Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why I wrote a letter to Rita

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Everyone has heroes, or persons they look up to who inspire them. One of mine was Rita MacNeil.

And so it was with much sadness that I heard the Cape Breton icon had passed away in the evening of April 16 at the age of 68.

MacNeil recorded more than 24 albums throughout her career and won three Junos as well as many other awards. Her CBC variety show Rita and Friends ran from 1994 to 1997. She received the Order of Canada in 1992.

"Music is timeless and ageless... the passion I feel for what I do can't be put aside with a number and a year," she is quoted on her website as saying. "It is a big part of my life -- the concerts, the touring, the letters and the joy the audience gives back to me when the music touches a chord with them."

I was lucky enough to receive two letters from MacNeil. One was simply a gracious thank-you letter. In the other, she gave me encouragement, kind words and positive, practical advice for going forward with lyrics and songs I had written that she had taken the time to look over for me.

I did not pursue it, however, as the circumstances of life got in the way, as they often do. I did eventually pursue a different kind of writing.

Writing a fan letter was uncharacteristic for me. But something in her music had touched a chord and had connected with me. And I felt compelled to express my appreciation for the immense gift she offered to the world through her music.

MacNeil wrote lovingly and inspiringly of her Nova Scotia home in words so beautiful and touching and with melodies so moving they astonish even a lifelong Prairie girl who has never set foot upon Cape Breton soil.

She wrote of Canada and especially of her great love for the green fields, the warm, gentle breeze off the sea in the Maritimes in songs like She's Called Nova Scotia and Home I'll Be. Her words, her lyrics memorably positive, uplifting and distinctly Canadian.

She sang passionate songs about coal miners such as Working Man that brought tears to peoples' eyes even if they didn't know anyone who'd gone down in the mines. And she sang lovingly of her father, a hard-working carpenter, in Old Man.

Her famous song Flying on Your Own, released in the 1980s, inspired women who find themselves suddenly alone to be strong and to have courage to do things independently. "First you stumble, then you fall, you reach out and then you fly. There isn't anything that you can't do."

That is what was most inspiring about this very strong lady. A single mother, not fitting the stereotypical cookie-cutter Barbie-doll sort of image, she defied the odds with her great talent, soared above the superficial and beyond the shallowness and became popular anyway.

Born with a cleft lip, MacNeil struggled with a debilitating shyness for much of her life but she was, through it all, tenacious. As a result, her songs are here and will live on.

Most likely hundreds of MacNeil's fans have received letters from her as she was a gracious and kind lady who believed in thanking others.

MacNeil closes her 1998 autobiography, On a Personal Note, by telling us, "Without music, we would never stop and listen to our hearts. It is a gift of the soul, a gift of healing, a gift of joyous spontaneity. I sang first because I was compelled to, as if it were a freeing of my spirit, but soon I realized I was giving a part of myself to others.

"To watch my mother as I sang in the kitchen or have my father ask me to sing Danny Boy was a privilege. And singing to all the audiences around the world who have cheered me on has been a privilege, too."

Canada has been greatly privileged, too.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J6

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