Rita MacNeil is the newest member of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and will be honoured at a presentation during the 2021 East Coast Music Awards on May 6.
Always associated with Maritimes and known as the First Lady of Cape Breton, Rita MacNeil lived for a time near Wareham, which is about half-way between Flesherton and Dundalk, east of Hwy. 10.
G. Small (now of White Rock, B.C.) was a neighbour of Rita and her husband and children during that time.
“Rita was a very kind person,” she said recently, recalling that Rita came up to see her in Markdale hospital during her stay after her daughter’s birth in 1970.
Even then, Rita was travelling into Toronto, where her husband worked for auditions, and Ms Small recalled baby-sitting Rita’s daughter on one such occasion.
She also remembers her husband coming home saying, “Oh man, can she sing!” He had stopped in to visit Rita’s husband and as he got out of the car and walked to the door he could hear Rita - “she was just working around the kitchen, and she was singing.”
The family lived just off Nicholls sideroad, now Grey Highlands 200 Sideroad, right where Melancthon, Osprey and Artemesia meet.
After the family’s time there, they moved back to the city, and it was there that through the Toronto Women’s Caucus, Rita MacNeil’s life became more involved in music, and she got a new focus and made life changes.
She started writing and singing about women’s experiences at folk festivals. They were protest songs with the driving passion of folk anthems of the day, and her younger voice was edgier than the more mature timbre of her later vocals. Those songs were on her first album, Born a Woman, in 1975.
In an interview on CBC in 1979 after she had moved back to Big Pond, she recalled those years of living elsewhere and visiting home to Cape Breton each summer, then having to leave again “because that’s where the money was.”
She left in 1962, not because she felt like the place she grew up was too small or limiting, “just the feeling of ‘I’ve got to eat, and I’ve got to make money, and I can’t do it here’.”
The announcement of the song-writing honour was made by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame last Friday, Apr. 16. A musical tribute performed by former bandmates and friends is planned will take place during the East Coast Music Awards show on May 6 in Sydney, Cape Breton.
Between 1994 and 1997, MacNeil had a variety show on CBC called Rita and Friends. Guest artists included The Rankin Family, Great Big Sea, Sloan and the Crash Test Dummies.
Her 1986 album “Flying On Your Own,” was when she achieved national notice, and she won her first Juno for the album. Her style was a blend of folk and country, and her trademarks were her personal and highly-authentic lyrics and delivery.
Her 1988 song Working Man, written after a visit to Sydney Mines, led to cross-country tours with the choir “The Men of the Deep” and was very popular in the U.K.
MacNeil was Canada’s top-selling country singer-songwriter in 1990 and in 1991, when We’ll Reach the Sky Tonight earned her a song-writing award, and her tribute to Cape Breton, Home I’ll Be, won the East Coast Music Award Song of the Year.
Rita MacNeil received 11 East Coast Music Awards, and its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. She died after surgery at the age of 68, in 2013.
M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Dundalk Herald