Nova Scotia

Song for the Mira, a Cape Breton anthem, named to Songwriters Hall of Fame

It was the end of summer, at a friend's cottage in Prince Edward Island, when a young, homesick Allister MacGillivray composed a song that would become a Cape Breton anthem, beloved both on the island and around the world.

Composer Allister MacGillivray wrote the song while young and homesick

Allister MacGillivray penned his Cape Breton anthem Song for the Mira decades ago. The song will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. (Provided by Rory Makem)

It was the end of summer, at a friend's cottage in Prince Edward Island, when a young, homesick Allister MacGillivray composed a song that would become a Cape Breton anthem, beloved both on the island and around the world.

Now, 45 years later, Song for the Mira is being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

"I was able to crystallize all the things I'd been missing at the end of August on a rainy night playing the classical guitar in this little cottage," he recalls. "It was a completely selfish, autobiographical song."

Shortly after, when he was reunited with Cape Breton music supporters Tic and Emily Butler at their bungalow on the Mira River, he played them the song.

Covered hundreds of times

Tic loved it, said MacGillivray. He played it for folk singer John Allan Cameron a month or two later, and soon after Cameron featured Song for the Mira on his new album.

MacGillivray never imagined in 1973 that it would go on to be recorded hundreds of times, in several languages.

"I sort of thought it was one of those things that maybe by mentioning Marion Bridge, by mentioning the Mira River, the song wouldn't have much appeal off the island. But I was quite surprised when it did."

MacGillivray was born in Glace Bay, but the images that he paints with his lyrics all stem from his own memories of summer nights spent at the Butler's cottage near Salmon River bridge. 

"Kids out at night in their boats, and shouting back and forth to the shore. And the bonfires. And telling ghost stories. It's just about all exactly as I saw it."

An Anne Murray favourite

MacGillivray will receive his award at the East Coast Industry and Music Awards on Sunday, May 6, in Halifax. The East Cost Music Awards and the songwriters organization have announced they will partner each year to induct a new song written by an East Coast artist into the hall of fame.

The song really took off outside Canada when it was covered in 1982 by Anne Murray, who touts it as one of her favourites.

It has become particularly popular in Ireland, where in the 1980s Song for the Mira was in the top 10 on the charts by two different artists at the same time, MacGillivray said.

"So in Ireland the song is very well-known, and sometimes they think it's Irish," he said.

Personal collection of 300 renditions

The song has been recorded in Japanese, Scots Gaelic, Mi'kmaq and many other languages.  There's a "robust" Italian version, and a bagpipe rendition which "puts the chills through me," said MacGillivray.

He has a personal collection of 300 renditions of the song at home, but there are many more, he said.

MacGillivray is particularly grateful to a fellow Glace Bay musician Stuart Calvert, who arranged a choral version of Mira that has caught on in with choirs around the world.

He said he has often experienced the excitement of being in a bar or other venues where his song is played and sung along with, and no one knows the composer is in the room. He keeps that information to himself, and just basks in the moment, he said.

Favourite versions

MacGillivray has a theory about why his composition has had such lasting power, and continues to be popular decades after it was written. He thinks it's because songs written in the "folk" style, as opposed to the more modern pop idiom, have a special endurance.

"Those songs — like Danny Boy — seem to go on forever."

Also the composer of the well-known Away From the Roll of the Sea and Coal Town Road, MacGillivray said he's appreciative of the various treatments given to Song for the Mira by recording artists, but he has his favourites.

He said he is moved by singer-songwriter Matt Minglewood's "blockbuster" performance, in which he "makes the song his own."  

At the top of his list is an early version by Irish duo Foster and Allen, along with a rendition by Irish singer Daniel O'Donnell who "sings it like a hymn," and the version which gained the song international stardom, by Anne Murray.

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton