Known also by the title Out On the Mira, the song has been performed or recorded especially by Nova Scotians such as Anne Murray, Denny Doherty, The Men of the Deeps, and Symphony Nova Scotia; by other Canadian acts such as Amy Cervini, John McDermott, The Elmer Iseler Singers, and The Canadian Tenors; as well as by Irish singers Foster & Allen, Mary O’Hara, Daniel O’Donnell, and Celtic Thunder.
It was “Canada’s Godfather of Celtic music”, John Allan Cameron, who first popularized Song For the Mira on his 1976 hit album “Weddings, Wakes and Other Things.” A few years later, the song’s music and lyrics, along with other MacGillivray compositions, were published in a book titled after the song and introduced by Cameron. From there, the song began to take off. Cameron rereleased “Weddings, Wakes and Other Things” under the new title “Song For the Mira” in 1981, and included the song on his 1982 album “The Best of John Allan Cameron.” The publication of several choral arrangements in the 1980s also helped spread the song across Canada.
But it took powerhouse Nova Scotian pop-folk icon Anne Murray, who recorded the song on her gold-selling 1982 album “Hottest Night of the Year,” to popularize Song For the Mira outside Canada. With Murray’s support, the tune reached international stardom: It has graced the B-side of her No. 1 hit single Hey! Baby! (Capitol B5145) and several subsequent Murray hit albums. Murray’s recording, in turn, triggered further covers of the song in many parts of the USA, the British Isles and Australia.
Then came the “Celtic wave” of the 1990s, a lasting swelling of popularity for the roots music of Atlantic Canada, including MacGillivray’s delicate masterpiece. By the time Murray performed Song For the Mira during her 2008 farewell tour, it was so beloved that in Halifax the audience sang along with her. It was played on the Parliament Hill carillon in Ottawa when MacGillivray was awarded the Order of Canada (2013), and can be heard in two feature films: “New Waterford Girl” (1999) and “Marion Bridge” (2002).
The melody of Song For the Mira is based on a six-note (hexatonic) Celtic gapped scale, perfectly fitting the lyrics in which a homesick singer remembers his Cape Breton hometown of Marion Bridge by the Mira River. The expatriate longs to escape the big city for the peace of his rural home, reminding us, in these hectic commercial times, to appreciate the simple things in life: “I’ll trade you ten of your cities/For Marion Bridge and the pleasure it brings.”
Legendary Irish entertainer Tommy Makem, in his introduction to the “Songs From the Mira” anthology, offered the following insight into MacGillivray’s universality: “Allister lets the music of the land flow through his soul and reaches into the innate poetry of his Celtic ancestors for his lyrics. His songs may have been born and nurtured in Cape Breton, but their subjects and appeal are of and for the world.”
Song For the Mira is now standard repertoire for Celtic and contemporary folk artists everywhere. To date, the song has been recorded by over three hundred performers around the world.
Allister MacGillivray was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia in 1948. He was music director and guitarist for John Allan Cameron’s CBC television show (early 1970s) and performed with Ryan’s Fancy and the duo Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy. MacGillivray has produced recordings for such East Coast acts as The Men of the Deeps, The Cottars and fiddler Buddy MacMaster; has published several song anthologies and books on local music history; and has been artistic director for films on the Cape Breton fiddling tradition. Other well-known MacGillivray compositions include Away From the Roll of the Sea, Here’s To Song, and Coal Town Road. He lives with his wife, Beverly, in the community of Hillside Mira on Cape Breton Island.