The Mummers' Dance
Setpember 5, 2018
Todd plays "The Mummers' Dance" on the piano.
LOREENA MCKENNITT - THE MUMMERS' DANCE
A one-hit retrospective
Todd: I...don't...know this one.
Video for "The Mummers' Dance" starts
Todd (VO): Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, yadda-yadda-yadda. OK, I'm still doing all the requests I sold off.
Todd: I think I'm about halfway through. This is taking forever.
Todd (VO): And once again, we are going back to the mid- to late-'90s; and...normally this is where I complain about how I wished we had more variance in the requests, but...
Todd: ...Actually, yeah, this one's a little out there for me.
Clip of "The Mummers' Dance"
Loreena McKennitt: When in the springtime of the year
Todd (VO): This is Canadian singer/songwriter/pianist/harpist/accordionist, Loreena McKennitt. And, uhh...yeah I am well afield of my usual genres today [chuckles].
Todd: This isn't alt-rock or new wave. This is way out of my expertise.
Todd (VO): Uh, I don't remember this, and it seems like a lot of people don't either. And, personally, I don't know very much about [images of posters for...] new age, Celtic, world music.
Todd: And no, I'm not saying that Celtic music is the same thing as world music or new age music.
Todd (VO): So save the pedantic comments. I'm saying that Ms. McKennitt has been variously described as an artist in all three of those genres. I know they're not the same thing, but they do have a lot of overlap.
Todd: And the big thing they have in common is that they do not have hits. Or at least, they do very rarely.
Todd (VO): And Loreena McKennitt was one of the very few who did when she reached the Top 20 in the winter of 1998 with her single, [single cover for...] "The Mummers' Dance."
Loreena: We've been rambling all the night
Yeah, y'all remember "The Mummers' Dance." [laughing] Remember when "The Mummers' Dance" was everywhere? That's so '90s, right?
Todd: No, it was. Look at this. [image of archived Billboard Hot 100 chart from 1998] Right between NSYNC and Third Eye Blind, "The Mummers' Dance." That was an actual thing that happened.
Todd (VO): The hell kind of pagan, Wicker Man shit is going on here?
Todd: What the hell is a mummer? What's a "mummers' dance?"
Clip from Just Dance
Todd (VO): No, I clearly said "mummers' dance." That's not the same thing.
Todd: Well, we'll get to it.
Todd (VO): What a mummers' dance is is less interesting to me than the fact that this was a mainstream hit at all. Like, this is all very strange to me. I am flying blind. I can tell you this: [image of...] She has long red hair, and she plays the harp...
Todd: ...which is exactly how I pictured her as.
Clip of live performance
Todd (VO): And she also has millions of fans. She has sold fifteen million records.
Todd: I was completely unaware of her...
Todd (VO): ...but if you're a new age listener, she is absolutely huge, especially in her home country. And the fans of her I've talked to confirmed if I treat her with any less than the respect she deserves, they'll string me up with mandolin strings and...
Todd: ...beat me like a pinata.
Loreena: We've been rambling...
Todd (VO): So, if you are into new age music, you probably already know her name and all her work, and she's a superstar to you. But for our purposes today, she is a one-hit wonder. Let us begin...
Todd: ...and dance our merry dance. Hey-nonny-nonny-ho!
Before the hit
Todd: OK, so, one more time. Full warning: I'm in new ground. This is not my genre.
Clip of new age band
Todd (VO): I have friends who love this shit. I've seen a couple shows with them, shows with [image of another band with...] kilted men and women in long, green skirts playing those little hand-drums that you hit with what looks like a chicken bone. (It's called a "bodhran") And it's just not my thing. Todd: So, to properly research this, I had to resort to something I rarely do, which is [picture of man and woman...] talk to other people. [groans] And it turns out some of the people I know have a looot of thoughts about Loreena McKennitt. So here's what I've gleaned.
Clip of interview with Loreena McKennitt
Todd (VO): Loreena McKennitt is from Stratford, Ontario, and she says she didn't even want to pursue music; she just fell into it. She wanted to be a vet, but she got into Irish folk in college. And she got her start by busking on the streets of Toronto, and getting her listeners' addresses and mailing them her demo tapes. And she built up a serious following that way, so among other things, she is a marketing genius.
Live performance of Loreena McKennitt - "The Lady of Shalott"
Now, she released some independent albums in the '80s, but here she is in 1991 on her big major label debut. This is called, "The Lady of Shalott," based, of course, on the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem
Loreena: Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott
Todd: Not the first reference I've seen to that poem doing these music reviews.
Clip of The Band Perry - "If I Die Young"
Kimberly Perry: If I die young...
Todd (VO): But theirs was a half-assed attempt to seem poetic. Loreena treats Tennyson with a little more dignity because...it's literally just the actual poem set to music. In fact, a lot of her work is classical poetry set to music. It's very pretty if you like romantic Victorian poetry. Me, personally, I did not major in English, so I feel a little underequipped. Yeah, some people really like all this Poncy, medieval stuff. But for me, the layers of tradition feel more distancing than bringing the past to life. Todd: [pause] Am I not giving this my all? I'm gonna try harder. OK, let's take a look at one of her other bigger singles, [single cover for...] "The Bonny Swans." [medieval accent] Ooh, the Bonny swans! Sorry, being serious.
Video for Loreena McKennitt - "The Bonny Swans"
Loreena: A farmer there lived in the north country
A hey ho and me bonny-o
Todd (VO): Hey ho, bonny-ho. Ehh...
Todd: [looking at his phone] Uh, OK, ehh...says here that, "Bonny Swans" is based off [sheet music for...] "The Twa Sisters," which is an Old English...murder ballad.
Todd (VO): About a girl who [image of...] drowns her sister out of jealousy.
Loreena: The eldest pushed the youngest in
Loreena: O father, o daddy, here swims a swan
A hey ho and me bonny-o
Todd (VO): OK, so it turns out "The Bonny Swans" is an incredibly macabre and sarcastic title. Because in the third verse, a little girl's looking down the river and is like... Todd: "Look, Dad! A swan's floating by!" Hah-hah, no. [old illustration of girl seeing...] It's a corpse.
Loreena: He made a harp of her breast bone
Todd (VO): [laughing] What the fuck?! OK, I totally forgot that medieval literature [image of bone harp with caption] is dark and gross as hell. That's fuckin' metal. I totally get the appeal of this one, at least. [clip of "The Dark Night of the Soul"] That came out around '94, which is right around the time that Celtic music started hitting its peak popularity in America. Now, see, here's the thing that was...kinda surprising for me to realize...
Todd: Celtic music has not always been a thing.
Todd (VO): In fact, it was invented in 1992, for [cover for original motion picture soundtrack to...] the soundtrack to Ron Howard's Far And Away.
Todd: The Celts have no known musical traditions before that year. [pause] I'm kidding. But it is actually newer than you think.
Todd (VO): Like, yes, the Celts have always had music, but [album cover for Celtic Love Collection] the distinct commercial genre that you can buy CDs of at Barnes & Noble; that's relatively recent. Like, you think pipes and jigs and stuff because a [clip of "The Morning Dew" by...] band called The Chieftains nailed all that down in the '60s.
Clip of Clannad - "Theme from 'Harry's Game...'"
It only started getting really mainstream around the '80s in the UK, and it doesn't really [...and...] pop up in America until the mid-'90s, what with the river dance and the Braveheart and all that. And the quick growth of that scene proved really helpful for McKennitt. She...even started seeing some of her songs show up in movies. [movie posters for...] Uh, no, not Braveheart. [...Rob Roy...] Uh, nope. [...Dragonheart...] Getting warmer.
Clip of trailer for...
Male announcer: Highlander III: The Sorceror
Todd (VO): There you go. [Loreena McKennitt - "Bonny Portmore" plays over another clip from Highlander III] Yeah, she soundtracked both the Highlander TV show and the third movie. The genre was still breaking into the mainstream; you gotta start somewhere. Todd: You know, while we're talking about Celtic new age, I should really do the comparison between McKennitt [video for Enya - "Orinoco Flow"] and the big Celtic new age superstar, Enya. I saw a lot of sites call McKennitt the Canadian Enya. But I talked to my friends, and they assured me that Enya is...eh, you know, she's alright.
Clips of Enya - "Only Time"; and "Caribbean Blue"
Todd (VO): She may be more famous, but she doesn't have the wide genre range like McKennitt has. E-E-Enya's had some good records, but it's been mostly downhill since Shepherd Moons, right? After that, she's had a few decent songs here and there, but she's... Todd: ...never reached those heights again. [beat] I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Live performace of Loreena McKennitt - "Santiago"
Todd (VO): But the whole wider range of genre thing, yes I totally get that because...in addition to Celtic music, a lot of McKennitt's stuff is inspired by the music of...
Todd: ...Galicia. [image of map of Spain showing...] Yeah, it's a real place. It's that little nub of Spain that sticks out over Portugal.
Todd (VO): And apparently McKennitt just absolutely loves Spain. Especially Galicia, which...believe it or not...
Todd: ...is also Celtic.
Todd (VO): Yeah, a millennium and a half ago, the Celts settled that area, too, and Celtic culture is extremely alive over there. You don't see any, like, flamenco or castanets; [clip of local musician playing...] they play the bagpipes.
Todd: And because Spain was then [painting of an army of...] conquered by the Moors, there's...
Todd (VO): ...a lot of Arabic influence in McKennitt's work, too. According to her, she just likes travelling to places, and then listening to their music, and working it into her own work. She calls it a travel log.
Todd: So, basically, she makes records the same way [screenshot of Facebook photo album] people make Facebook vacation albums.
Clip of "Tango to Evora"
Todd (VO): And I guess you could say she has some new age influence, but...I don't know if you can really call it that because new age is...basically not even a real thing. It's a wide collection of music that doesn't really have anything in common except that it sounds like a brain massage.
Video for "The Mystic's Dream" starts
[deeply sighs] Yeahhh, that's the stuff. Something soothing and relaxing. And this one even has some Gregorian chanting in it. [shot of article: "Gregorian Chants Becaome an Int'l Hit..."] Monk chanting was also popular in the '90s. It was a whole thing. I swear I'm not kidding. Man, this episode is bringing up memories of a lot of weird shit I forgot about.
Todd: But, anyway. While she certainly worked hard to make her own art, I don't think she was prepared to have a hit. Here's the hit.
The big hit
Video for "The Mummers' Dance" starts again
Todd (VO): So in 1997, Loreena McKennitt...
Todd: ...releases her big hit, "The Mummers' Dance."
Todd (VO): Which means we need to get back to the original question.
Todd: What the hell, is a mummer?
Todd (VO): I was just kidding earlier; I do know what a mummer is, but only because it comes up in [image of...] the Song of Ice and Fire books a lot. [clip from Game of Thrones] Around every other chapter, Tyrion is like, [stuffy British accent], "Is this a jape? Some kind of mummer's farce?"
Todd: Yeah, they wrote that out of the show. Probably for the best.
Montage clips of Game of Thrones episode, "The Lion and the Rose"; The Muppets; 2018 Philadelphia Mummers Parade
Todd (VO): Anyway, a mummer is like a medieval mime. You know, they dance or pretend to swordfight; those are mummers. You might have known this word already if you're older and you remember the '70s mime group, Mummenschanz. Or if you live in Philly, 'cause they have the Mummers Parade every year. This year, the parade was a bunch of [images of Philadelphia Eagles fans at parade] drunk guys flipping cars and shouting "Big Dick Nick" over and over.
Clip of "The Mummers' Dance"
So there you have it. In the '90s, the decade of irony, we had a completely sincere song about everyone's favorite thing, [clip of America's Got Talent featuring...] dancing mimes.
Todd: So, this is basically, [brief clip of...] "The Safety Dance" of the '90s. And this is important to note here...
Todd (VO): ...this is a remix. The original version...
Todd: ...sounded more like this.
Clip of Loreena McKennitt performing "The Mummers Dance" on Late Night with David Letterman
Loreena: We've been rambling all the night
And some time of this day
Todd (VO): And then it got pumped up a bit by [image of...] the English electronica duo, DNA. Todd: Now, they're best known for taking a folk singer's a cappella single...
Clip of Suzanne Vega - "Tom's Diner"
Suzanne: The woman
Who has come in
She is shaking
And I look
The other way
Todd: ...and then adding a dance beat.
Clip of DNA ft. Suzanne Vega - "Tom's Diner"
Suzanne: Doo doo doo doo doo doo-doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo-doo doo
Todd (VO): So, yeah, that's kinda their thing. And they did it again for Loreena.
Clip of "The Mummers' Dance"
Loreena: We've been rambling all the night
Todd (VO): The difference is a lot subtler this time, but you can still definitely hear it. There's more echo effects, and a bit of a bass thump on the end of each measure.
Todd: I mean, they could've gone for it even more if they wanted. [snippet of guy dancing at the club; "The Mummers' Dance" plays in background with faster tempo, more thumping bass, and a horn sound effect] It makes sense 'cause this is already a dance song.
Todd (VO): It has "dance" right in the title. If you read the lyrics, it's apparently festival time...
Todd: ...and the mummers are going...
Todd (VO): ...door-to-door like Christmas carolers. Because it's a holiday. [medieval accent] Spring is in the air. We're going to frolic around [image of young girls dancing around...] the maypole, and... [image of...] sacrifice goats.
Todd: I don't know what they did back then.
Todd (VO): The point is it's a happy song. If [clip of...] "Party Rock Anthem" was written in the 13th century, it'd sound like this.
Todd: So, how did it get big?
Todd (VO): A throwback to medieval times, and probably the last song ever written where gay still means happy.
Loreena: We bring a garland gay
Todd: It's out of place. How did we get something driven by an... Todd (VO): ...accordion, and a fiddle, and the hurdy-gurdy, and one of those Arabic string instruments I don't know the name of.
Snippet of guy playing...(I think it's called an "oud"?)
Todd: Well, the dance elements are one part of it. [clip of Braveheart] The big Celtic revival was a much bigger part of it. But there's one factor even bigger than that that I think deserves mention. River dance and Braveheart certainly primed the pump, but "The Mummers' Dance" [screenshot of Hot 100 airplay charts with song title and dates circled] first charts on the week of December 20, 1997, and peaked in March of 1998. Ya know what pop culture event was happening during pretty much that exact length of time?
Clip of "My Heart Will Go On" from...wait for it...
Celine Dion: You're here
Todd (VO): Titanic. Biggest movie of all time at the time. Released that same exact week in December.
Todd: I don't believe that's a coincidence!
Todd (VO): Especially what with that soundtrack being absolutely huge, not only because of Celine Dion's giant theme song, but also there's Irish jigs all over the place in that movie. It was Celtic folk's biggest mainstream exposure of all time. So, if you wanted a singer that had Celine's beautiful vocals, but...
Todd: ...with the authenticity of [Irish accent] Leo's Irish friends playing their folk music...
Clip of "The Mummers' Dance"
Todd (VO): ...[normal] well, here you go. And, in fact, you can see Loreena and Celine go [screenshot of Hot 100 Adult Contemporary chart...] neck and neck on the Adult Top 40 charts all that winter.
Todd: And not only did it chart on the easy listening stations, it...[...and Modern Rock Tracks chart] also showed on the modern rock charts? [throws hands up]
Todd (VO): I don't...know how that happened, but...I gotta believe that means the [clip of...] Lilith Fair crowd got into this, too.
Todd: I-I certainly hear it at least.
Video for Tori Amos - "Cornflake Girl"
Todd (VO): She does not sound all that different from Tori Amos. You take out the rock and roll, you replace the angry and personal lyrics with [painting of...] madrigals, and there you go. ["The Mummers' Dance"] And I have to admit, I'm really starting to feel it, too. All of McKennitt's other stuff feels a little...remote to me; stuff you'd listen to in the background, or you'd put on to feel smart rather than enjoy.
Todd: I mean, maybe that's not fair. Like I said, it's not my genre. But...
Todd (VO): ...that little bounce in the remix makes this one single feel a lot more direct. It's Old English ballads turned sexy and fun. I mean, the groove on this song just kills. It feels like it works on all levels; as a medieval throwback they can play at the ren fair; as an alternative track for artsy girls; and as a thumping club track.
Todd: OK, maybe that last one's overstating it.
Todd (VO): But I feel it, and the world felt it, too.
Another clip of Late Night with David Letterman
David: Please welcome Loreena McKennitt.
Todd (VO): "Mummers' Dance" brought her to the absolute pinnacle of success in new age music. Which is that she showed up on one of those [commercial for...] Pure Moods CDs. Ah, the '90s. [clip of opening for Legacy] And "Mummers' Dance" even showed up as the theme song for a show on UPN that year. It was a cowboy show about ranchers in Kentucky, and the song was wildly off genre; this is why UPN doesn't exist anymore. But my point is, she was nationwide.
Todd: And, uhh...that was about it as far as Loreena McKennitt and pop culture goes. But, let's see where she went from there.
failed follow-up (that was not as big a hit as the previous single)
Audio for "Marco Polo" plays in the background
Todd: Yeah, this is one of those times where "failed" is so obviously incorrect, that I'm not even gonna dignify it.
Todd (VO): She's a new age artist. She's not supposed to have even one hit to begin with. That's like saying [image of...] Colonel Sanders was a "failed" restaurateur 'cause he only had the one fast-food chain.
Todd: In this case, one's all you need.
Video for "Marco Polo"
Todd (VO): For the record, if you actually do wanna know what she released after this, it's something called, [single cover for...] "Marco Polo." Yeah, it's very, uhh...Arabic.
Todd: And, yeah, the perfect storm of trends that brought us "The Mummers' Dance" was not gonna do the same for "Marco Polo."
Todd (VO): There was and is no Arabic music trend in America.
Todd: All that stuff gets labeled, [air quote] "world music," [image of world music CD rack] which is where they pile up the music of every other non-European culture. Maybe one day, one of those musics will trend big enough to get its own section in the CD store, but it was not happening at the time.
Clip of live performance of "Marco Polo"
Todd (VO): This song doesn't even have lyrics, so...the crossover appeal was very low.
Todd: And most importantly...there was no remix.
Todd (VO): It wouldn't have been particularly amenable to do a remix anyway. I mean, this is not something you can turn...
Todd: ...into a dance-y song. [beat; music in background suddenly stops] Or can you?
Same snippet of guy in the club; "Mummers' Dance" is replaced with "Marco Polo"
Guy: Damn, son! Where'd you find this?
Todd: But that's not what derailed Loreena McKennitt's career. What did derail it was a [shot of blog entry...] horrible personal tragedy; her fiance died in a boating accident.
Todd (VO): And by all accounts, she took it very hard because she disappeared from the music world for nearly a decade. She did start a charity for sea and air rescue that she is...still very serious about. And she released a one-off song here and there, but for the most part...
Todd: ...right at her peak, she went on indefinite hiatus.
Did she ever do anything else?
Todd: Well fortunately, for her fans, yes. She did, in fact return to recording.
Clip of Nights from the Alhambra concert footage
Todd (VO): In fact, I was repeatedly recommended her live album from 2006 at the Alhambra in Spain. So, if this seems like your thing, check that out. It's a three-disc CD/DVD set, though, so... Todd: ...if that seems like a little bit of a time commitment, you can instead check out [clip of trailer for...] Disney's direct-to-video, Tinker Bell, which she narrated and did the theme song for.
Female announcer: Discover the story of the world's most beloved fairy.
Todd (VO): And, yeah, she has in fact kept making records since then. This one is called, "Penelope's Dream." It's about Odysseus' wife in The Odyssey. So if you're a classics nerd, or you have fond memories of your high school lit classes, I'd take a listen.
Todd: And if you're interested, she did release a new album a couple months ago, and she's going on tour next year. [shrugs]
Did she deserve better?
Todd: Should we even answer this? She sold fifteen million records. That's the same amount of records that [image of...] The Barenaked Ladies sold, and they just got inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Clip of "The Mummers' Dance"
Todd (VO): But what I mean by, "Did she deserve better?", is..."Does she deserve better than being called a one-hit wonder?" And, yes, obviously she deserves better than that. But, I don't think anyone really thinks of her in those terms. I don't think people even remember her one hit. But those that do, it seems to have gotten them devoted to her for life.
Todd: This was a weird episode, but I appreciated being able to do it. There are a lot of genres that won't ever get out of their niche unless...
Todd (VO): ...the stars line up just right. And that's what happened here. When she started showing up on the rock charts, she said that people have brought more tastes than they're given credit for. And I guess she was right. Loreena's still one of the most popular acts of new age around, and she'll probably perform for the rest of her life. I salute her.
Todd: Everybody mummer dance! [dances in his piano stool] Ey-ey-ey-ey, kaloo-kalay.
Video for "The Mummers' Dance" ends
Closing Tag Song: Hayley Westenra - "The Mummers' Dance"
"The Mummers' Dance" is owned by Quinlan Records
This video is owned by me
Special thanks to Loreena superfan Robert Panico
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!