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Loreena McKennitt: Music Meets History

I remember little from my early childhood in Phoenix, Arizona. I can picture the black clouds of a monsoon fighting its way towards the city as my brother and I jumped on a trampoline to watch its progress, or the unnerving sound of a rattlesnake coming from the sweltering desert – just a few city blocks from my home – while I roller bladed through the terrain on a paved nature trail. I can remember the way a bunny-scratch cuts deeper than a cat-scratch, thanks to my neighborhood friends’ pets. Not much else has stayed with me over the years, but there is one distinct musically inspired memory I retain. I can recall sitting cross-legged inside a Borders Books while a mess of ginger hair surrounding a harp serenaded some shoppers. It just so happened that my five-year-old self was witnessing the mystifying Loreena McKennitt perform.

Loreena McKennitt has had a career expanding over three decades, and the Canadian-born chanteuse continues to tour today. Early in her career, she “set up her own record company, Quinlan Road, in 1985, and recorded Elemental, a nine-song cassette. She ran off copies and began selling them from her car while meeting the public on the most immediate level, as a busker.” ( Proving herself a self-starter and unafraid by hard work, or, in other words, starting something from nothing.

After doing some research on McKennitt, I found a wonderful personal essay on her website. It is simple a narrative, yet I can’t help but see the parallels in her own thoughts on art, music, and life that are shared with the mission of BACKWORDS Blog and Press – to honor the intersection of presence and history. In this essay, she writes:

I became smitten with what is now referred to as Celtic music in the late 1970s, but it was only when I started to connect with its history that my journey really began. At an exhibition of Celtic artifacts in Venice in 1991, I learned about the geographic and historic spread of the Celts. I found myself drawn into a rich, ancient tapestry of sounds and rhythms and stories. I discovered myths and traditions that resemble one another from far corners of the globe, people who share traits and yet are distinctive.

My starting point is the belief that, in one way or another, we are all an extension of each other’s history. Wanting to learn about our neighbours is also a desire to learn about ourselves. I have simply chosen the Celtic vehicle in which to do this. No doubt I could have chosen another conduit for my music – let’s say the history of hats – and experienced just as interesting a journey as I have had with Celtic history. But that vehicle has taken me to so many places and people worldwide and also down paths and into themes with little Celtic connection whatsoever.

She built her life and her career by merging history and presence and for that I greatly admire her. She is a “creative perseverance success story” one can look up to and hope to be at least half as accomplished.

Though McKennitt’s career spans decades, her music continues to resonate the world over. A few standout songs I keep revisiting include: “The Mummer’s Dance” (as a young kid I had erroneoulsy believed this to be a Halloween-inspired number but actually refernces a folk custom of traveling performers called “Mummers”) and “La Serenissima” from her album The Book of Secrets. “Bonny Swans,” “Marrakesh Night Market,” and “Santiago” from The Mask & The Mirror; “All Souls Night,” “Bonny Portmore” (thanks to the TV show Highlander – which frequently used McKennitt’s music – this song makes me cry every time), “Tango To Evora,” and “The Lady of Shalott” from The Visit.

Several of her songs over the years have been covers of other musicians work, such as with her holiday albums, but her song “The Lady of Shalott” is unique because it is in actuality a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson – of the same name and written in 1832 – set to music. It tells the story of a cursed woman falling in love from her island castle with the gallant knight Sir Lancelot – ultimately sacrificing herself to her curse with only the hope of meeting him. McKennitt with “The Lady of Shalott” evocatively blends music with poetry, lyrics with art, and sound with history.

Loreena McKennitt and her music have always been there for me from a young age, playing in the background. Even as I type this I am listening to her music, which continues playing a part of my history and my present: sitting cross-legged, listening intently.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey


The Lady of Shalott (1832)


Part I

On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro' the field the road runs by

To many-tower'd Camelot;

The yellow-leaved waterlily

The green-sheathed daffodilly

Tremble in the water chilly

Round about Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens shiver.

The sunbeam showers break and quiver

In the stream that runneth ever

By the island in the river

Flowing down to Camelot.

Four gray walls, and four gray towers

Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle imbowers

The Lady of Shalott.

Underneath the bearded barley,

The reaper, reaping late and early,

Hears her ever chanting cheerly,

Like an angel, singing clearly,

O'er the stream of Camelot.

Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,

Beneath the moon, the reaper weary

Listening whispers, ' 'Tis the fairy,

Lady of Shalott.'

The little isle is all inrail'd

With a rose-fence, and overtrail'd

With roses: by the marge unhail'd

The shallop flitteth silken sail'd,

Skimming down to Camelot.

A pearl garland winds her head:

She leaneth on a velvet bed,

Full royally apparelled,

The Lady of Shalott.

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