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.
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.”
A couple of years later, The Men and Ms. MacNeil were booked separately at Expo 86 in Vancouver, but added a concert where they performed together. “Our career took off there,” said Mr. O’Donnell, “but hers really took off.”
The following year she was voted most promising female vocalist at the Juno Awards in Toronto. She was 42. “That was just magical,” remembers Mr. O’Donnell. “They flew us up there to do it with her. We came through the audience and some came from backstage. I will never forget it.” They often performed together after that.
After parting company with her early manager, Brookes Diamond, Ms. MacNeil worked with Leonard Rambeau, who also represented Anne Murray. In the early 1990s, Ms. MacNeil was a guest on a television special Ms. Murray was filming in Halifax.
“She was so sweet and humble,” Ms. Murray remembered, but “she was so nervous, she was throwing up. I always do my best to make people as comfortable as possible and I thought I was really good at it, and then Rita came along … but she did it and she did it well because she is a consummate professional.”
Although she never got over her stage fright, Ms. MacNeil became a television star as the host of Rita and Friends, the variety show she hosted on CBC Television from 1994-1997. She won a Gemini Award for the show in 1996.
Frank Mills came out of retirement to tour with Ms. MacNeil. They shared a manager in Brian Edwards, who also represented the late Stompin’ Tom Connors. Early in 2010, Mr. Edwards approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse: the pleasure of performing with Ms. MacNeil, while earning a sweet sum of money because ticket prices had soared since Mr. Mills had last been out on the road a decade earlier.
“I had met Rita on a number of occasions, and I always loved her,” he said from his winter home in Nassau, the Bahamas. “She was such a Maritimer: kind, good sense of humour, gentle approach to life, easy come easy go, just a lovely person,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can’t miss with her,’ and it turned out to be one of the most fun things I have ever done in my life,” he recalled.
They had such a good time on the 2010 Christmas tour that they reprised it two years later. By then, though, Mr. Mills was worried about Ms. MacNeil’s health. She had obvious mobility issues and was having difficulty hitting the high notes and holding them. “I noticed she was labouring,” he said. “Anybody her size would have had issues,” but “she was a trouper and she never complained, and she had that wonderful Maritime lilt when she said, ‘Oh darling, don’t worry about me.’”
In early April, she went to hospital in Sydney complaining of abdominal pains. The doctors decided to operate, but she developed an infection and died late on April 16.
Rita MacNeil leaves her children, Laura and Wade, four grandchildren, her dear friend Rose Barrage and her extended family.
Friends and family will say farewell to Rita MacNeil on Monday, April 22, at St. Mary’s Church in Big Pond with songs and prayers. The CBC will be streaming the service.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ms. MacNeil's hometown of Big Pond, Cape Breton. This version has been corrected.