Fraggle Rock: 40 Years Later – “The Minstrels”

Published: May 12, 2023
Categories: Feature, Reviews

Original air date: May 9, 1983

This is a moment we’ve all been waiting for. Through several months of our “Fraggle Rock: 40 Years Later” reviews, we’ve celebrated the Fraggle Five over and over again, but this one features an all-time fave for all of us. It’s the debut of Cantus! One of the greatest Fraggle Rock characters, performed brilliantly by Jim Henson himself!  I have so much to say about that guy, but before we do anything, we gotta get past this episode’s title.

“The Minstrels” sounds like the sort of phrase we should pause before saying out loud.  Is it okay to identify someone as a minstrel?  If the Fraggles said it, there should be no problem, right?  Or is there too much historical baggage that we’re just more aware of four decades after this troupe was named?

So before we get to the review, I feel obligated to address the Inkspot in the room.  Historically, “minstrels” were singers and dancers and fools in medieval Europe.  It eventually become a catch-all term for many different types of entertainers.  Sounds Fraggly enough!

But then in the 19th century, “minstrel shows” began to grow in popularity.  These performances often included white actors in blackface, usually reinforcing the most negative of racial stereotypes.  These shows lasted well into the first half of the 20th century, and are still referred to in any media that encourages blackface and other stereotypes.  Folks, it’s not good.  And not at all Fraggly.

In 1983, it’s likely that the Muppet crew knew what minstrel shows were, but presumed that the overall term “minstrel” was predominant enough so we’d know what type of entertainer Cantus is, and that he has nothing to do with that racist part of human history.  It was a smart move for Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock to reimagine the Minstrels as “the Troubadours” just to avoid this sort of conversation.  And while all of this has nothing to do with the episode at hand, it felt important to address, learn a bit about history, and allow us to move on.

So anyway, Fraggle Rock!  What a fun show.

As I started saying, this is our introduction to Cantus.  Not Jim Henson’s first Fraggle Rock character, but certainly his most memorable.  It’s been said that Cantus is the embodiment of Jim Henson’s philosophical side, and I believe it.  Cantus exists to bring his own brand of magic, but also to inspire the others around him to create magic of their own.  And wow, what a metaphor for Jim’s creation of Fraggle Rock.

The episode begins with a moment of pure magic, as the Fraggles are woken in the middle of the night by the dulcet tones of Cantus’s pipe.  You can practically see the music wafting through the Rock like the steam on a cartoon pie.  For those of us who know what’s coming, it builds the excitement as the music segues into the introduction to one of the all-time best Fraggle Rock songs (no debate, no question).  “Let Me Be Your Song” begins, and it’s perfection.

Jim Henson sings with a calmness and wisdom that we hadn’t seen on Fraggle Rock before.  The other “adults” on Fraggle Rock are all too silly to take seriously as authority figures: Traveling Matt, The World’s Oldest Fraggle, The Storyteller.  But Cantus immediately brings a level of experience that immediately suggests that he’s someone to trust and listen to.  In another way, he’s the other side of the Marjorie the Trash Heap coin – both are wise, both offer riddles in lieu of direction, but the Trash Heap seems to stumble into her wisdom, while Cantus is very deliberate about what he says and does.

Going back to “Let Me Be Your Song”, Cantus sums up so much of his philosophy in just a few lyrics, about how (to paraphrase another brilliant entertainer) music can turn the world around.  Fraggle Rock has always shown a lot of importance to music, but this song insinuates that there’s a much deeper importance, which will continue to be prevalent through the series.  He sings and flowers literally bloom.  He’s been traveling through the Rock with no fear (in a show that really highlights the dangers of the world), because he has his music to protect him.  This entire number is Fraggle Rock at its peak of perfection.

Cantus announces, “I am Cantus, and we are the Minstrels. We wander this boundless rock of ours finding Fraggles in distant caves. When we are near, we sing a Fraggle medley. We are here. We are near. It is your turn to sing the Fraggle medley.”  So he’s not just passing through; he has a mission to teach these Fraggles how to sing their communal melody.

Red – ever the competitor – volunteers to “go first”, and inadvertently is chosen to lead the medley.  All she (and everyone else) needs to do is listen close to the song inside themselves and then sing it out loud.  Easy, right?

Well, it’s easy for everyone except Red.  She ends up panicking, stealing Cantus’s magic pipe (which can play anyone’s song), and getting caught green-handed.  (This joke will make more sense later.)

Red’s adventure is exciting, but I’m more fascinated by the concept of everyone’s internal song.  Gobo (la da dee da), Wembley (bing boing bing), and Mokey (oooh oooh) all demonstrate their songs, and in a brilliant moment of foreshadowing, we later hear them all together at once, and they really do fit together.  Recently, a friend introduced me to the concept of The Long Tide.  It’s an observed phenomenon that all living things follow a coordinated and tethered pattern of expansion and contraction.  In other words, we’re all linked by a subtle and unconscious thread.  The Fraggles take it a step further by proving that the songs playing in their head are synced up, right down to the harmonies.

And wow, is that a beautiful notion or what?  It’s especially nice noting that Cantus doesn’t bring this magic to Fraggle Rock, but instead just shows them what they’re capable of before he moves on.  Again, this feels very much like Jim Henson coming to the Fraggle Rock set with his own brand of magic, then leaving after having inspired and bolstered the Toronto-based cast and crew of his little puppet show.

Once Cantus convinces Red to calm down and shut out the world so she can hear her song (Hmm… does Red have ADHD?  Save this idea for a future article.)  She has her revelation (laa la la laa), and each of the Fraggles join in one-by-one to add their signature songs to the medley.  Unsurprising for anyone who loves Fraggle music, the medley is such an absolute joy.  Everyone gets a spotlight – even Boober, who’d previously retired to his cave – and yet no one’s song would’ve sounded as good without everyone else.

There’s magic in music.  There was magic in Jim Henson and Cantus.  There’s magic in collaboration and community.  Magic is everywhere.

Strongest Moment: Cantus is extremely quotable in every moment he’s on screen.  Just a few of those quotes:

  • There are no rules, and those are the rules.
  • You have heard enough; now it is time to listen.
  • She has a long way to go, though the journey is short.
  • Everywhere we go, we play a Fraggle medley. Each one is different, each one’s the same.
  • She must look inside.  Inside the outside.
  • The song must never be played to be heard.
  • That’s where you’re right, that’s where you’re wrong.
  • I fear I’m losing my implacable calm.

Weakest Moment: Does not exist. This episode is perfect.  Move along.

MVF (Most Valuable Fraggle): As evidenced by the fact that I can’t shut up about him, it’s Cantus!

First Appearance Of…: Cantus, but also the rest of the Minstrels!  Try and guess which is Murray, Brool, Brio, and Balsam.

Musical Highlight: For an episode all about the importance of music, both songs manage to elevate to meet the promise.  “Let Me Be Your Song” stands out as one of my favorite Fraggle Rock songs, one of my favorite Muppet songs, and aw heck, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs.  Keep trying, Paul McCartney – this is your new benchmark for quality!

Coolest Puppetry Effect: Red’s hand has an eerie green glow after she steals Cantus’s pipe, and I genuinely have no idea how they did it.  Maybe it was added in Post Production, maybe they stuffed a light bulb inside the puppet’s hand, or maybe Red got dipped in some sort of mutagenic ooze.

Fraggle Lore: The Minstrels say they’ve been “finding Fraggles in distant caves,” which is our first inkling that there are other groups of Fraggles out there in the world.  An unintentional tease for what’s to come???

One More Thing…: In Traveling Matt’s postcard (for the first time, read by Doc and not Gobo) he meets some mannequins thinking they’re real Silly Creatures, and then he tries standing still in a department store window.  It made me wonder if Matt was ever actually displayed in a store window, and I’m a little surprised that (as far as I can tell) it’s never happened.  The Macy’s store window has featured Muppets, but never Fraggle Rock.  Wembley and some Doozers made it into the Tiffany’s window, but not Matt.  The closest he’s come to being under glass is in museum exhibits like the ones at The Museum of the Moving Image and The Center for Puppetry Arts.  I guess he just belongs in a museum!

Okay, One More Thing…: Cantus’s magic pipe has the ability to play on its own at Cantus’s command, much like how we ask our Alexas or Google Homes or other devices to play music.  In fact, I just asked mine to play “Let Me Be Your Song” and it worked!

Click here to pass the pipe on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes –

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