She was the “Queen Mother of Canadian music, for sure,” veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc said Wednesday as word circulated across the country that Rita MacNeil had died at 68 on Cape Breton, N.S., the island of her birth.
Yet for all the fame and acclaim, she wasn’t, he acknowledged, “someone well-suited to the music business at all.” She was, as almost everyone knows, painfully shy, afflicted by varying degrees of stage fright pretty much to the end of her performing days. She was humble. She didn’t read music. And her short, heavy-set appearance and cleft palate were a sharp contrast to the norms of beauty that informed (and inform) popular music.
But the people – or perhaps that should be the People – loved her. Once she got onstage or behind a microphone in the recording studio, “she became a force of nature,” LeBlanc said, her crystal-clear alto sweetly delivering an often-anthemic mix of hard truths and sentiment that could soften the coldest heart.
Yet as sweet as that voice was, “it had something in it that was more than just pleasant, a little bit extra,” said long-time Globe and Mail and CBC Radio music contributor Robert Harris. “What intrigues us in the pop world is ambiguity and contradiction … two things that should be separate from each other but are together.” So while a major MacNeil song such as 1982’s Working Man was about the tough lives of Cape Breton coal miners, it “was presented in this angelic, church-choir voice … The sound she [was] making [was] so different from the experiences being described. That’s moving because the brain processes the two.”
Moving as well, said the famous Cape Breton-born novelist and short-story writer Alistair MacLeod, because “Rita was not externally the epitome of beauty but inside she was quite beautiful.” Indeed, she had that “rare combination” of having something to say and say it well in musical form “when a lot of us would just be grumbling on our stool at the bar or over the breakfast table.” Much as one may hope otherwise, MacLeod added from his home in Windsor, Ont., “it will be unlikely we’ll see her likes again. … She was a very, very unique artist.”
For another Cape Breton native, Giller Prize-winning novelist and CBC-TV current-affairs journalist Linden MacIntyre, McNeil’s music helped what he calls “her people” forget “the fact that so much of what she sang about – the culture of steel and coal and Gaelic, the cohesion of the old communities – “was disintegrating all around us as we listened to her in little halls, outdoor concerts, on national TV.” Rooting her life and her art in a distressed place such as Cape Breton resonated with audiences in other, perhaps similar places across the country, he said. Or, as Anne Simpson, who worked with MacNeil for two months in the late 1990s ghosting her memoir, On a Personal Note, put it: “She could tell a story in a way that became universal.”
MacIntyre’s best memory of MacNeil, date unspecified, happened on CBC-TV’s the fifth estate when the late Eric Malling asked MacNeil “if she might have been more successful were she, um, beautiful. She replied without hesitation: ‘But, Eric, I am beautiful.’ And from that moment on, if not before, she was.”
LeBlanc believes that MacNeil could have been a big star internationally had she toured more outside Canada. Working Man reached No. 11 in Britain in 1990 he noted, but the pride of Big Pond, N.S., seemed either “reluctant or afraid” to forsake the concerts, TV specials and honours readily at hand in Canada to deepen her appeal there and in Australia where she once sang with André-Philippe Gagnon.
The intimacies of community, “writing about things close to home,” it seems, were the things that mattered most, according to fellow Cape Breton musician Jimmy Rankin, who last saw her in March in Halifax at the East Coast Music Awards. “She was warm and shy, of course. Genuine, very genuine. She was very good when my brother John Morris passed away [in 2000] or anybody in my family passed, like Raylene [who died last fall], she came to the wake and the funeral and all of that.
“What she was onstage was what she was offstage,” he said. “She knew where she was coming from. And it’s what she always came back to.”