Keith & Rusty McNeil Photo

WHO ARE WE?

A short history of the adventures of Keith & Rusty McNeil (written in 2009)

Starting Out

Both California natives, Rusty was born and raised in Los Angeles and Keith was born in Santa Maria, but raised in Ventura. They grew up during World War II when labor was scarce and jobs were plentiful for youngsters, so their work experience started early. Rusty worked as a maid, waitress, telephone operator, collection agent, clerical worker, and bank receptionist. Keith worked as a lemon picker, packing house worker, electrician's helper, professional musician, electrical appliance repairman, warehouseman, grocery clerk, florist delivery man, school bus driver, oil field worker, pipeline construction worker, and construction worker on the Matillija Dam.

Music was a major influence in Keith's early life. His parents both grew up on California cattle ranches, and loved to sing. He learned to play harmonica as a first-grader, clarinet as a third-grader, and saxophone in junior high. While in high school he became leader of the "Stardusters," a dance band that played for school dances, service clubs and military bases in Ventura County. History was Rusty's passion, and she spent her formative years haunting the museums and libraries in Los Angeles.

Keith and Rusty met while working at Badger Pass ski lodge in Yosemite National Park. When Keith returned to continue his education at Stanford University, Rusty left her pre-med course work at UCLA, and they married. They had five children over the next 17 years, Michael, David, Mary, Jennifer, and Sarah.

After graduation, Keith went to work for Pacific Telephone in Southern California. Fifteen years later, he was the District Plant Manager for Pacific Telephone's Riverside district, in charge of 200 employees - installation, repair, central office maintenance and the plant service center for Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

During the telephone company years, Keith taught himself to play the 5 string banjo using Pete Seeger's book. Soon thereafter, Keith and Rusty started singing with the Riverside Folk Song Society and organized the Young People's Folk Song Society, where many people interested in traditional music shared songs they collected or grew up with. Keith and Rusty were as interested in the history presented in the songs, and the background of the songs, as they were in the songs themselves. They found that when performing at these meetings, as well as at local coffeehouses and church events, they were doing as much teaching as they were singing. The teaching and performing accelerated as they became active in the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, when, for Keith and Rusty, the effectiveness of music as a teaching and bridge-building tool became more and more apparent.

 

Going Pro

In 1966 Keith left his comfortable middle management job when he and Rusty decided to spend full time teaching American history through folk song. Their goal was to build bridges of understanding and appreciation between Americans of different religions, nationalities, ethnic and racial backgrounds, economic status, ages, gender and political persuasions, using history through folk song as the tool. They researched and presented assembly programs, classroom programs, university extension courses (for teachers and parents) on teaching American history through song using as many as 30 different musical instruments. They also created classroom lecture-performances for students in secondary schools, community colleges and universities.

Keith also performed professionally with two friends, Clabe Hangan (African American) and Joe Rael (Mexican American) as "The Mixed Company" during their early years as professional musicians, demonstrating the contributions of European, African, and Mexican Americans to American popular music in school assembly programs around Southern California. Keith left The Mixed Company when he and Rusty became so busy that he could not participate in both groups.

Keith and Rusty soon realized that travel was a major requirement for their new profession, so they purchased a 79 passenger school bus (remember those five children?).  In 1973, the McNeil family spent a year rebuilding the engine and converting their 1949 antique bus into a comfortable motor home that would accommodate eight people complete with kitchen, bath, beds, and instrument and sound system storage. They have driven the bus across the United States 30 times in subsequent years.

Eventually Keith and Rusty contracted with Columbia Artists Community Concerts Division to present concerts across the United States and Canada. They presented 550 Community Concerts over a 15 year period in nearly every state in the Union.

 

Expanding the Business

In 1983, the McNeil family began producing CD volumes of American History through Song. Each is a multi-disc CD volume with historical narration preceding each song to establish the historical context. Keith plays a number of musical instruments on their recordings, including 6-string and 12-string guitar, tenor and 5-string banjo, mandolin, autoharp, clarinet, saxophone, highland bagpipes, harmonica, tin whistle, recorder, Native American drums and mouth-bow, and African drums. Rusty plays guitar, autoharp, African and Native American drums and various rhythm instruments. Their children and friends sing and play a number of instruments, including guitar, piano, keyboard, flute, accordion, mandolin, and conga drums.

In 1987, Keith and Rusty began taking groups of Americans on tours to different countries, exploring the traditional music and dance of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Zimbabwe.

Their publications include Colonial & Revolution, Civil War, Moving West, and California Songbooks, all with historical commentary. Their recordings include American History Through Folksong - six volumes (15 CDs) of recorded songs and narration; American Religious Songs (3 CDs); and California History Through Folksong - two volumes (4 CDs).

The McNeils reside in Riverside, California.

UPDATE:  Rusty McNeil passed away December 15, 2010, due to complications from a stroke she suffered in February of 2009.  Two excellent obituaries are here and here.  She was eight days shy of her 60th wedding aniversary, and had been surrounded by family and friends for the two weeks prior to her death. 


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