Neil J. MacNeill was a descendant of the Barra MacNeills, who had come to Canada from the Highlands of Scotland even before the Clearances in the 1820s. Her mother Catherine (Rene) came from another branch of the MacNeill clan, which had fought against the French at Louisbourg in 1758.
Although her parents shared the same last name, they were not well suited. They argued and drank themselves into oblivion, with her father sometimes using his fists to quell his wife’s sharp tongue.
Many of the kids in the community bullied her, public-health nurses humiliated her at school in futile attempts to pull and push her teeth into alignment, and a great uncle, who lived across the road, sexually abused her for years.
She quit high school in Grade 12 and moved to Toronto, where she worked as a clerk in customer service at Eaton’s and fell in love with a young man with only one thing on his mind, as they used to say in the early 1960s.
Finding herself pregnant, she returned to Big Pond, where her daughter, Laura, was born on April 15, 1966, a bundle of joy in all the misery for Ms. MacNeil and her extended family.
No matter how dire her prospects, Ms. MacNeil never gave up on her dream of a singing career.
She left the baby with her parents in Big Pond and returned to Toronto. By day she worked menial jobs, by night she sang in pubs or any other venue that wanted her.
Eventually, she met David Langham, a draftsman from Newcastle upon Tyne. From Ms. MacNeil’s description in her autobiography, On a Personal Note, Mr. Langham sounds like the salt of the earth: gentle, loyal, hardworking and reliable. They married in the early spring of 1967; their son, Wade, was born three years later in Toronto, on April 30, 1970.
Still unhappy, Ms. MacNeil went, as so many did in that era, to a women’s movement meeting in 1972.
“It was like a light went on and my whole life was lit up by it,” she wrote in her autobiography. Always a prolific songwriter, she composed Born a Woman in 1972 specifically to protest a Miss Toronto beauty contest.
As well as raising her own consciousness, she attracted the attention of the RCMP.
When it was revealed decades later that Ms. MacNeil’s name had shown up in RCMP documents as “the one who composes and sings women’s lib songs,” she apparently retorted: “The only thing I’m sorry about now is I didn’t know I was under surveillance, or I would have got them to drive me home.”
The women’s movement helped her build an audience, and so did the folk-festival circuit.
But the more success she had singing, the more unhappy she seemed. Beset by depression and ballooning weight, she was becoming increasingly dependent on drink and pills.
In 1975, she and Mr. Langham sold up and moved to Big Pond, but Ms. MacNeil soon bid husband and children a tearful goodbye and headed back to Toronto.
Ms. MacNeil and conventional marriage were not compatible, but she kept her children close to her heart and she became a star, with a little help from her friends, including The Men of The Deeps, a male choral group of former miners.
She wrote Working Man after touring the Princess Colliery in Sydney Mines. The guides were former miners. The way they talked about working underground made the risks and the rigours very real and reminded her of her father’s hardscrabble life trying to support a wife and eight children.
The Men and Ms. MacNeil got together musically in the mid-1980s when they were asked to perform together in a hospital fundraiser at the Savoy Theatre in Glace Bay, N.S.
They thought it would be a good idea to sing Working Men with her, according to John O’Donnell.
“That was the first time we tried walking through the audience with our lamps lit,” he said. “Rita, who was always very shy, said it gave her great confidence.”