Archive for the ‘Loreena McKennitt’ Category

One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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The debunking of popular knowledge has always been heady stuff to me. I love knowing that Bonnie Prince Charlie, far from the romantic figure of Scottish tradition, was an alcoholic and illiterate in several languages. Was Richard III not a monster, but, if anything too honorable for his own good? Were some Puritans so far from prudish as to be advocates of free love? Is it possible that, until the last few decades, the First Nations of North America were no more ecologically sensitive than other cultures? Did Neandertals contribute to the modern gene pool? I could get drunk on such knowledge (or its possibility) as easily as on the fumes of the finest brandy. And nowhere does it delight me so much as in the difference between the public persona and private reality of people.

For instance, years ago, when my partner and I were helping to organize a Mythopoeic Conference, Loreena McKennitt slept in our spare room. Conditioned by the ethereal, Celtic Twilight persona of publicity, we expected a shy, quiet woman who only came alive in her music. But between breakfast, and ferrying her to the conference and then to the Mission Folk Festival, we quickly discovered that she was a hard-headed business woman, determined to keep control of her music and career, with a down-to-earth attention to details and a formidable store of daily knowledge.

I am in no way suggesting that she was a hypocrite – she obviously loved what she was doing – but the gap between how everybody thought of her and the way she moved through life was so broad that I had trouble reconciling the two. Still, I couldn’t help smiling with satisfaction as I watched countless fans trying to engage her in conversation about New Age spirituality (about which she obviously knew quite a bit without necessarily believing it or accepting it uncritically). These fans thought they were seeing the real McKennitt when I knew that they were seeing only a controlled aspect of her.

Of course, the same was probably true of me – but I knew that, and the fans didn’t.

The same was true of Paul Edwin Zimmer, a member of the circle of fantasy writers in Berkeley that included his sister Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson. People who met Paul before his far-too early death in 1997 might have assumed he was a hard drinking, charismatically boisterous party-goer who spent his days in formal Scottish attire and roaring with laughter.

Having stayed over at his communal house once or twice, I realized this was his persona for science fiction conventions – a kind of controlled bursting loose from his ordinary life. Most days – or nights, to be exact – he spent working, dressed in a ragged red kaftan. For days at a time, he might not leave the house. Instead of acting like a student in his first semester in the campus dorms, he lived quietly and studiously, partly because of poverty, but also, I think, out of choice and dedication to his writing.

Yet few of the people who knew him from conventions believed that they knew him only in holiday mode. And, again, I had the satisfaction of knowing a real complexity that ran far deeper than his public appearance.

More recently, I have seen glimpses of the same dichotomy in a person well-known in free and open source software community (I’m deliberately withholding details that might identify them) Ask around, and you’ll be told that they are an assertive, no-nonsense person who has arrived at the pinnacle of their career.

Yet almost immediately, I observed that, while they are intense, they also suffer from at least occasional bouts of self-doubt. Nor does assertiveness always come easy to them – clearly, they have to nerve themselves up for it once they have concluded it necessary. And while they are praised for their success and contributions, in private they have doubts about what they have accomplished and are looking for more satisfying careers.

I admit that I laughed when I observed the first hints of this incongruity — but incongruity, of course, is a key element of humor, and I had to quickly explain why I was laughing to avoid sounding like I was being insulting. Here was a person who was respected on the basis of rumors that were half-truths at best, and gave them no more than limited personal satisfaction.

The only downside to such revelations is that they can leave me wondering if anyone is what they are popularly supposed. Even worse, they make me despair of ever knowing anything or anyone with any degree of accuracy. Yet I am addicted to them all the same. Whenever I discover such dichotomies, I gleefully glom on to them like a limpet, pleased to have another small sliver of truth in my perception of those around me.

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Last fall, when Loreena McKennitt’s An Ancient Muse was released, I felt the satisfaction of the world sliding back into its proper place. For one thing, McKennitt is one of the few modern musicians whose work can literally be described as uplifting, simultaneously relaxing and inspiring. Really, it’s a sense of spirituality set to music. For another, she camped overnight on our futon many years ago, an experience from which I emerged with the conviction that, if anyone deserved to have success on her own terms, it was McKennitt.

At the time we met, McKennitt was a cult figure about to hit the big time. Trish and I were part of the organizing committee for the Mythopoeic Conference, an annual mixture of fantasy convention and academic conference that we had discovered through Paul Zimmer of Greyhaven. A west coast booking agent contacted us through our friends at a local bookstore, and asked if we wanted McKennitt to play at the conference.

Some considerable hemming and hawing later, punctuated by our pleas of extreme poverty on behalf of the conference, the agent was gone and McKennitt had agreed to play in return for the right to sell albums at the conference and transport to her next gig at the Mission Folk Festival the same day. Nothing was signed; it was all on trust.

The arrangement brought screams of outrage from our nominal committee chair. Our contract with the University of British Columbia, where the conference was being held, didn’t allow us to sell anything. However, at that point, the rest of the committee had spent the better part of a year working around the chair, so we went ahead. We knew that the conference would be full of harp-mad people full of the yearning for the Celtic Twilight, and the opportunity was too exciting to pass up. Besides, we wouldn’t be selling anything ourselves, so, even if a campus official did check on us on a Sunday afternoon, we figured we were still legal.

After a day of rushing around staving off catastrophes at the conference, at 2AM on Sunday, we met McKennitt at the airport. Knowing her image mostly through promotional pictures, we expected an ethereal and delicate creature wafting dreamily though the airport. Instead, we encountered a small but sturdy woman with a brisk stride trundling a harp. Although she was obviously tired from catching the red-eye from Toronto, she was clearly practical and well-grounded in the here and now.

As we went to the car, I made a mental note to myself: Never mistake a public image for the real person. It’s not that McKennitt didn’t have a spiritual side; it’s just that she was a much more rounded person than her stage persona suggested. I perceived, too, that, while she was friendly and polite, she only revealed so much, and would defend her privacy if it was threatened. Years later, when she sued a colleague for writing a book that violated her privacy, I wasn’t the least surprised. That fitted my sense of her when we first met.

To our surprise, we found that McKennitt had made no arrangements for a place to stay. Somehow, the matter had never come up, and we were too inexperienced to anticipate it. Unable to think of any suitable hotel, we invited her home, and started along Southwest Marine Drive. She collapsed on our futon, and, five hours later, when we rose to return to the conference, she was drawing aside the covers on the cages for a peak at our parrots, dressed in a sensible-looking white nightgown. I wondered if it was the same one she wore on the cover of Elemental, but I didn’t like to pry.

Still, for all the sense of how strong her personal boundaries were, we learned a little about Loreena ferrying her back and forth. Possibly, the fact that we were all functioning on too little sleep made her more forthcoming than usual. At the time, she was making some important career decisions, like whether to sign with a big label or continue on her own. Control of her own material and career, she made clear, was her chief concern, and we quickly came to admire her mixture of determination and ethics.

She talked, too, of the difficulties of travelling with her favorite harp, and how she usually paid for a second plane ticket, since she couldn’t trust the baggage handlers with it, no matter how it was crated. If I remember correctly, she had had some nasty experiences doing otherwise.

We entered the conference quietly, but as McKennitt looked around the lobby for the best place to play, several fans quickly gathered. She was obviously psyching up for the performance, but, for a while, she chatted with them, deftly deflecting one man’s wish to enter a correspondence about religious beliefs and another one’s enthusiastic praise of her work. Somehow, without ever looking abrupt or flustered, she managed to satisfy them and detach herself from the crowd to set about her business.

Attended by about two hundred people, the concert was nothing short of magical. The lobby acoustics were almost those of a cathedral, and McKennitt had the audience entranced from the start. At one point, the sun burst through the clouds and the skylight, spotlighting some of the crowd, and I heard an audible sigh of happiness from everyone. Later, many people told us that the concert was one of the highlights of all the Mythopoeics they had attended.

After the concert, I stood at a table, selling CDs. For at least ten minutes, all I could hear was the slap of jewel cases as we unpacked them from the boxes and placed them on the table.

Then the conference chair began squawking like a goose at our alleged breaking of the rules. My thesis supervisor took her aside, while we handed McKennitt the money and spirited her out the door. I didn’t think I had the right to count the money, but most of the audience had bought two or three CDs, so she had made a tidy bit of extra money from what was really a side gig for her. I do know that the roll of bills I handed her just before Trish drove her to Mission was so large that I couldn’t pinch its ends together in one hand.

Since that day, we talked to McKennitt only once, although we kept track of her career and often attended her concerts. We were delighted at how she managed to stay successful without giving up control, but, the truth is, we didn’t want to presume. Over the years, she must have stayed with hundreds of people, and I have no idea whether she would remember us — probably not.

And, to an extent, I don’t care. For me, McKennitt is a living example of how to combine practicality and artistic integrity. While I wouldn’t mind sitting down with her for a long talk, the fact that she showed me that possibility is in some ways more important than having a personal connection.

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