A Look Back on Nelvana’s
“The Devil and Daniel Mouse”
There are few art forms I love more than music and animation. Naturally, I love it when the two are paired together. But animated musicals are a dime a dozen. It’s rare to find one that sticks out, one so beautifully animated, with music so heartfelt, that it becomes an instant favorite.
I can give you one lovely yet obscure example:
Nelvana’s 1978 Halloween special “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.”
For those of you who didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in literature classes, this cartoon is a fun little twist on the classic story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” which was based on “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving, which was…well, suffice it to say, the cartoon is about a mouse who sells her soul to the devil to become a glam rock star.
Just your average late ‘70s cartoon, really.
The premise might sound like a particularly silly version of the old Faust legend, but it manages to be both funny and endearing in a way I certainly didn’t expect. That’s due in large part to the animation, which looked really incredible for its era, especially considering that it was produced for television.
As the TV Tropes entry for the special notes, this was during the “Dark Age of Animation,” when the go-to format for cartoons was “limited animation.” Though series like “The Flintstones” and “Scooby-Doo” are beloved icons for kids from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, nobody would argue that their visual style was particularly impressive. Limited animation was cheap, and cheap was the norm.
But the then-fledgling Canadian animation studio Nelvana rose above this trend on “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.” The character designs are cute and the animation looks, well, excellent (a.k.a. expensive). The characters really move; no small feat in the era of so-called “illustrated radio.”
Animation wasn’t the only thing that was exceptional about “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” though. A story about someone selling their soul to become a rock star can’t work without great music, and who better to provide it than singer-songwriter John Sebastian, of “The Lovin’ Spoonful” fame? Hearing the songs he wrote for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” I can certainly believe in magic, that’s for sure.
Before we go any further, now would be a good time to explain the plot in a bit more detail: Dan and Jan Mouse are a folk duo, playing in clubs to make ends meet. If they’d been doing this in Greenwich Village about 15 years earlier, there wouldn’t be a problem (except maybe competition from the mouse version of Bob Dylan). But this is 1978, and as the manager of the club tells them, “people don’t want [their] kinda music anymore, they wanna rock n’roll and disco dance, yeah, man, groovy, fabulous, boogie!” Did I mention this was the late 1970s? It was the late 1970s.
The manager has a point: their only audience consists of a deaf frog and an old mustachioed caterpillar that, presumably, is drowning his sorrows at the bar because he somehow managed to grow old without ever becoming a butterfly.
They hit the road, Dan goes off to try to pawn his guitar for food money, and Jan is visited by a rather sinister reptilian record producer named B.L. Zebubb. That’s not suspicious at all, right? Jan apparently doesn’t think so. He offers her the chance to be a sensational rock star, and all she has to do is sign an extremely long contract in blood, preferably without actually reading it. What could go wrong?
You can probably guess what happens next. In the end, after being whisked away from Dan, having a whirlwind of a career performing in various iterations of ‘70s fashion (complete with KISS outfits and some truly glorious hair) the Devil comes to collect her soul. Lucky for her, Dan doesn’t hold a grudge and defends her at their trial…which the Devil ensures isn’t even close to fair.
But as Dan declares at the movie’s climax, “a song from the heart beats the Devil every time!” And when that song’s written by John Sebastian, there is no doubt he’s right. Dan and Jan sing a duet, “Look Where the Music Can Take You,” that’s so moving, the judge (who happens to be a weasel) rules to free Jan from her contract. The Devil is none too happy and flies off in a huff, plotting some talent competition reality show, I suspect.
Describing this little piece of 1970s cult animation doesn’t really do it justice. The story’s nothing original, of course, but the magic is in the animation and in the music. And the voice acting is charming on all fronts. Actor Chris Wiggins gives, for me, one of the all-time best performances of the Devil; what a wonderful, deep, slithery tone. You have to hear and see it to really appreciate it.
Now, there’s one other very special thing about “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.” I’ve already mentioned that the animation is superb, as is the songwriting by John Sebastian. But what really brings the whole thing together are the vocal performances. And for nearly 40 years, one of those vocal performances was a mystery!
Sebastian himself provides the singing voice for the title character, Dan Mouse. This is easily confirmed by “How We Made the Devil And Daniel Mouse,” a documentary Nelvana produced alongside the special, which features Sebastian recording in the studio. But what of Jan Mouse?
In the credits, alongside John Sebastian and The Reggie Knighton Band, the only other vocalist is listed as “Laurel Runn.” When I first discovered this cartoon, I absolutely had to find out what other songs Laurel Runn had recorded. But there was just one problem.
Laurel Runn had never recorded any other music.
I couldn’t believe this. She had the voice of an angel. (That’s a cliché, but sometimes, it’s deserved, and this is one of those times.) There was no way somebody with a voice that incredible could have gone through life without recording more music than a few tracks in an obscure 1970s Halloween special.
But there was no trail, no evidence of anyone by that name having ever made any other music. I found Youtube comments asking the same question I was asking, and people lamenting the fact that this mysterious and talented singer had not recorded any more songs. I found a blog post by another fan of “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” who mentioned researching the identity of Laurel Runn himself, and had come up empty.
It soon became clear to me that I wasn’t going to find any information on Laurel Runn. No matter how far back into a Google search I went, there was just no record of her. I had a pretty strong hunch, though, that this was intentional. I was convinced it had to be a pseudonym. After all, how would she have been discovered in the first place, and hired to appear in “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” if she hadn’t worked in the music business before?
I figured the one person who’d know the real identity of Laurel Runn was John Sebastian. I sent him a polite message explaining that I was researching the story behind this cartoon and I wondered if he could clear up the Laurel Runn mystery for me.
It didn’t take long to find a message in reply, and in that message was a name: Valerie Carter.
According to Mr. Sebastian, Valerie was a backup singer for the likes of James Taylor and many other renowned performers. She had opted to use a pseudonym for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” for fear of getting too associated with cartoons and children’s material, though he’d advised her not to worry about it.
I am enormously grateful to John Sebastian for finally clearing up this mystery, and revealing this secret that’s apparently been kept since the cartoon was released back in 1978. Since learning the truth, I quickly began researching Valerie Carter’s music career. I wasn’t surprised to find that she had, in fact, recorded many other songs, and there were every bit as wonderful and striking as those she’d recorded for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse.”
I’m still exploring Valerie’s discography; there’s a lot to discover. Starting out as part of the band Howdy Moon in 1974, Valerie Carter has recorded with just about every major singer and songwriter of the last few decades, and toured with many as well. Sometimes as a backup singer, and other times singing duets, her collaborations are so numerous it’s hard to know where to start. Valerie has recorded and/or performed with: James Taylor (as previously mentioned), Jackson Browne, Lyle Lovett, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Randy Newman, Ringo Starr, and Willie Nelson, just to name a few.
Despite her extensive work as backup singer and musical collaborator, Valerie has also released a number of solo albums from the ‘70s through the 2000s. There is some truly incredible music to be heard here, and thankfully, they’ve been digitally re-released just recently, on her official website. I’ll finally get a chance to download them soon and give them a proper listen.
But what I’ve heard already is enough to make me a huge fan. “Love Needs a Heart” (co-written with Lowell George and Jackson Browne, and originally recorded by Browne) and “I Say Amen,” from her 1996 album “The Way It Is” are instant standouts. Those who know me will tell you I’m a diehard Tom Waits fan, and I rarely enjoy a Waits cover more than an original recording by the man himself. But listen to Valerie Carter’s cover of “Whistle Down the Wind.” Nobody could do that song better than her, not even Tom Waits, and you’ll find no higher praise from me.
I could go on. There’s her recording of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” alongside Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, recorded for Ronstadt’s 1995 album “Feels Like Home.” There’s her rendition of “O-o-h Child” from the soundtrack of Matt Dillon’s 1979 film debut, “Over the Edge.” I didn’t think it was possible for me to enjoy a version of that song more than the original by The Five Stairsteps. I’m noticing a pattern here.
But rather than sit there reading me list her discography and gush about how great she is, go to valeriecarter.net and listen to her yourself. Download some albums. A voice like Valerie Carter’s is the reason humans have ears.
So, a decades-long mystery is solved. No one need wonder who Laurel Runn is anymore. We now know just who was responsible for Jan Mouse’s incredible singing. Lucky us, we didn’t have to sell our souls to B.L. Zebubb to hear it. Instead, we have John Sebastian’s songwriting and Valerie Carter’s beautiful skills as a performer to thank. And I do thank them, from the bottom of my heart.
I’d like to wrap up this little retrospective on a slightly more personal note. I discovered “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” during a difficult time in my life. A mixture of seasonal depression, a failed relationship, and a seriously ill family member made the fall of 2016 an emotionally exhausting time for me.
Sometimes, the things that lift our spirits when we need it most can come from unexpected places. “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” is really meant for kids. But hey, I like to think I’m a kid at heart. And though it’s a simple story, and some might accuse it of being corny, I think it transcends expectations. John Sebastian’s lyrics and Valerie Carter’s vocals lift it far above the realm of a silly Halloween special. Hearing Carter pour all she’s got into a number like “Can You Help Me Find My Song?” is actually pretty heartbreaking, especially if you’re depressed and in the midst of a serious creative slump.
The opening and closing song, a duet between the two, ended up stuck in my head for months. (I got so enthralled I actually bought a couple of animation cels from this special!) But I was glad for it. Hearing Valerie sing “Look where the music can take you, when you’re getting low,” was the right thing for me at the right time. It was the voice I needed, to remind me to appreciate what’s beautiful in life, even in the midst of pain and loss.
As an artist, one doesn’t always know what effect one’s work will have on people. At worst, they’ll hate it. It might be ignored and unnoticed. Or it might just lift someone out of the muck when they need it most. For me, that’s one of the most important reasons for art to exist.
I’d originally written this piece about three weeks ago. Valerie Carter’s friend, Kathy Kurasch, had read and approved the original version of this article, and we had talked about the possibility of me interviewing Valerie. Sadly, just as I was wrapping up some personal issues that had delayed my posting this article, Valerie passed away. I never got the chance to speak with her, and I regret not being able to tell her myself how much her music meant to me in the short time since I discovered it.
This has made me think even more about the value of art. It helps connect us in a way that few other things can. It is such a wonderful gift to leave behind, too. Art, at the best of times, can be a part of ourselves we share with those we’ll never meet, who need the right words, the right images, at the right time. Though I never had the chance to meet Valerie, her music touched me so deeply in the short time since I first heard her sing. Reading the tributes to her, from friends like singer-songwriter James Taylor, I know I’m not the only one who was struck by her music like this. And I know that the power of her voice was just one part of what a wonderful person she was.
As for “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” well, it makes me grateful for John Sebastian’s words and Valerie Carter’s voice. It helped to remind me of why I’m an artist myself, and why art is so important to me. I’ve had the honor of thanking John Sebastian personally.
As for Valerie, I’d like to dedicate these words to her now, to her memory. I’m sure, as I explore more of her music, she’ll continue to be a source of inspiration to me in the future.
And as Dan Mouse sang, “All you need’s inspiration, and inspiration’s free.”
I would first like to thank John Sebastian, The Reggie Knighton Band, director Clive A. Smith, and all the fine cast and crew at Nelvana for creating “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” truly a gem.
I would also like to thank John Sebastian once again for helping me solve the mystery of “Laurel Runn” and thus leading me to the rest of Valerie Carter’s work.
Many thanks to Kathy Kurasch and Jan Carter, for giving their approval for this article, and extra thanks to Kathy for running Valerie’s official fan club.
Much love to you all.
And one more time, thank you to Valerie Carter, whose music helped me “find my song” again. Rest in peace.
For those interested in Valerie Carter’s music, visit www.valeriecarter.net.
For those interested in owning “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” on DVD, it’s included on the Unearthed Films special two-disc edition of Nelvana’s first full-length theatrical film, “Rock & Rule.” I plan to write a retrospective on “Rock & Rule” in the future, including a look at its small but devoted cult following. “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” was a sort of template for “Rock & Rule,” and features many of the same crew members, including director Clive A. Smith, and a few of the same actors.
Another thing: “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” like its spiritual successor “Rock & Rule,” never received a proper soundtrack album. With talented people like John Sebastian and Valerie Carter, this seems criminal to me. There was, however, a story LP that saw a limited release, with narration by Sebastian and the audio right from the special itself. If you have a copy lying around, I’ll take it off your hands! It’d go well with the animation cels I bought!
A final note: According to Valerie’s friend Kathy Kurasch, Valerie lived in Laurel Canyon at the time “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” was made. That seems like another little aspect of the “Laurel Runn” mystery solved. Hopefully now that it’s known, Valerie Carter will get more recognition for her work on this cartoon.