As I said yesterday it was a given that when Tara MacLean celebrated Atlantic singer/song writers Rita MacNeil would be amongst them. The lady from Big Pond in Cape Breton was a force majeur on the Canadian – and world – music scene.
Rita’s story was often rehearsed in the media as she rose to fame in the late 1980s: cleft palate, poverty, single parenthood, shyness and her weight. A less than sensitive CBC reporter (imagine my surprise!) once asked, “What about your weight problem?” There was a slight beat and then Rita smiled and said quietly and sweetly, “Well yes dear, it’s MY problem. Isn’t it?” On another occasion, after her appearance singing O Canada at the opening of a World Series game, an American reporter suggested that they had used a forklift to get her to home plate. When asked if she would do the honours at a later game she said,“Yes, I’d do it, but only if they drive me out onto the field on a forklift.”
That mixture of sweetness, steel, and sly humour was the mark of where she was born: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She went away to begin her climb to success but returned to Big Pond, her extended family and her roots. Cape Breton was never far from her mind or heart.
As well as hearing her in concert on two occasions I once had a brief encounter with Rita. And yes I’ve used her first name throughout this post because she gave me permission to. It was the spring of 1990, I was working with Air Canada at Ottawa Airport. Laurent had been posted to Cairo the previous summer and I had spent Christmas there. (This will become important in a minute.) I was working at the departure gates one morning and received an assignment to meet a flight coming in from Halifax en route to the West Coast. There was a Vancouver bound passenger onboard in First Class (we had First Class in those days) who was incapacitated and as the stop was lengthy they would like to get off but would need a bit of assistance. Not an unusual request.
I headed down to aircraft and after everyone else had deplaned – and there seemed to be a bit of hold up with people dribbling off – the reason for the delay presented herself. It was Rita. She had recently had surgery and was heading out on her first tour in a year or so. She took my arm and in that distinctive quiet voice apologized for the delay but so many people had stopped to say hello and wish her well and she had to chat with them. I assured “Miss MacNeil” that it wasn’t a problem and was gently admonished “It’s just Rita, dear.” As we chatted I told her that my partner was living in Cairo and that one of the things we did at the holidays was play her Christmas Album to remind us of home. And I thanked her for it. She squeezed my hand, gave me that big shy “Rita” smile and said, “No dear, thank you. Knowing that has made recording it all worthwhile.”
There are many videos out there of Rita performing her signature song but I’ve chosen this one because it includes that gentle voice speaking – as she always found time to do – with fans and well-wishers.
Rita you’re still greatly loved and even more greatly missed.
The word for September 16th is:
Cleft palate /ˈkleft ˈpalət/: [noun]
A congenital split in the roof of the mouth that occurs when the tissue doesn’t fuse together during development in the womb . Often accompanied by a cleft in the upper lip.
Cleft: 1570s, alteration (weak past participle of cleave) of Middle English clift “fissure, rift, space or opening made by cleaving” (early 14c.), from Old English geclyft [adjective]
Palate: late Middle English: from Latin palatum