Wednesday, August 20, 2014

F Is for a Fraggle

Okay, I'm cheating a little, but I just really wanted to get this character in here. The one on the left: Cantus the Minstrel.

When I was a little kid, I used to rush home after school so I could be home in time for Fraggle Rock on HBO. This was an international co-production, which was made in Canada but designed to be shown in many other countries. It's a surprisingly complex show, seeing it now as an adult; Jim Henson's original vision for the show was to depict a colorful world with a system of symbiotic relationships between different creatures, meant to be an allegory for not only the interconnectedness of humans to one another, but to the environment. Through music and humor, the show was also able to deal with real issues like prejudice, spirituality, identity, environmental responsibility, social conflict, death, and even systems of governance.

Jim Henson helped develop the show and was excited about it, but took a hands-off approach, leaving it mainly to producer Duncan Kenworthy and writer Jerry Juhl to run the show and involving himself in other projects like Labyrinth. Jim did, however, make occasional appearances as two characters: Convincing John and Cantus the Minstrel.

Cantus was one of my favorite things about the show. He only appeared once in each of the show's five seasons, but I was always excited when he did. He's a really good distillation of Jim's spiritual side, with a liberal bit of silliness thrown in. I'd actually say he represents the next stage--after the heavily spiritual philosophy of the world of Thra in The Dark Crystal--in the representation of Jim's gentle, mystical spirituality. It's a side of himself he seems to have gone out of his way not to express publicly, except through characters or performances or the cosmology of a fantasy film. (One of the more frustrating things about the recent, excellent Jim Henson: The Biography was just how little we really learned about him, but it really seems to be because he was just that private a person and always tried to keep things pleasant between himself and his colleagues, avoiding topics like religion.)

The first episode featuring Cantus aired in 1983, and he was introduced with this song, which is one of my all time favorites.

I love the character's half-lidded eyes and expressive hands, mixed with Jim's soft vocal affectations. Cantus is gentle, relaxed, enigmatic and mystical. In later episodes we see that he knows the music of the other races, the Doozers and the Gorgs, as well as the music of the Fraggles. He seems to be on a quest to understand the nature of the universe, open to experience as it happens, meeting it on its own terms, and that's a powerful image for me and my anxiety disorder. Seeing him at 6 years old really affected me, and it probably says something about how I'd like to engage with the world that of all five seasons of Fraggle Rock, this is the one episode I never, ever forgot. I've hummed this song all my life.

And I do love that Cantus' riddle-like speech patterns aren't played as inherently wise; that's a great moment at the end of that clip when Murray asks "Did he answer my question?" (Also neat: "Cantus" is Latin for "song.")

Jim Henson listed Cantus as one of his favorite characters to perform, and the character has never appeared again since Fraggle Rock. The other Minstrels were repurposed as background characters in crowd scenes in The Muppets Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, along with a number of Fraggle Rock characters, which is always kind of weird to notice. (Seeing Sprocket in a waistcoat is kind of trippy.)

"Everything seems to sing, everywhere I go..."

ABC Wednesday


Reader Wil said...

Lovely post! I like that tune played by Cantus the Minstrel.Thanks for your treat.
Wil, ABCW Team.

fredamans said...

I loved Fraggle Rock after The Muppets as a kid! :-)

Roger Owen Green said...

Cheating is perfectly acceptable.
For some reason, never got into Fraggle Rock. Maybe I was too old. (But not too old for The Muppets?)

Su-sieee! Mac said...

Hearing it for the first I can see why this is one of your favorite songs. I love the words and the melody.
Take 25 to Hollister