it was a pleasure to
come back from such a week to find more than 100 e-mails from a lively
As some of you in the
past have expressed an interest in Celtic music, and fiddling, I feel
compelled to tell you the story of John Morris Rankin, who was taken by the
sea early last Sunday morning when he swerved his 4X4 to avoid a dolmen of
salt on a snow-covered, twisting highway...he, and three young passengers who
survived, plunged off one of the more beautiful 90-foot cliffs and into Whale
Cove...along the windswept northwestern coast of Cape Breton
John Morris was
native of Mabou Cape Breton...he was well-known throughout his 40 years as a
master fiddler and one of the more beautiful pianists the island has ever
produced...He was a blessed soul - more-than-nice to everyone he met - and
with a sharp Cape Breton sense of humour...in his community, throughout the
region, across this country and over the seas he is mourned as a key man in
the resurgence of Scottish Culture...
He was the musical
arranger for The Rankin Family Band...he and four siblings - Raylene, Heather,
Cookie, and Jimmy took centuries of Scottish Music that had been preserved
intact in the communities of an isolated island...they mastered the language,
they harmonized with the intuition only life-long family practice can bring,
they learned to step dance as they learned to walk...there are twelve
offspring of Buddy and Kathlene Rankin and they are the essence of all that
makes Cape Breton whatever it is...
They have, I think,
Sinclair blood...They are closely related somehow to Jim St. Clair - one of
the wise men of Cape Breton...he runs the Iona Gaelic Village and writes for
the venerated Inverness Oran...I have heard it said that he is Prince Henry's
most direct descendant in the province...we talk about it and he officially
and strongly feels that it's bunk...but then again, he's spent too much time
talking with the department of culture...
When the Rankin
Family decided to give up their day jobs in September of 1989 to try the band
thing for two years there was no organized music industry on the east coast of
Canada...lots of musicians - but they were all playing Top 40 covers on
perpetual tiny-tavern-tours of the region...
individuals they were Cape Breton legends already, The Rankins had to make a
record on their own resources...this first record contains some of the
enduring classics of celtic music...they started to book shows on their own
and they, their Mom, and their enfianced, drove casettes around the province
bullying them into stores...
They built momentum
on grassroots word of mouth...they became a foundation stone in the building
of the east coast music industry, hooking up with the East Coast Music Awards
and becoming the standard bearer...They recorded Fare thee Well, Love which
went on to sell 500,000 copies and released it independantly...they did their
first organized tours of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Manitoba...the records
sold like crazy...
Toronto yawned at
first...it was from the east so who cares? And worse - it's fiddle music they
openly said...So the band looked to Scotland...John Smith, a producer at BBC
Scotland's Gaelic television called... He flew them over for ten days and
hooked them up with Phil Cunningham to produce some radio and tv shows...I set
up a showcase at The Glasgow University Debating Hall...we hung out with
Capercaillie, who would drive up after their concerts with Runrig to hang out
in the Studio with the Rankins...We hung out with Scottish nationists and
musicians in the pubs long past the point where we could stand erect...I drove
through Glencoe while Heather sang a sad tale of that place for
The day after the
showcase the quote-of-the-day on the front page of the Glasgow Herald came
from the review of the show:
"Sadly, they don't make families like this in Scotland
Others had come before, and many would follow but that trip
triggered a flood (that began the next month with a BBC Hogemany Live headline
performance for 4 million viewers) and has not subsided...Ashley MacIsaac, The
Barra MacNeils, Slainte Mhath, Rawlins Cross, Natalie MacMaster, Buddy
MacMaster, Jerry Holland, Mary Jane Lamond, dancers, storytellers, milners,
linguists, archivists, and writers all regularly make the trek...Sydney, Cape
Breton resident Bruce Guthro is now the lead singer for
personally find it interesting that Scotland's outlawed culture was preserved
and returned intact at just the right time...At the recent Stone of Scone
ceremony one wag was heard to say that this wasn't the real stone...Cape
Breton Stepdancer Willie Fraser is the real stone...this for his role in
returning step dancing to Scotland...
For the first time in too long Scotland has her own Parliament...and a legal
For the Rankin Family it was the music that drove it all...all of the majesty
of the mountains of Cape Breton, the mists, the winds and the cry of the
oceans...Raylene has ruined me for other female vocalists - she has the
richest, most pure voice I have ever heard...Heather gets the best songs and
Cookie sings the singles...Jimmy writes and sings with the grit of the mines
and the roll of the seas in his songs...the voices are individually and
collectively stunning...and the community has more than it's share of
outstanding voices in the Parrish choir...
The music was underscored by centuries of Scottish Culture and John Morris
Rankin...he was the musical arranger and band leader...also the arbitrator in
sometimes difficult situations between siblings...he is most responsible for
the end sound and it's creation, not just on record - but night after night
from the days they played the cow palaces and were the best band anyone had
ever heard - night after night after night...
regions of Canada began their own navel gazing in the early parts of the past
decade as a result of Quebec's identity crisis, it was the east coast who next
discovered that we also were distinct culturally... the Rankin Family were the
soundtrack of that discovery...
They sold more than 2 million records in 10 years before letting it all go
last autumn...John Morris still lived in Judique, just down the coast from
Mabou...he had left the stadiums and concert halls behind to play the dance
halls once again...and to spend time with his beautiful wife and soul-mate
Sally, and their two children - Michael and Molly...He was driving Micheal to
a hockey game in Cheticamp that morning...Michael and his teammates were able
to escape relatively physically unscathed...
After years of gloating about the weather in Nova Scotia it has been snowing
for a week...Mabou, a town of around 100 at the end of Mabou Harbour, is one
of the most beautiful places in a beautiful province...huddled in a narrow
valley between the mountains which line the coast, the area endured a week of
almost non-stop snow with high winds making movement almost impossible...an
eclipse is little solace...dark omens abound...
The Catholic Parrish of St Mary's has a long musical history...one of the more
interesting anecdotes concerns a certain Father Kenneth MacDonald who, in the
mid-19th century ordered all of the fiddles of the parrish burned as "the
instrument of the devil"...(working with Ashley MacIsaac has given me some
insight into the well-intentioned father's motives)...but it is more than
evident that, with a good measure of thanks to John Morris Rankin, MacDonald
He had been cited as early as 1973 in a television documentary program
- The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler, as a leader of the new generation of
fiddlers who were struggling to keep the dying Gaelic culture alive...that
program acted as a clarion call that led to not only the preservation of
Scottish Culture but to it's flourishing...and as for Mabou's fiddlers - the
current member of the Nova Scotia Legislature for Mabou is a local 27-ish
fiddler - Rodney MacDonald...
The funeral was attended by more than 1000 souls; and more than 75 Cape Breton
fiddlers, including many of the best fiddlers in the world, answered the call
to play...Howie MacDonald, Buddy MacMaster, Sheumas MacNeil, Ashley and
fiddlers from 8 to 88 brought the only smiles to any faces on a dark dark
day...John Morris touched so many people in so many
And so, I call your attention to John Morris Rankin, and Sinclair, please call
the names of Sally and Michael and Molly wherever you may, I don't think we
can begin to understand what he has done for us
nova scotia/cape breton
ps. I forward some photos which JSQ
has stuffed under:
...and with apologies...I always carry
a camera but rarely use it...I'm always too busy...so I have nothing of Mabou
- but that is because I never felt my type of drive-by photgraphy could do it
The first was taken in Glencoe,
Scotland on the drive abovementioned drive...
The second is of the Glasgow U.
debating hall (on the left) where the Showcase was held
The third is from and of a friend's
place about 8 miles north of Mabou which would be to the right with the
ocean...imagine it this week under three feet of snow...
The fourth is a Glenora Falls Valley
drive-by one winter's day in a forgotten year...
The fifth is of Ashley MacIsaac
and Natalie MacMaster from a ECMA '95 rehearsal...
and the sixth is of John Morris from the cover of their 1997
and for you ravenous Sinclairs who read all the way to the end of this -
there is lastly a picture which I took of Rosslyn Castle 14 months