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Kate and Anna McGarrigle (CP Photo)

If Kate and Anna McGarrigle had listened to their father, the duo wouldn't have made a career out of singing.

"He would have hated the idea of us becoming professional musicians because he thought professional musicians were bums, people that wandered from town to town," Anna McGarrigle told the Canadian Press.

Her remarks came as the well-known pair was honoured on Thursday for lifetime achievement in folk music by ASCAP, the respected American songwriting association

"We never got too many awards before the lifetime achievements so in a way it's a pat on the head that we've done OK," said McGarrigle, 60.

The sisters, born a year apart, have been recording music in English and French for 30 years with a repertoire that includes Heart Like a Wheel, Goin' Back to Harlan, Complainte pour Ste. Catherine, Love Over and Over, Heartbeats Accelerating, Talk to Me of Mendocino and On My Way to Town.

Born in Montreal and raised in Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts, Que., the McGarrigles learned to play piano at the urging of their father. They took lessons from nuns at a nearby convent.

They still own their childhood piano, an 1880 Steinway. "It's not in very good shape but it looks beautiful," said McGarrigle.

While attending university in Montreal in the 1960s – Kate studied engineering while Anna pursued painting – they performed in local clubs.

"We would sing around the city but not seriously," recalled Anna. "Some people thought we should try and put out a record but we said 'Oh no, this is just a pastime."'

But after Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt began recording their songs, the sisters decided they wanted in on the fun, debuting in 1976 with a record titled Kate & Anna McGarrigle.

It was named album of the year by Melody Maker and the No. 2 record of the year by the New York Times.

Accolades for the sisters poured in for Thursday's presentation from the likes of Ronstadt, Leonard Cohen, Jesse Winchester, Ron Sexsmith, Linda Thompson and Eddie Schwartz, among others.

Cohen, who sent a note because he couldn't attend in person, thanked the McGarrigles for "a lifetime of integrity, perseverance and devotion to the music that we love. We depend on you to keep it all going."

The McGarrigles are as busy as ever. Earlier this month they were in Australia on a family tour with Kate McGarrigle's children Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Their father is the musician Loudon Wainwright.

As well, the duo is currently writing music for a CBC radio play. Anna McGarrigle's husband, journalist Dane Lanken, is writing a book on the musical family.