My best friend Melissa and I must have been in Grade 3 when she started singing and pretending to step dance along to “Tell My Ma” on her Fare Thee Well Love tape. I owe Melissa a lot for those early day Maritime Influences. She was the reason I became obsessed with Anne of Green Gables (the books and the VHS tape starring Megan Follows) and her bouncing curls as she spiritedly hoed down and belted along to the song about pulled hair, stolen combs and beaux of “Halifax” City (we changed the words) was my introduction to The Rankin Family. I soon had two tapes of my own, the aforementioned Fare Thee Well Love (1991) and the brand new North Country (1993) and I don’t think either left the tape deck in my (or her) car for more than a week for the next three years.
For those three years (1993-1996) Melissa and I were also inseparable. We carpooled to school, to Martock for skiing, Dalplex for swimming, to her house or mine for sleepovers and The Rankin Family was the soundtrack I remember the most vividly through it all. Staring out the back window of her mother’s Pathfinder as the Nova Scotia landscape rolled by I remember thinking, “I wonder which one really IS Gillis Mountain?” singing along to Gaelic songs with wild abandon and vague approximation by ear, which must have been the height of ridiculousness for our parents, mercilessly trying to hit Raylene’s last note in “Rise Again.” While in the car. Every time. Rewinding the songs that were our favourites, over and over and over. Melissa always loved “Tell My Ma” I loved belting along most with “Lisa Brown,” even though I always sang the wrong lyrics and I’m not sure what it says about eight year old me that I thought the words to my favourite Rankin tune were: “Come on Home Lisa Brown/ You’ve been Around Men too long.” What? (I also swore there was a Gaelic Rankin tune about Brian Tobin. I still don’t know why I knew who Brian Tobin was in third grade, but I sure did and I was adamant.) Anyway, I think if you had asked me what the prettiest Rankin song was at the time I might have said “Ho Ro Mo Nighean Donn Bhòidheach;” I thought the harmonies Raylene, Cookie and Heather sang (in all the songs, but this one especially) made them sound like Celtic faeries. I still do.
It was Melissa too who first knew the names of the Rankin girls (we were only interested in the girls at this point because we were eight years old): Raylene, Cookie and Heather. I remember having intense conversations of absurdly narrow scope concerning which one was our favourite. Raylene had the pretty name, for example, and she was the big sister (I still don’t know quite how we knew this, but somehow for two only children that was always a determining factor in our discussions) and of course she sang “Rise Again” which, as far as we were concerned, was basically the anthem of the East Coast and as two very young and burgeoning choir girls we already knew that hers was a distinctive and special voice to be inspired and captivated by. It was also one we would keep trying to emulate through to Grade 12. (This of course was countered by arguments that Heather and Cookie were younger and basically like teenagers which made them cool, Cookie had red hair and her name sounded like a sweet confectionary and even at eight I think we both thought Heather was adorable). Essentially, I think we always came back to the idea that each one of them brought something unique we liked and admired to the group and that you needed all three of them to make the faerie sound.
In Junior High School Melissa and I rebelled from one another and I started listening to more and more American pop music but even so, I loved learning “Fare Thee Well, Love” and “Rise Again” as part of the Sacred Heart School Senior Choir’s musical canon. I think every soprano among us was (secretly and/or not so secretly) envious that Amy Reitsma got to sing the “Raylene Rankin” part; although I DID manage to master that High C. It’s interesting to reflect back on the emotions I felt during those days as a teenager zealously dedicated to her work in the choir. We sang an eclectic mixture of songs from Latin Religious ones, to a wide array of Canadian content, songs written specifically for and about our historical school and fun (more) contemporary tunes like “Build Me Up, Buttercup,” but I always felt the most proud when we sang our two Rankin songs. So proud, in fact, that I would often well up ever so slightly with tears when we sang the songs in concert. I don’t remember ever contemplating why I responded so viscerally to this experience at the time, which is also interesting. It was not something anyone else would have been able to notice, but something subtle behind my eyes connected deeply down into my belly. In hindsight, I think it was because I had taken Leon Dubinsky’s lyrics so very much to heart. I was now here singing this iconic song from my childhood and I could feel the responsibility, even as a thirteen or fourteen year old singing in a school choir concert, of having to do justice to Raylene Rankin’s special song. I considered the torch passed from her to us, I felt that strong, immediate connection. We were children, the next generation and our voices were rising again in song, her song. The cycle continued and I was a part of it! The pride I had in being trusted with something I considered to be close to sacred, kept overwhelming me. Looking back, I realize that, subconsciously, I was always singing “Rise Again” from the very core of my heart for Raylene.
It’s interesting how often the people and the things that had the most profound effect on your early development become invisible over time. You take things for granted. The Rankin Family was as much a part of my concept of home as the Atlantic Ocean. I would no sooner expect Raylene, Heather, Cookie, John Morris and Jimmy to one day not to be there as I would anticipate the sudden evaporation of Halifax Harbour. I was busy being interested in other things now… my love affair with the American musical theatre, writing and singing and acting and graduating from High School. I would return to The Rankin Family (and aptly enough, also to my friendship with Melissa) ardently in 2006 when I moved from Halifax to Vancouver for a year and I was the most profoundly homesick I have ever been in my life. I sought immediate solace in the fiddle playing, in the faerie harmonies I loved so much, in lyrics like “From here out to Timmins I’ve loved all your women” and “Wrapped his buggy around the tree, someone call the Mounties”… in being blanketed in Raylene’s voice like I had been when I fell asleep in the car on our way home from Lunenburg or Peggy’s Cove. The introduction to “Johnny Tulloch” could suddenly make me laugh through tears and I went back to singing along in my phonetic badly butchered sorry excuse for “Gaelic.” Any song I didn’t already own I would listen to on YouTube, over and over and over. My Vancouver native roommates even started requesting I play certain songs, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.
Very recently my relationship to The Rankin Family and to Raylene Rankin changed. When I met her in person I did so not only as someone who had grown up with her gorgeous voice and infectious spirit but she was also now my friend’s big sister. People say you should be careful about meeting your childhood idols and heroes because they so often will let you down, but Raylene Rankin shone even more brightly with so much kindness and joie de vivre and tenacity of spirit that I fell more in love and in awe with her in real life than I had been as a child. We all laughed so hard that evening at The Red Shoe in Mabou my belly ached from it in the car on the way home. It was a beautiful and magical day, one of those rare perfect ones that come to us in splendour, and that is how I will always remember Raylene: shining and euphoric with a smile that lit up the whole room.
Truly remarkable singers are able to communicate so profoundly and intricately with their audience and I think this is part of the reason that so many feel intimate connections to Raylene. So much of her genuine care, quiet wisdom and strength, joyfulness and love are inherent in the tracks of the six Rankin Family albums and her two solo records. For us who grew up singing, she inspired us to put our own hearts into our music. She encouraged us all to be thoughtful, to be grateful, to be hopeful, to honour the traditions of our homeland and our families and above all, to be kind. In the deeply cynical Post Post-Modern Age her genuine goodness, never saccharine or preachy, seems almost revolutionary. One of my best friends texted me early this morning saying, “The Rankins shaped my childhood and helped in making me the person I am today” and I think that there are so many of us in this province and in this country who are bound together by this common experience although initially the influence probably passed us by largely unnoticed. I feel very fortunate to have been one of the people to grow up with Raylene Rankin’s voice as a constant presence in my life. I think that artistically, musically, and personally there are little Raylene imprints that have been left on me bit by bit over the last nineteen years and that I am better for them. I know I am not alone. This province is brighter, this country is sweeter, this world is better because Raylene Rankin lived here and loved here and sang here and shone here.
Thank you, Raylene, for the music. You will always be remembered and beloved.
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