Yesterday, media was buzzing with news that Canadian music icon Rita MacNeil had passed away after complications following surgery. She was, as The Canadian Press put it, “a singer-songwriter from small-town Canada whose powerful voice explored genres from country, to folk, to gospel.”
That last genre—gospel—brings up the matter of MacNeil’s faith. As it is with many people, Macneil’s faith was complicated. Growing up in Cape Breton, she was raised Roman Catholic. As a child she even dreamed of becoming a nun, as she noted in her 1998 autobiography On a Personal Note.
But as the years progressed, her connection to the established church waned somewhat. At the time of her book’s release, she did an interview with Canoe which reported “she still goes to church occasionally, but is no longer a practising Catholic.” Whether she remained unaffiliated from the institutional church over the next fifteen years is difficult to determine online; she still identified as Christian, as evidenced in her participation at the 2009 “Alive on the Island Festival of Christian Unity” (which also featured such artists as Bill Gaither, MercyMe, and Jeremy Camp).
Indeed, religious themes and spiritual significance infused Rita MacNeil’s music. Her website describes her 2002 album Common Dream with words that could be said of her music at large: it’s a “collection weaving threads of faith, comfort and the spiritual in a way that… speaks to the soul. It’s a celebration, a walk with faith.” Some of her more explicitly Christian songs were collected in her 2006 album Higher Power: Songs of Praise.
Still, while spiritually motivated, her music wasn’t for the religious alone. “It’s not about religion,” MacNeil explained of her 2002 album. “It’s about the common dream people have of love, joy and peace. I think most people believe in a greater power. In times of sadness and celebration we search for meaning and understanding, and for me that comfort is found through music.”
In an interview before the Alive on the Island festival, she had similar sentiments: “I’m not very good on labeling things,” she said, presumably after being asked whether she would call herself a “Christian musician.” “I just think it’s good for folks to take part and to enjoy what they’re listening to,” she explained, “and if the lyrics speak to them in some way, it’s a good thing.”
At least some of her audience appreciated that aspect of her music; I, for one, will forever remember her Christmas television specials in particular. Whatever one thinks of her faith, however, her impact on Canadian music cannot be ignored: with 24 albums (one triple platinum, four double platinum, and three platinum), Rita MacNeil will long be remembered.
One of her classics, “Home I’ll Be,” reflects on the love she had for Cape Breton. She may have finally left the island, but it’s my hope “home” is exactly where she’s gone.
For those who haven’t heard her before, here’s a few other songs to check out: “Now the Bells Ring” (from the album of the same name); her song “Working Man” (a true classic); and this video where she performs three songs back to back: “He’s Leading Me on,” “When We Overcome,” and “I Said I wasn’t Gonna Tell.”