Singer captured the essentials

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Little wonder a recently compiled list of top-10 East Coast songs would include something from Rita MacNeil. There could easily have been several choices for the CBC’s vote-based musical feature, but the pick was a song that became an anthem in the singer-songwriter’s own time: Working Man.

People were saddened by the news of the Cape Breton singer’s death Tuesday following complications from surgery.

Among the accolades to pour in was the reflection from Halifax composer Scott MacMillan that MacNeil in her songs could say in five words what it would take someone else five paragraphs to say. “She would just get right to the heart of the matter.”

And so it is with a great artist. With MacNeil, add the powerful, soulful voice, the themes that plumb the struggles or celebrate the joys of the common person and she had the command of an audience any singer would envy.

Working Man, a number paying homage to coal miners, has always struck a particular chord in a region where that livelihood traditionally played such a big part – with its resolve to rise out of the depths of hardship. Covered by many other artists, it famously became a signature song for Cape Breton’s singing miners, the Men of the Deeps.

From the depths and on upwards, Flying on Your Own, MacNeil’s music carried a spiritual character.

She was an entertainer with an ambassadorial element who will be sadly missed.

Also in tributes to Cape Breton’s first lady of song are the recollections of a shy woman, down to earth, home-loving and humble. There was that shy quality and nervousness to overcome, and getting started in her profession was made possible by a lifelong love for her art and, obviously, a drive to succeed.

Many will note that popular music as an industry has celebrated many flash-in-the-pan entries – and still does. Those who aspire would do well to take note that quality, passion and dedication – as offered by this genuine article – are what really counts.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Cape Breton, East Coast, Halifax

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