Album Review: Margaret by Jason Webley and Friends

Reviewed by Katie Cantwell

The story starts on December 12th, 1907 in Everett, Washington.

Margaret Rucker was born on December 12th, 1907 to a wealthy family and grew up in Everett, Washington. She would later attend the University of Washington, then marry a military officer, Justus Armstrong, and move to California. She would be caught in a car crash that made the newspaper, have two sons, see her husband decorated by the military, and later witness his death. Throughout, she wrote poignant, beautiful poetry. She died on June 18th, 1959.

The story starts on an unspecified date, somewhere around ten years before 2003, in a garbage bin in San Francisco, California.

A man known as Chicken John Rinaldi was relieving his van of some garbage in a dumpster at a deserted construction site in the early hours of the morning. Crouching out of the wind in the bottom of the dumpster to light a cigarette, he found a scrapbook, hand made by an unknown author, containing pictures and poems and newspaper clippings about the life of a woman named Margaret Rucker.

The story starts December 12th, 2014 in Everett, Washington.

Chicken John Rinaldi told a friend of his, an Everett native, Jason Webley, about the scrap book, and Webley connected the woman in the scrap book to the Rucker family who helped found Everett, and whose thirty foot pyramid of a mausoleum was a bit of a local landmark. He started a Kickstarter campaign to make a project called Margaret. The plan was to make an album of songs written by him and other musicians who had all become fascinated by the story of Margaret Rucker, both her life and how her story had surfaced. Margaret surpassed its funding goal and was released on December 12th, 2014, her birthday, as a full album and book of all the evidence of her life that they could find. It contains scans of all her poems that they have been able to recover (regrettably, only four), and the story of Margaret Rucker and Margaret, as told by Rinaldi and Webley.

The book itself is small and beautiful. The pictures, like Margaret’s poems, speak for themselves. We see Margaret leap in faded sepia photos from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, (pregnant and recovering from the car crash in a hospital, healthy and smiling with her two sons and husband, looking away from the camera and sitting in the front seat of a new car, glancing away accidentally in a group photo at a restaurant, sitting jauntily on the arm of a deck chair) and glean the details of her life from small scraps of newspaper.

The album contains fifteen songs, written by artists who were either inspired by the story of her life, or who found ways to put her poetry to music. Personally, I have never liked when musicians put poetry to music, I’m always dissatisfied with the end result: the pulse doesn’t fit somehow, or the key doesn’t match the tone that the poem takes in my mind. Margaret, however, does not disappoint in this respect; the poetry is brilliantly interpreted, and they make an emotional synergy when they are sung. The album straddles the line between new and old. While most of the songs are performed on traditional instruments, strings, pianos, there is more than one accordion on the album, none of the songs feel very traditional. Jason Webley’s own take on her poem, Two DeathsMy Love Left Me In April, performed with only an accordion and Webley’s characteristic, haunting singing, sounds more otherworldly and heartbreaking. Zac Pennington’s, Possession Sound, begins as an orchestra warming up and then pushes the suspense of that sound to its musical limits.

The story of Margaret Rucker is made up of fragments amidst gaping holes in her life’s story, sewn together over 15 songs and 88 pages. We don’t know how she met her husband, Justus, or why he would later kill himself in front of her. We don’t know what she did after his death, or what happened to the rest of her poetry. We don’t know what it was like for her to grow up in the shadow of the massive mausoleum her family spent years and a small fortune building. Her story is characterized by an absence of information (not for lack of looking: Webley’s and Rinaldi’s extensive research produced limited results), and this fragmentary nature of her story, perhaps, makes it all the more sadly beautiful. In that way, Margaret is every story we never got to hear the end of and all the questions to which we’ll never have answers. It is Margaret’s story, but it is also the story of everyone who collaborated, and the story of how stories can seemingly end only to . . . not end at all.

Margaret is an imperative read/listen for anyone who loves stories, for anyone who has ever thought about the wonder and brevity of our lives. The woman, the book, the album, cannot be distilled into a one-sentence summary. Margaret is full of voices, not only her voice, but the voices of the people in her life that echoed in her poetry, the voices of the people who found her, the people who brought her voice back, and the people who have listened. If there is one single thing one can take away from the story of Margaret, and the story of Margaret, it is the title to Chicken John’s testimony on finding a story at the bottom of a garbage bin: there’s no such thing as garbage.

This album review was originally published on Niche’s website on April 14th, 2015.


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