Friday, April 19, 2013


Australia loved this Canadian star: in 1990 she had three different albums in the charts there at the same time. Apparently no other female singer has ever done that down there, not even Olivia Newton-John. That same year, her song "Working Man" was a Top 20 hit in the U.K.

Rita MacNeil (May 28, 1944 – April 16, 2013) was a legend in her own country, for both traditional folk songs and for her brand of country. She was planning a series of summer concerts at her home base, "The Tea Room" in Big Pond, but died following a surgical operation involving some kind of seemingly minor infection. I can only quote the late Brother Theodore, who observed, "The bad hospitals let you die, and the good hospitals kill you."

Which isn't to say that Rita was killed, but it should serve as a warning that one must be in very good health to withstand an operation! My grandfather didn't survive what I suppose was a routine gall bladder operation, but he, like Ms. MacNeil, was overweight and nearly 70.

Rita's first album arrived in 1975, but it wasn't until 1987 that she went Platinum in Canada with "Flying On Your Own," her breakout hit. That song was quickly covered by the photogenic Anne Murray. Rita's next seven albums were Platinum as well in the frozen North, and she could still hit Gold once in a while later in her career: "Porch Songs" in 1995 (which featured her last Top 20 single, "Rolling Thunder), and "Mining the Soul" in 2000. She continued to release new albums including "Pocket Full of Dreams" in 2008 and "Saving Grace" just last year.

Rita's death set flags to half-mast in Cape Breton and other areas of Nova Scotia, because she was in touch with the average "Working Man," and that included the mines. Nova Scotia was, after all, the scene of one of the most notorious mining disasters of all time, memorialized in Peggy Seeger's "Ballad of Springhill." MacNeil also bonded with those who appreciated a great voice, and great personality, and the fact that she looked like a neighbor or a friend, and not Anne Murray. She didn't act like a star. She was humble and still could could get nervous before a show. A few years ago she remarked, "When I'm out onstage…it's still intimidating…as corny as that sounds, on the eve of my 60th birthday it hasn't changed and I don't suspect it ever will."

Anne Murray, on hearing the news, said: "“I am deeply saddened by the loss of a dear sweet woman and a gifted singer-songwriter who represented women and her beloved Nova Scotia so eloquently in her songs."

Farewell to Rita... Farewell to Nova Scotia

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