Before Neil Young was, well, Neil Young, his mother was already a local celebrity. Appearing weekly on our television screens, Rassy Ragland was a panelist on the popular CJAY quiz show Twenty Questions. You might remember her. She was the one with the dry wit and coffee-grinder voice.
Much has been made of Neil's famous father, writer/broadcaster Scott Young, but Rassy had her own notoriety at a time when Neil and his father were estranged by distance and divorce. She and youngest son Neil moved to Winnipeg in August 1960. It would be Rassy who encouraged and supported her son's musical aspirations.
Edna "Rassy" Ragland Young was able to slip comfortably into the Winnipeg social scene (she had lived here as a child and had family in the city). She enjoyed curling in winter at the Granite Curling Club and golfing at the Niakwa Golf and Country Club during the summer. An avid tennis player, she was often on the courts at the Winnipeg Canoe Club.
Rassy Young was a truly unique character. "She was absolutely herself and I enjoyed her immensely," recalled friend Nola Halter. "She was so funny, marvellously witty and very zany. She had a little blue English car which she drove in the wrong gear, in the wrong speed, in the middle of two lanes, swearing her head off at all these other drivers who got in her way. The road was hers."
The divorce had been acrimonious. "She remained bitter toward Scott right through to the end of her life," noted Nola. "I think Neil was very much in accord with his mother's feelings but he never did battle nor took sides." After the publication of Scott's 1984 biography Neil and Me, Rassy called it "a lot of garbage. Daddy this and Daddy that."
Twenty Questions was the brainchild of moderator Stewart "Stew" MacPherson. He created the show's format, a derivative of What's My Line, while working in television production in England. Returning to Canada in the late 1950s he revived the show for local audiences. The panelists, Rassy Ragland, Bill Trebilcoe, and Nola Macdonald (Halter was her married name), were allowed to ask up to twenty questions to determine the identity of a person or thing. The show was nothing spectacular but was popular locally. Bill Trebilcoe was a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, contributing the gossipy Coffee Break. Nola owned a bookstore downtown and was well-known in the arts community. The three became close friends and socialized together often (Trebilcoe was rumoured to be a boyfriend of Rassy's for a time).
It was the golden age of live television, which left little room for error or accident. Once, a delivery man walked directly across the set during the show, oblivious to the cameras and crew. MacPherson informed him that he was on live television at that very moment, to which the stunned man exclaimed, "My old lady's gonna shit when she sees this!"
The relationship between Neil and his mother was crucial to his determination to pursue a music career. "Rassy was tremendously concerned for Neiler's well-being," recalled Nola. "She always spoke of him with loving affection. She believed in him. She thought that whatever Neiler did was okay. I don't think Scott had quite the belief in him that Rassy had. And Neil loved her dearly. They were friends more than just mother and son. She was never in the dark about anything Neil did. Neil is a richer person because he had Rassy for a mother." Rassy stood up for Neil in the early days when few had any faith that he would succeed. "Everybody said that Neil couldn't sing except me," insisted Rassy. "I told him, 'It's an interesting key, but if that's your key then who cares.' "
She bought Neil a Gretsch guitar and a Fender amplifier when requests to his father were rebuffed.
"She was absolutely hilarious when she phoned me and told me that Neiler had bought a hearse [Mort]," laughed Nola. "In that droll manner she had she said, 'Well, if that's what the kid wants.'"
Nola's daughter Diana recalls Rassy this way: "She was a totally irrepressible figure. I attended many of the shows and I was always acknowledged with warmth and a great hug!" Rassy encouraged the 12-year-old to photograph Neil's band The Squires and start a fan club. "You'll have to come over and hear my son play guitar with his friends," she told me. "They take over my living room on Saturday afternoons and make a total racket and drive me crazy!"
In 1968, Rassy moved to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where she remained until her death in 1990. Neil looked after her. Each summer until 1986 she would drive back to Winnipeg by herself to visit. I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with her the last summer she was here, and she was delightful as she shared stories about her famous son. From time to time I would receive letters from her or the occasional phone call.
"If Rassy liked you, you were her friend forever," summed up friend Chris Wood.
Sign up for John Einarson's "Off The Record" fall music history classes at mcnallyrobinson.com