Last Monday, 30 March, before the Governor’s order to stay home, a very small party gathered in Cool Spring natural Cemetery. The air was warm, the sky was cloudless, wild mint, violets and daffodils blossomed in the dappled sunlight under the trees. The birds were singing and butterflies fluttered. I think it was the ideal setting to celebrate Maddie MacNeil’s burial and, to me, at least, it seemed as if she had planned every detail.
Had she not died—of a fall at home, not the Corona Virus–during a pandemic, the burial would have been mobbed by friends and fans. But Maddie did like things on the small scale and, perhaps, not only had her way, but knew best.
Visitors to the Abbey will remember Maddie’s Christmas recital of traditional Carols a half hour before the Christmas Night Mass on 24 December. She’d been offering this performance to the Abbey and our visitors from 1978 until this past Christmas, 2020, without a break. Christmas was her bright spot in the winter—never her favorite season. Had you ever noted that Maddie never sang or recorded I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas? That would not have been a dream come true but a nightmare! Born in January, she celebrated her birthday in May when the days are longer, the sun stronger, and her garden abloom with azalea, daffodils, magnolia. That’s why the day of her burial seemed tailor-made to her preferences.
Maddie entered the Catholic Church in the 1990’s but never lost her affection for her Methodist upbringing. She told me that after a piano teacher gave up on her, as a child, she taught herself to play from the Methodist hymnal. To the end, she had a real affection for the tiny Methodist church, Marvin Chapel, just down the road from her home.
When she studied Music Education at Longwood College, one of her teachers told her she’d never be a singer; but she continued to believe in her gift and trust her instincts. She indeed became a singer—she just never became a diva.
She told me that it was attending a Peter, Paul and Mary concert that motivated her to risk abandoning teaching to strike out as a folk singer. She began accompanying herself on the guitar at the Wayside Inn—and also worked at the Wayside Theater—and performed for many years at Sky Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. Discovering the mountain dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer completed her profile as a musician. Conveying the words, the mini-drama of each song, its particular emotional “tint,” is what she aimed at—and achieved.
Maddie also aimed to connect with her audience, to bring them into the music, to sing with her; it wasn’t about her, but about sharing the music. In that aspect of her performing, she never ceased being an educator, a real educator. She reveled in other people’s gifts.
Another aspect of her music making was a direct communion through music with the people and land she loved and the Creator who blessed her with them. Where someone else might say, “I’ll pray for you”, Maddie would tell me, “I’ll sing for you.” It was the way she delightedly gave her gift back to God.