Rusty McNeil succumbed to death due to complications of stroke on December 15, 2010. The folk-music historian was 81.
Born Joan Betty Wilmsmeier, Rusty (a name everyone tagged her with because of her red hair) and her husband Keith McNeil made news when they started touring the country on a converted school bus. Dubbed ‘Amazing Grace’, the bus became their ‘house on wheels’ for Keith and Rusty along with their children and dogs for a span of 15 years.
The couple traveled the country to teach American history through folk music. According to Keith and Rusty’s website, the folk singers taught courses on history and American pop culture in various universities, state colleges and community colleges over the years. They continuously researched and performed folksongs as they traveled around the US and Canada.
Rusty, then a UCLA student, met Keith in 1949 when she spent her winter break at a ski lodge in Yosemite National Park. Keith McNeil was a Stanford University student at the time, and both were employees of the ski lodge.
The couple had five children – Michael, David, Mary, Jennifer, and Sarah – and, when they weren’t traveling, resided in Riverside, California. Rusty and Keith had become part of the Riverside Folk Song Society and had realized the effectiveness of music as a teaching tool when they became active in the civil rights movement.
It was 1966 when Rusty and Keith decided to take on teaching history through folk music full time. Being well versed in playing musical instruments such as guitar, autoharp and many other rhythm instruments, the couple had an advantage in carrying out their goals of teaching American history to the younger generation.
After getting a contract with the Columbia Artists Community Division, the McNeil family journeyed across every state and province in the US and Canada to perform the 550 community concerts they had over their 15 long years on the road.
In 1983, the McNeils started producing volumes of American History through folk songs. These early CDs contained historical narration before every song in the track list. In 1987, the couple took groups of Americans to England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, and Zimbabwe to discover the traditional music and dances of these countries.
Rusty and Keith published the songbooks Colonial & Revolution, Civil War, Moving West, and California – all of which contained historical notes. Their recordings of songs and narration include American History Through Folksong, American Religious Songs, and California History Through Folksong – totaling 22 CDs.
Rusty had a stroke in early 2009. Complications caused Rusty’s passing according to her son, David, in an interview with The Riverside Press-Enterprise. She died in her Riverside home on December 15, 2010.
Rusty’s son said that she breathed her last while holding Keith’s hand. The famed folk-singing duo was supposed to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary just eight days after she passed away. Rusty and Keith had always been a team; they spent their celebrated life together with their five children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Rusty McNeil will always be remembered, not just as a folk singer, but as an influential teacher. Rusty was an individual who influenced the public through her music, while at the same time, taking responsibilities of being a wife and a mother in stride.