You don’t have to channel Nietsche to appreciate Rita MacNeil, but it helps. The big-hearted, lark-throated singer from Cape Breton dealt with more hardship and adversity than most of us can imagine.
Born with a cleft palate into a large, impoverished family, she survived sexual and physical abuse, and struggled with depression, addiction and obesity in a profession obsessed with body image.
Yet all of that stuff fell away when you saw Rita MacNeil the person and listened to her haunting, lyrical songs.
“She was so real,” Anne Murray said in an interview from her winter home in Florida. “What you saw was what you got and to know her, even to meet her, was to love her.”
“I’m a proud Nova Scotian, as she was,” and to hear “a woman, an honest-to-God really fine craftsman writing songs about Nova Scotia,” was a thrill.
“Her songs just tore at your heartstrings. You could be from anywhere, but I was from Nova Scotia and I knew every place she was talking about,” said Ms. Murray, who was born in Springhill, the town that was the site of two dreadful mining disasters in the late 1950s.
Ms. MacNeil’s voice was unschooled, which gave it an authenticity that evoked the way men and women have sung for centuries to ease their labours and their burdens.
Her friend and colleague Frank Mills, the pianist best known for the instrumental hit, Music Box Dancer, thinks her cleft palate may have opened up her voice to give it an extra warmth.
“What’s amazing about her voice is that it was very powerful, but it was a natural voice,” according to Kip Pegley of Queen’s University’s School of Music.
“She was gifted but still untrained … and that is what a lot of people loved about her voice.”
Prof. Pegley, a Cape Bretoner, is a trumpet player. She was a member of Symphony Nova Scotia when Ms. MacNeil sang with the orchestra in the late 1980s.
“She could be one of us and we could be one with her. We could relate to her as the underdog who made good,” says Prof. Pegley, especially in the lyrics of Born to Be a Woman and the way she wrote her anthem, Working Men, in the first person.
Ms. MacNeil never played an instrument or learned to read or write music, says John (Jack) O’Donnell, the choral director of The Men of the Deeps.
“She was more of a contralto than a soprano, with a wonderful gift for melody,” he said. He can remember being on tour with her and watching her backstage as she banged out a tune with one finger on a piano. “She couldn’t transcribe, but the band would help her put it together.”
All of those qualities came together when Ms. MacNeil suppressed her perpetual stage fright and forced herself to perform live.
She “put her heart and soul into everything,” according to Brian Edwards, her promoter/agent for the last 15 years. “When you have an artist who will give 500 per cent when they walk on the stage, it is a win/win for everybody,” he said in an interview.
“The audience loved it and so did she, for the more she gave, the more the audience gave back.”
Rita MacNeil was born in Big Pond on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia on May 28, 1944, the fifth of eight siblings. Her father looked at the gap in her lip, wrapped her in a blanket and commanded an older daughter to take the baby upstairs and pray that she didn’t make it through the night.
He came to his senses with the lusty sounds of her squalling. After the initial shock, her parents loved her, as they did all their many children, and quickly took baby Rita to hospital for the first of many reparative operations.
If only her parents had loved each other as much, especially in the early days.