This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #129: Dante’s Prayer by Loreena McKennitt.
In the whole history of modern music, there are some performers who, by choice, defy categorization. By the very nature of the musical compositions they create, the subject matter of the lyrics they write and the manner, frequency and venues they choose for their live performances, these performers are able to have full and respected careers and yet, at the same time, are able to maintain an air of mystery. Canadian Loreena McKennitt is one such performer. Most attempts to cataegorize her do so by saying that she is primarily a Celtic singer. That much may be true but, it doesn’t even begin to tell half the tale. McKennitt has been labelled under the banner of “World Music” (with the likes of Enya and Youssou D’ Nour). She is a multi-instrumentalist (playing the harp, accordion and piano, among many other instruments). McKennitt’s songs often are built upon a foundation of classic literature or poetry and, as such, she is often referred to as an intellectual performer. Her voice has been described using terms so as “pure” and “angelic”; some have even gone so far as to say that the voice of God, Herself, is what pours forth from her mouth when she sings. Whatever the case, Loreena McKennitt actually defies categorization and remains one of modern music’s most unique and compelling personalities. Here is the story of “Dante’s Prayer” by Loreena McKennitt.
Loreena McKennitt has never had even one Top Ten hit. However, despite this, she has sold over fourteen million albums in a career that has spanned four plus decades. McKennitt began her career in university in Winnipeg, Manitoba; growing into her own skin under the influence of Canadian musical icons such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. The song she is most famous for, in the public eye, is called, “The Mummer’s Dance” and, truth be told, it was the song that was originally on my list of songs to profile. However, in doing the research for this post, I discovered that McKennitt, herself, is on record as stating that she is disappointed that “The Mummers Dance” is what she is most known for because she feels it is one of her least complex and creative songs and, as such, it is one of her least favourite to play live. I happen to have always liked “The Mummer’s Dance”; it is certainly an evocative presence in my musical colelction. But, if McKennitt disavows the song then, perhaps, I should cede to her wishes and not make it her one entry on this list of legendary songs. So what, then, does she feel best represents her work? McKennitt was asked that very question and has stated that she is proudest of a song called, “Dante’s Prayer”. So, let’s chat about that, shall we?
“Dante’s Prayer” is based on one of the world’s original great works of literature; a long epic poem called, “Dante’s Inferno” in the fourteenth century by Italian writer, Dante Alighieri. There are entire books written and university courses taught about the construction and meaning of “Dante’s Inferno”. We did not have time nor space nor I, the inclination to do that here but, in order to best appreciate McKennitt’s song, it is important to know the overall gist of “Dante’s Inferno” so, here we go!
“Dante’s Inferno” is about our journey, as humans, through our lives and the degree to which we maintain the purity of our souls as we present ourselves to God upon death. The poem is constructed in three parts: our descent into sinfulness, our attempts at redemption and, finally, our judgement at the hands of God. For many centuries, when music compositions were first being written, the subject matter was never “boy-meets-girl”, it was always about matters of Righteousness and Purity and, in the end, of praises being given to God. So, it was that one day, Loreena McKennitt found herself on a tour of Russia and was travelling on the famous Trans Siberian Railway, she found herself staring out her window at the passing villages and she began wondering about the lives of struggle and toil most villagers were probably experiencing. As she reflected upon this thought, McKennitt felt there was a purity to their lives that many of us in the West do not have, as we build our world around the acquisition of material possessions and other superficial ideals such as Power or Fame. To McKennitt, she felt that those who labour, do so clinging to the hope of Absolution in the end and so, she wrote “Dante’s Prayer” as a labourer’s plea to God to be remembered, even though they were forced to live lives that many see as unimportant. “Dante’s Prayer” has gone on to be a song that has many applications. It has, also, been used to mourn soldiers lost in war, women who sacrificed their individual lives to serve their families, as well as, political prisoners held captive by repressive regimes around the world. As such, “Dante’s Prayer” has become an anthem for the underdog, all the world over; it’s haunting closing plea to God of “Remember me. Remember me. Remember me” being what stands out in the mind after hearing McKennitt sing.
I will share two videos of McKennitt singing this same song. The first is a gorgeous sounding live performance from a Temple called Alhambra in Spain. The sound quality is excellent in this rendition of “Dante’s Prayer” and the setting is gorgeous. The entire concert, from which this video arises, can be watched on a DVD or streamed in its’ entirety. This concert, specifically, has much meaning for McKennitt. A few years prior to this, she suffered a tragic loss when her fiance, his brother and a close friend all drowned in a boating accident. Distraught, McKennitt decided to retire from active touring. But, a few years later, she was unable to resist the urge to create again. However, she did so with the mandate that she reach as broad an audience as possible without having to tour because, the thought of travelling the world without her beloved by her side was just too much to bare. So, she created a new album called, “An Ancient Muse” and directed all profits from it toward a new organization she founded that was aimed at promoting water education and safety. Thus, the “Night At Alhambra” concert was filmed and released on CD and DVD. Like I said, the acoustics are marvellous here and this performance is wonderful. The second video I will share is a stunning one because of the setting. McKennitt was asked to perform “Dante’s Prayer” as part of the ceremonies honouring the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge during WWI. So, she plays under the magnificent sculpture that adorns the Vimy Ridge Memorial site, which is a place of high cultural significance for many Canadians. The acoustics are not as good here, simply because of the speakers being used but, visually, it is a performance that approaches capturing the essence of sacrifice and redemption better than any I have seen.
So, without further delay, here is the angelic-voiced Loreena McKennitt with “Dante’s Prayer”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Dante’s Prayer” by Loreena McKennitt, as performed at Alhambra Castle, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Dante’s Prayer” by Loreena McKennitt, as performed at the Vimy Ridge War Memorial, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Loreena McKennitt, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for showcasing the most creative and unique artists and bands from around the world. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.