May 04, 2018
By: Bob Mersereau
Lots of people like to sing the praises of home, but not many make their community famous around the world. Thanks to Cape Breton songwriter Allister MacGillivray, tiny Marion Bridge and its beautiful Mira River have become an iconic part of folk music, with his “Song for the Mira” recorded by over 300 artists and in several languages, including Japanese, Gaelic and Italian. Then there is the million-selling version by his fellow Nova Scotian, Anne Murray.
Now, in a new partnership between the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and the East Coast Music Association (ECMA), “Song For The Mira” is being inducted into the Hall during the ECMA Awards ceremonies on Sunday, May 6, 2018. While there are a few beloved numbers already in the hall, such as Gene MacLellan’s “Snowbird” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” and the traditional “I’s The B’y,” now Atlantic Canadians will see a song honoured every year, with the induction happening at the East Coast Music Awards. There’s a performance too, with Heather Rankin singing the classic for MacGillivray and the awards crowd.
“When I wrote it, to be quite honest, I didn’t think it was a blockbuster,” says MacGillivray. “I liked the song, and wrote it for myself in a way, but I never saw it as being one that would be sung all over the world. I’ve come around to love it a great deal, because there are so many versions of it. You hear it sung by Anne Murray, and some of those great Irish tenors who’ve done it.”
Those great Irish tenors include Foster and Allen and Daniel O’Donnell, Canadians John McDermott and Denny Doherty, and groups such as Celtic Thunder and Ryan’s Fancy. It’s also well known as a choral selection, so it’s been sung by tens of thousands around the globe as well. It’s been recorded as “Out on the Mira” and simply “The Mira,” but it was first written as “Song for the Mira.”
MacGillivray says the song wasn’t written while he was on the Mira but instead, when he was on the road, feeling a bit homesick. “It’s a highly autobiographical song,” he says. “I was travelling around in 1973, I was between jobs with John Allan Cameron and Ryan’s Fancy. I had good friends living just outside Charlottetown, P.E.I., Dr. and Mrs. MacDonald, she was from Cape Breton and let me use their cottage. It was a rainy night near the end of August, and I was just running through the things I was missing at home. This was, vision for vision, all the things that I had seen on the river, and my favourite moments about being out on the Mira.”
Part of the song’s magic may have come from the guitar on which it was written. MacGillivray had with him a guitar that had been gifted to him in a time-honoured tradition in Nashville, where one songwriter honours another he admires by giving him his guitar. It was an instrument that had already been responsible for some major hits. Its previous owner was Mickey Newbury, who’d written “Funny Familiar Forgotten Feelings” for Tom Jones and Don Gibson, and “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.
“John Allan and I were on the Grand Ol’ Opry in 1970, and we went on Mickey’s houseboat, a trip on the Henderson River,” says MacGillivray. “I sang him my songs, and at the end of that visit, he said, ‘Look, I’m going to give you my guitar, the guitar I write my songs on.’ There was a gold watch as well he gave me. He had a Rolls-Royce parked up on the dock, he was a very humble guy but I guess it must have been a gift from some record company. And I said, ‘Mickey, I wonder if I should be writing the kind of stuff you’re writing, I’m looking at your possessions here, and you seem to be doing quite well.’ And he said, ‘No, keep writing the style you’re writing in, and let the audience find you. What you’re doing is quite unique, just stay at it, that’s what you know and I think you’ll see results.’ So on that guitar, I started to write, thinking wow, there’s so many big songs written on this guitar, maybe I’ll use that when I’m sitting down to compose.”
MacGillivray became a well-known songwriter, and a much-in-demand sideman, playing guitar for Ryan’s Fancy, Gene MacLellan, and a lengthy stint with the Irish folk superstars Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, “like playing on a line with Wayne Gretzky,” he says. These days, he runs his publishing concerns, owning his song copyrights, and he and his wife operate an antique business in Sydney, Cape Breton. He says he wrote “Song for the Mira” in 15 minutes.
Bob Mersereau has been writing about East Coast music since 1982. He’s the author of The Top 100 Canadian Albums and The Top 100 Canadian Singles, and is currently finishing a biography of Gene MacLellan. He lives in Fredericton, N.B., and his daily music reviews can be found at www.bobmersereau.com.