Chaim Tannenbaum, whose parents had immigrated to Canada from Russia in the 1920s, was born in Montreal in 1947. His downtown neighborhood was entirely Jewish - the kids played on the streets in Yiddish. At around the age of 5, Chaim’s life took an unlikely turn. Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly had come into the household by the side door (proceeds from the sales of their 78s on the Asch-Stinson label went to the Russian Relief). Next came the Weavers and Pete Seeger, who exercised a deep and abiding influence. At 13 he got a banjo at a pawn shop and fashioned fingerpicks out of bits of tape. He borrowed his best friend’s guitar. An aunt had a mandolin she couldn’t play. He heard Sonny Terry in a local club and invested in a harmonica. At 16 Chaim began mingling with local like-minded folkniks, including Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Eventually he joined their group, the Mountain City Four (although there were often five or six), who attracted a local following and could pack small clubs. But, for the most part, playing and singing together was their social life, how they got along.
Chaim never considered having a career as a musician. He got a bachelor’s degree at McGill and continued his studies at the University of London, where he received a Ph.D. He returned to Montreal and taught Philosophy at Dawson College for almost 40 years. But while he was studying Mathematical Logic in London, Kate was becoming a professional musician. When she and her sister Anna got a record contract, they called on the old Mountain City gang to pitch in. So began a lifetime of touring and recording with the McGarrigles. In between teaching assignments and taking time off, he joined the band and never left.
It was also in London where Chaim first met Loudon Wainwright III, who had married Kate. The two had split (temporarily) and Loudon, trying to reconnect, had arrived at Chaim’s door, expecting a punch in the nose. The three wound up busking on Portobello Road. Over the years, Chaim has regularly performed and recorded with Wainwright, even occasionally producing. Loudon calls him “my closest musical cohort and confidant, a tough but fair and perceptive critic of my work, and in a way I consider him my musical conscience.”
Over the years both Loudon and Kate encouraged Chaim to make a record of his own. In the 90s Joe Boyd planned to produce Chaim for his label, Hannibal. Unfortunately, according to Joe, the project “ran afoul of an ever-narrowing corporate brief that was clipping my A&R wings.” And there was, despite the coaxing and support of his friends, a prevailing diffidence to put himself forward. But after he retired from teaching and moved to New York, the prospect seemed somehow more plausible. And last year when producer Dick Connette (with whom he had worked on the Grammy-winning High Wide & Handsome) told him he should make a CD, Chaim answered, without hesitation, “Absolutely.” After 50 years, as simple and sudden and certain as that. According to Loudon, “It’s a wonderful thing.”