in Traditional and Ethnic Performing Arts (2009) and winning a 2012-2013 McKnight Artists Fellowship for Performing Musicians. Out of the 94 soloists and ensembles who applied for the McKnight, four of the seven finalists were awarded $25,000 to support their careers on the basis of performances in front of a panel last year. Laura said she “pulled out all the stops” to demonstrate her versatility on wooden flute, tin whistle, concertina, Scottish smallpipes and border pipes. She also sang, did some pieces accompanied by piano, percussion and guitar, talked a bit about traditional music, “all within 20 minutes. I worked h-a-a-a-a-rd during that 20 minutes!” she said.

Laura made use of some of her McKnight funds on a recent 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.

The project closest to her heart of late has involved producing the CD The Master’s Choice, which had its launch on May 17 at the Celtic Junction in St. Paul. The CD features 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. Laura said she has been thrilled to be able to honor McHugh in this way for his role in sustaining traditional Irish music in Minnesota, as well as for inspiring her life’s work.

Laura presents concerts, programs and workshops at festivals, schools and other community venues, both as soloist and with others. She has duo programs with Gary Rue, Dáithí Sproule, Ross Sutter (as Ross & MacKenzie), and performs as Laura MacKenzie and the Lads, Willow Brae (with harpist Andrea Stern) and Northern Gael (with Sutter and Danielle Enblom).

Laura’s partner, Gary Rue, is on the faculty of McNally Smith College of Music and has an impressive musical background, as well. He is a performer, composer, songwriter, creator of more than 70 musicals for theater and was music director of Hall of Fame singer/songwriter Gene Pitney from 1986-2006. He is known locally for playing in the rock group Sleepers. Laura said his playing guitar with her is “quite a departure from the music he spent his life cultivating,” and it was a challenge at first, but “now people are really impressed with the unique quality that he brings to this type of music.” The couple really enjoys and appreciates all types of music.

Laura gives lessons on an array of wind instruments at her office/studio at Celtic Junction in St. Paul (, which has become a community hub for Celtic traditional music since its founding in 2009, and in her Northfield home. Tracks of songs can be heard and CDs ordered from her website, which also has biographical information, pictures and a schedule of Laura’s upcoming performances this summer in Minnesota (Cannon Falls, Bloomington, St. Paul, Hovland, Hokah, Red Wing and Rochester), Wisconsin (Danbury and Bayfield), Ohio (Dublin) and Vermont (Huntington).

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 it is wonderful for Northfield to have the “Celtic music wizard” back home.

Laura MacKenzie’s Roots in Northfield Run Deep

Laura MacKenzie’s paternal grandfather Kenneth McKenzie was a veterinarian and three times mayor of Northfield

This notice appeared in the Northfield News of Sept. 21, 1895: “K.J. McKenzie, Veterinary Surgeon, Graduate of Ontario Veterinary College. Office at Dr. Dodd’s old stand.” Laura MacKenzie’s paternal grandfather was back in Northfield to stay.

According to his obituary, Dr. McKenzie was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1868 and had moved with his parents, Daniel and Belle (Isabella) McKenzie, to Northfield at the age of nine, attended schools here, then returned to Canada to veterinary college before heading back to Minnesota for good. In 1903, McKenzie was appointed to the State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, the same year he married Mabel Bierman Budd. He served 12 years on the city council and was the only one of 24 mayors in Northfield’s history to be elected mayor for three successive terms. In a salute to “Doc” on the 50th anniversary of his arrival in town, the Northfield News of Sept. 20, 1945, noted that “this scrappy Scotchman” had “returned to active practice serving Northfield community farmers during an acute wartime shortage of veterinarians.” He was thanked “for the constructive service that you have rendered,” with hopes that he could be “granted a bill of good health for another decade a least.” But it was not to be. McKenzie died Jan. 30, 1946, at the age of 77.

Laura has done some tracking of her McKenzie roots in Canada and is particularly inspired and thrilled by the knowledge that Scots Gaelic would have been the main language of her ancestors because she is “very interested in the language in the musical sense.” In the course of researching the songs, music and dance of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Laura was able to locate Dr. K.J. McKenzie’s parents’ marriage records in Upper Stewiacke, Nova Scotia, and these records led her to visit the extremely rural area of Canada where her great-grandparents, Daniel and Isabella, were born. She later found their graves near Rush City, Minn. (Chisago County) in a very rural cemetery. Laura had to scrape the sod off to read Isabella’s gravestone and was amazed to see the words “Born in Nova Scotia” appear, since it is “extremely rare” to see a birthplace on a gravestone. So, Laura believes that Isabella’s Nova Scotia roots were “very significant” to her. Laura said, “I was literally moved to tears and I sang for her a song in Scots Gaelic at her grave, as I am certain she would have come to Minnesota with that language still with her.”

Don and Marian MacKenzie, Laura MacKenzie’s parents

Laura’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Rankin, was a professor of rhetoric at the Univ. of Michigan who came to Carleton as a professor of English in 1928, when Laura’s mother Marian was 13. Rankin was a distinguished faculty member, serving as head of the department for 14 years until his retirement in 1946. A noted scholar and critic in English and American literature, he also authored a dozen successful textbooks before his death in 1953. Marian Rankin married K.J. McKenzie’s son Donald McKenzie (who later changed the spelling to MacKenzie) in 1936. A decade later, they became co-owners of the Valet Dry Cleaners in Northfield with Don’s brother Lauren (Lauren was killed in a hunting accident in 1953).

MacKenzie’s Gifts was at 405 Division St. Laura’s father, Don, hand cut the wooden letters at home

Don and Marian MacKenzie bought the gift shop of Marie and Barbara Piesinger at 405 Division St. in January of 1957. By this time, Rhoda, Janet and Laura had been born and grew up with their last name on display in the store’s name: MacKenzie’s Gifts. Laura remembers helping with “stamping the receipt books and making bows for gift wrapping on a hand-cranked machine. It was wonderful having a sort of home away from home downtown.” Laura said her parents had “amazingly eclectic tastes” and remembers sales of fine china and flatware, cards and candles, exotic teas and spices, incense and other goods from a connection in India, modern teak products and Whitman’s candies. Many Northfielders tell her they remember “with sparkling eyes going into the store as children to select a beautiful little china figurine” from a case near the front of the store, for themselves or as a gift.

Laura said growing up with the MacKenzie’s shop gave her an “especially strong foundational connection to Northfield which would last, and draw me back.”

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