Ellen McIlwaine We the People

Ellen McIlwaine Made Music For ‘We the People’ 50 Years Ago

By combining multiple styles, playing techniques, and cultural influences, Ellen McIlwaine challenged notions of genre classification and embraced music as a “universal language”.

We the People
Ellen McIlwaine
January 1973

I first heard Ellen McIlwaine on a snowy night in December 2020. Prior to the onset of Covid-19, a friend at college turned me onto the Numero Group, one of the country’s major archival and reissue labels devoted to “illuminat[ing] the often herculean efforts of individuals who sang, played, recorded and peddled their art to little fanfare in its day”. For all its miseries, the pandemic granted me the downtime and solitude necessary to explore Numero’s annals — particularly their Spotify playlists, which feature artists both within and outside of their catalog.

I sought comfort in the label’s “Femme Folk” playlist that night in December while recovering from an illness and found McIlwaine’s song “All to You“. I’d never heard of her, and for months I would awkwardly mispronounce her last name (the phonetic spelling being “Mack-El-Wayne”, my pronunciation being “Mick-Ill-Wayne”). But after listening to “All to You”, I knew I’d never forget her.

There was something about her voice — the way it concomitantly evoked the tender beauty of early 1970s Joni Mitchell and the raspy toughness of Janis Joplin  — that immediately appealed to me. There was also her guitar playing, which combined the hard rock verve of Suzi Quatro with the bluesy twang of Bonnie Raitt.

On “All to You” alone, McIlwaine fused several disparate genres (in this case, folk, jazz, rock, pop, and blues) into an aural amalgam that was surprisingly cohesive. Her lyrics bespoke a certain compassion (“If you’ve got no mind left / And you feel that you have failed / And you’ve got no time left / And there’s a million people on your trail / Don’t go feeling so by yourself / Baby you know I / I’ll give it all to you”) that proved rare and refreshing considering the typically violent state of the world in 2020. She was the tenderness of Emmylou Harris, the world-weary wisdom of Karen Dalton, and the chutzpah of Fanny all in one. She was indelible.

On the afternoon of 6 January 2021, as the grotesquerie of the US Capitol insurrection gripped the country, I snuck out to a local record store and lucked out finding a $3 copy of McIlwaine’s 1973 LP We the People, which features “All to You” and turns 50 this month. I’d gone into that store without any intention of finding her records there — I’d figured her work on vinyl might be too scarce to turn up in a mom-and-pop shop so close to my home. (To put it in perspective, one of the few We the People LPs currently available on Amazon ships from Canada and sells for almost $900).

Yet she appeared, almost miraculously, in a stack of warped Engelbert Humperdinck records. It was a sign from the universe to dive deeper into her discography. (It was also pretty ironic that her album’s title echoed the first three words of the US Constitution and came into my possession just as it seemed the nation was self-imploding).

I played We the People repeatedly that evening, stunned it had slipped through the cracks and wasn’t heralded as one of the great rock albums of the 1970s. Where was its spot on the shelf next to Joplin’s Pearl (1971) and Raitt’s Give It Up (1972)? Where was McIlwaine’s place in the pantheon of (and discourse about) great American singer-songwriters and guitarists from the album-rock era?

These inquiries led to an obsessive, sometimes unavailing, bout of Internet research for the next several months. Around this time, there was a dearth of literature about McIlwaine online. Her Wikipedia page was little more than a stub. Her presence on YouTube was practically nonexistent — save for two exceptional live studio jams filmed in August 2020 at Calgary’s Dog In the Window Records. And few major contemporary music publications had written about her.

I had more luck in scholarly search engines, which indexed articles like “Sharing Joy” from the May 1973 issue of the New York Radical Feminists newsletter. There, critic Lynne Shapiro included McIlwaine in a list of important women artists of the time as part of her review of the albums Mountain Moving Day by the New Haven and Chicago’s Women’s Liberation Rock Band and Cross Country by Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite: 

Both bands produce energetic, danceable music, though it’s not as initially arousing as ‘hard male’ rock. The rhythms are less thrusting, more intricate… The energy doesn’t beat at you, but instead works its way in to gradually vibrate the soul. By the way, much of this is true of other female-defined music such as Joni Mitchell, Joy of Cooking, Ellen McIlwaine, and to a lesser degree, Fanny.

There was also an 8 March 1973 New York Times review by John Rockwell of one of McIlwaine’s concerts at Manhattan’s Kenny’s Castaways, which noted:

Miss McIlwaine was born in Nashville, raised in Japan and educated in the South… Her voice is a big, well‐trained, controlled pop soprano that seems equally at home in country, blues, gospel, rock, Latin and folk idioms, and her guitar playing sounds as confidently virtuosic as anyone you might hear. But there are a lot of women folksingers around who can do all of that almost as well. What makes Miss McIlwaine so extraordinary is the way she manages to fuse all her influences into something unique. She is not really just an exponent of folk idioms… She is instead an original artist who draws upon those idioms for her inspiration.

McIlwaine’s musicianship and original sound seemed to impress critics who took the time to notice her. Her talents even earned her a deal with Polydor Records in the early 1970s following a short-lived stint with the psych blues band Fear Itself. So why wasn’t she as popular and commercially successful a guitarist as B.B. King or Keith Richards? As accomplished and revered a vocalist and lyricist as her myriad singer-songwriter sisters?

I grappled with these questions for months as my fandom grew. I scoured every record store I could find for McIlwaine’s other albums. I found a worn copy of her first album with Polydor, released in 1972 and titled Honky Tonk Angel, along with three more pressings of We the People, but struck out nabbing any of her other LPs. I even found her Facebook page in April 2021 and considered sending her a message expressing my appreciation for her work.

Then, much to my shock, she died on 23 June 2021 at 75, having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer six weeks prior. I learned of her death a mere hour after it was announced in The Georgia Straight at 8:45 PM EST that evening.

Additional details about McIlwaine’s life appeared in obituaries and tributes following her passing. According to most sources, she’d been living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada for several decades, gigging at folk and blues clubs while making the bulk of her income as a school bus driver. She’d recorded a handful of albums in the 1980s and 1990s and even collaborated with celebrated classical musician Cassius Khan on the self-released Mystic Bridge in 2006. Otherwise, she led a low-key existence away from the spotlight.

McIlwaine’s inconspicuous final years contrasted with the excitement and peculiarity of her early life, as chronicled in the “Biography” section of her (now defunct) personal website. Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1945, she was adopted as an infant by Presbyterian missionaries who soon thereafter relocated to Kobe, Japan. McIlwaine was introduced to a potpourri of musical artists on Japanese radio as a youngster — everyone from 1950s-era rock ‘n’ roll and R&B artists like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair to European classical musicians and heavyweights of the Japanese folk scene.

She graduated from the Canadian International Academy in 1963 and soon thereafter returned to the States to attend art school in Atlanta, Georgia, following a brief collegiate stint in Tennessee. But after rubbing shoulders with folk musician Patrick Sky, McIlwaine was encouraged to drop out and relocate to Greenwich Village. There, she quickly became immersed in the burgeoning folk rock movement.

Opening for artists like Muddy Waters and sharing bills with a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix at Café Au Go Go earned McIlwaine a small following ahead of her 1968 debut album for Dot Records as the frontwoman, organist, and rhythm guitarist of Fear Itself. According to her Washington Post obituary, McIlwaine noted in an interview with the Raleigh News and Observer that her bandmates “expected me to do the laundry after we finished onstage… the guys all had their girlfriends along, and I was relegated to being one of the girlfriends”. Fear Itself dissolved, and McIlwaine embarked on her career.

Honky Tonk Angel (which turned 50 in March 2022) and We the People were her first two albums as a solo artist. Neither charted on the Billboard 200 despite warm reviews. About Honky Tonk Angel, Robert Christgau remarked that while McIlwaine “falls into all the overambitious traps — she dramatizes, she vaunts her range, she improvises when she should just sing”, he conceded, “she gets away with it because enough of her grand attempts work. It’s good to hear a woman play bottleneck guitar… and the two times she goes up an octave on ‘God’ in ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels‘ almost justify a whole side”.

A capsule review of Honky Tonk Angel in Billboard concurred:

Ever since Polydor signed Miss McIlwaine several months ago, excellent acceptance [of] her club dates have anticipated an excellent initial LP release. The LP is released; the performance, both vocally and instrumentally, is excellent. The singer/guitarist is a paradox of gentility and grit in such cuts as ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’, ‘Toe Hold’, ‘Pinebo’, and ‘Weird of Hermiston’.

Sales figures didn’t match the acclaim, and neither album yielded a hit single. The 1974 compilation The Guitar Album was Polydor’s last project to feature McIlwaine. They included her songs “Losing You” (from Honky Tonk Angel) and “Sliding” and “We the People” (from We The People) alongside the work of Eric Clapton, Roy Buchanan, and T-Bone Walker, among others. McIlwaine was the only woman artist showcased on the LP.

She left Polydor soon after and recorded The Real Ellen McIlwaine for the small Canadian outfit Kot’ai in 1975. The album’s title and funkier, more experimental feel — best exemplified in its stripped-down cover of Stevie Wonder‘s “Higher Ground” and zany originals like “Lazy Day” and “The Secret in This Lady’s Heart” (the latter’s chorus hears McIlwaine repeatedly howling) — seemed to indicate greater creative autonomy. Free from the machinations of a major label, was she now able to share her “real” self?

Sadly The Real Ellen McIlwaine failed to find a significant audience. A one-off, self-titled LP for United Artists followed in 1978. With its sanitized pop production (listen no further than the disco-flavored opening track “We Got Each Other“), the album didn’t showcase McIlwaine’s stunning slide guitar work, and none of its songs were written by her. She admitted in an October 2020 interview with musician Tommy Solo:

I was told [by United Artists] that I was not going to be playing guitar… I don’t care for the album but it was a well-done album. It didn’t get very much airplay or anything… [and] there were a whole lot of circumstances over which I had no control… It’s not where my heart was.

McIlwaine wouldn’t work with a major record company after the 1970s. She asserted: “I’m tired of being on labels. It’s people with temporary jobs making permanent decisions about your career”.

It’s possible McIlwaine never made it big because she didn’t yearn for the fame of Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell and protested record companies’ and promoters’ attempts to make her a star. It’s also possible that because McIlwaine was a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and a woman, neither the music biz nor the record-buying public of the 1970s knew what to make of her.

As McIlwaine’s friend Sharron Toews would note in her New York Times obituary: “Ellen was wasted on the boomers… She should have come out 20 years later because the millennials would have been blown away by someone of her talent”. McIlwaine herself noted in 2006: “If I had a nickel for every up-and-coming young, white, male guitar player I’ve opened for over the last 41 years… I’d be really rich”.

McIlwaine’s Times obit elaborated on the sexism she faced early in her career. It quoted her admission that industry big-wigs told her: “Ellen, you can’t play guitar because nobody will be able to look at your body while you sing”. She would later tell the Sydney Morning Herald: “I don’t want to dress in nudie clothes and jiggle just to sell more records”.

It certainly wasn’t impossible for women singer-songwriters to forge successful careers as guitarists in the 1960s and 1970s. Mitchell, for example, always played guitar (or dulcimer) and even exercised virtually complete creative control as the producer on (almost) all of her records. But as MTV’s Bill Flanagan would point out in the American Masters documentary Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind:

Joni took [on] this really potent popular image that had been building for seven or eight years anyway, the ‘California girl’, the ‘Beach Boys’ girl, [the] beautiful golden girl with the long blonde hair parted in the middle… and that was incredibly powerful for people.

McIlwaine was not that “Beach Boys’ girl” with the “long blonde hair parted in the middle”. Her wild red locks, scant makeup, and “large, soft-looking” physique (to quote the New York Times’ John Rockwell) evoked performers like Joplin and “Mama” Cass Elliott — not the glammed-up, stick-thin songstresses that dominated much of the era.

But the industry already had Joplin and Elliott, and it was rare that either obscured her appearance with a “masculine” instrument. They were principally vocalists. McIlwaine did it all — sing, compose, shred guitar — with a no-holds-barred approach and without conforming to the music biz’s blinkered beauty or fatphobic body standards. I reckon most A&R people lacked the nerve to promote her as a result.

There was also the challenge of categorizing McIlwaine’s sound. Her early multicultural life — from growing up in Japan to cutting her teeth on New York City’s coffeehouse circuit in her early twenties — infused her creative output with a worldly curiosity and eclecticism that eschewed easy definition. As the Washington Post’s Joseph Helguera prophesied in 1975:

Perhaps she is rock’s foremost female guitarist, perhaps fame will take her to concert halls and recording contracts on major labels, but it seems doubtful despite her abilities… Her music is too much herself, in its melody, in its expression, in its entirety. She is reminiscent of no one else, of no one else’s style, a musical genre unto herself. 

In a category-driven industry, where does an artist like McIlwaine (described by Roots Music Canada’s Paul Corby as “a citizen of the world who dwells authoritatively in transcultural hemispheres of song”) fit in?

No single radio paradigm (be it AOR, country stations, the Top 40) seemed to suit her unruly and imaginative sound, making her songs impossible to market. By combining multiple styles, playing techniques, and cultural influences into her work, McIlwaine challenged arbitrary notions of genre classification and embodied the idea of music as a “universal language”.

We The People exemplifies this proclivity with tracks that transcend not only genres but borders and dialects. The album’s B side opener, “I Don’t Want to Play“, is a catchy country tune that hears McIlwaine proclaim: “All I want is a real live human being / Knows he’s a man and doesn’t have to hesitate / Got no reason to try to make me feel second-rate.” But she trades playful romance for solemnity on “Underground River“, a smoky, down-tempo blues-rock tribute to her friend Jimi Hendrix that she originally recorded for Fear Itself’s eponymous album and later reworked for this LP. McIlwaine then closes her album with “We the People” — the Indian raga-influenced title track recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1972 — which hears her sing in Japanese and feverishly play her guitar like a sitar after telling the audience she’s written the song “for all of us”.

If “We the People” is “for all of us” then it’s no surprise We the People was the album I most encountered when digging through record store crates in search of McIlwaine’s elusive LPs. Unlike her debut solo album — which devoted its entire A side to a recording of McIlwaine performing at New York City’s The Bitter End and featured only two pieces (“Losing You” and “Wings of a Horse“) written by her — McIlwaine’s sophomore record featured her compositions predominantly, with nine of out its ten songs bolstered by polished studio production.

In other words, We the People is a refined and arguably more accessible work than Honky Tonk Angel. In shedding its predecessor’s reliance on other artists’ catalogs and the expected blemishes of multiple tracks captured in one continuous take in a live setting, it emerges a more assured and original musical creation. The “studio sound” here doesn’t detract from McIlwaine’s music-making (if anything it gives it a welcome shimmer) while the various genres and cultural influences featured on the LP make it wider-reaching than her previous work. Being McIlwaine’s second and final release for Polydor, it was also likely the last album in her career that had any chance (with major label backing and promotion) to make it big.

Her own songs here are exceptional. Earworms about searching for love (“I Don’t Want to Play”) and love at its most selfless and altruistic (“All To You”) are complemented by an unforgettable slide guitar jam (“Sliding”) and a rollicking album opener (“Ain’t No Two Ways to It (It’s Love)“) designed to get you on your feet.

Moodiest on the B side is the aforesaid “Underground River”. Unlike the 1968 original for Fear Itself, this version was recorded three years after Hendrix’s death from a drug overdose and hears McIlwaine deliver her enigmatic lyrics (“Will I ever see his face again? / Could I just pretend that this tunnel never ends? / Keep the memory of his face in my underground river / Secret place”) in an appropriately elegiac tone. She then primes our ears for the explosive denouement of “We The People” with the rhythmically complex penultimate track “Jimmy Jean“. It’s a breathtaking number that hears the singer-songwriter play guitar and race up and down the octave with enviable charisma and ease. She even yodels.

The few covers McIlwaine records for this album are definitive. Cream vocalist and bassist Jack Bruce was one of her major influences (he would later play on her 1982 album Everybody Needs It). Her interpretation here of his and Peter Brown’s song “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out Of Tune” (first released on Bruce’s 1969 album Songs for a Tailor) sounds fresher and more engaging than the original recording thanks to a “back-to-basics” approach.

Bruce’s version is ostentatious, with a cacophony of horns, guitars, and drums that tend to garble his lyrics. On We the People, McIlwaine offers a fast-paced but notably bare-bones rock rendition, free of unnecessary musical embellishments. Her voice and guitar take center stage, with enough support from Jerry Mercer on drums and Don Payne on bass to give the piece suitable structure and rhythm without detracting from her musicianship. It’s propulsive and infectious precisely because it isn’t leaden with (or aged by) the garish bells and whistles of Bruce’s original, which threaten to keep contemporary listeners at arm’s length. 

McIlwaine also puts a feminist spin on the song. Where Brown and Bruce’s lyrics read: “Judges shout you must slave to be a free man / Fortunately baby I am never coming back,” McIlwaine’s sings: “Judges shout you must slave to be a free woman / Fortunately baby I already joined the force.” It’s a small change but not an insignificant one.

Later, on “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven (But Nobody Wants to Die)”, McIlwaine flaunts her impressive piano-playing skills. It’s an up-tempo gospel blues ditty (written by Al Fields, Tom Delaney, and Timmie Rogers) that contrasts nicely with the A-side closer, the traditional gospel hymn “Farther Along“.

McIlwaine goes full a capella here with the Persuasions providing goose-pimple-inducing background vocals. A poignant number on its own, its lyrics ponder the purpose of life’s hardships and assure the listener that human beings will understand the meaning of our existence “farther along” (in the afterlife). Going on two years after McIlwaine’s death, the song plays like a somber and beautiful elegy. 

That McIlwaine is “farther along” proves particularly disheartening because, in the words of Canadian music journalist Nicholas Jennings, “her career seemed to be undergoing a renaissance”. In a 30 June 2021 obituary-career tribute combo written for the Globe and Mail, Jennings highlighted an upcoming documentary about McIlwaine titled The Goddess of Slide (to be directed by Montreal filmmaker Alfonso Maiorana) in addition to a 2021 Mojo magazine article paying tribute to McIlwaine’s career titled “Still Blazing Up the Bottleneck Blues“.

There was also mention of an imminent McIlwaine autobiography, with a sweet footnote on her website’s homepage that verified she’d been writing about her life and work for years:

Thank you all for your contributions to my Go Fund Me campaign. I had the freedom to work on my autobiography every day during July & August 2015. So far, I have gotten as far as 1970 and continuing on school breaks went over the draft so far during July and August 2018, making additions July and August 2019. It takes as long as it takes! Hope to finish soon. I couldn’t do this without all of you. Thank you thank you thank you!

The mention of “school breaks” in McIlwaine’s note recalled her occupation as a school bus driver and her role as a community member in Calgary outside of the music industry. According to Sharron Toews, “children loved Ellen, and she loved them… she would have had 12 kids if she hadn’t chosen music — if she had money”. Meanwhile, Jennings noted in his Globe and Mail tribute:

Ms. McIlwaine was kind, gentle, and open-hearted… After getting sober in 1982, she moved to Canada, living in Montreal and Toronto before settling in Calgary a decade later. There, while pursuing her career and teaching guitar and voice (including Arabic scales and yodeling), Ms. McIlwaine volunteered at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. For the last eight years, she drove a school bus — as much for her love of children as the steady income.

Perhaps most compelling was an anecdote shared by Cree musician Bebe Buckskin for the Calgary Herald, which spoke to McIlwaine’s gifts as a mentor:

She believed in me more than I believed in myself. She gave me a confidence that I had never experienced before because I know the kind of life she lived and I know all these things she accomplished and she is such an incredible musician. To get that kind of support from someone like her meant a lot to me.

Be it through her volunteer work, school bus driving duties, or willingness to take younger musicians under her wing, McIlwaine no doubt impacted the lives of the people in her community in a positive way. It’s a shame, then, that We The People (like much of her discography) is largely forgotten — neglected nowadays by major music publications and only played by disc jockeys and curators with highly esoteric inclinations.

Fortunately, some contemporary musicians and writers have begun to herald the album’s importance in recent years. In September 2013, Ariel Engle of the Montreal blues and avant-electro band AroarA went crate-digging for the web series Sound It Resounds. She selected We The People and explained its — and McIlwaine’s — influence on her approach to music:

I chose Ellen McIlwaine’s ‘We The People’, and she isn’t very well known which I think is really unfortunate. She’s so powerful and I remember the first time I heard her… I grew up with this wall of vinyl that was… immense. And over the years my brother would sort of mine that wall. And one day he put on Ellen McIlwaine and it was so unapologetic and raw that I had… a slight aversion reaction. Like her singing is incredibly varied and she has an amazingly strong voice and there’s nothing polite about what she does. She plays a guitar really intensely, she yodels, she sings in languages that are not her native language. And it was just so engaging. She’s amongst the few women that I keep as kind of… people that kind of keep me on the path of how I want to present music. 

AllMusic’s Mark Allan later offered a glowing retrospective review, awarding the album 4.5 out of 5 stars. He praised McIlwaine’s “brilliant slide playing” and “unfettered scat singing” which “hint[ed at] the fiery independence that scared off record company execs and radio playlisters alike”. He concluded that We the People was “a strong sophomore effort in New York City by a sadly underexposed talent”.

For the longest time We the People was only available on music streaming services in the form of a 1998 PolyGram compilation with Honky Tonk Angel titled Up From the Skies: The Polydor Years. Just last year, both albums were finally made available to stream on the Internet in their original and complete forms.

Here’s hoping “we the people” seek out Ellen McIlwaine’s music and give her the posthumous renaissance she deserves.