Reminiscences by Paddy Swanson: June 2017

Roots and branches of PUGET SOUND REVELS                          25th anniversary          

Sometimes on the phone we have to spell out the word R.E.V.E.L.S to correct people who think that we are the REBELS. Actually the word “Revel” is derived from the Middle English “revelen” to make merry, the Old French word “revel” meaning “festivity, tumult or riot,” and  ultimately from the Latin “rebellare” to rebèl. So really we are wasting our breath. Rebellion is in our DNA. There are however, many varieties of rebels. I would like to talk about two.

Jack Langstaff who founded Revels some 46 years ago and therein started his own quiet revolution was one of the most charismatic and unassuming leaders I have ever met. Born into a gifted family Jack grew up in New York surrounded by music and family traditions. His parents threw the best Christmas parties in Brooklyn Heights.  Jack’s earliest memories were of his family and their guests, many of them performers and cosmopolitan notables from New York singing Christmas carols around the piano. The young Jack was gifted with what was described as a pure treble voice and with his mother’s prompting he and his brother Ken were accepted as boarders at Manhattan’s Grace Church Choir School where he became the principal boy soloist. Rebellion came early, he was caught one midnight leading a procession of choirboys in their pajamas along the castellated roof of the church; an adventure that was curtailed by the rector but was a harbinger of things to come.  Throughout his subsequent training and career as a concert baritone Jack displayed a sense of curiosity and independent thought. His enthusiasm for traditional music and dance did not go down very well at Julliard and the Curtis Institute and later he records his disappointment when one of his highly respected teachers walked out of a concert that included an English folk song.

The first performance of A Christmas Masque at New York’s Town Hall in 1957 was a defiant collection of all the things that Jack loved , traditional dance, brass, early music, poetry, all wrapped up in a great big public carol party. While people seemed to enjoy the experience, it was a risky investment and by his own admission he lost his shirt. The world would have to wait another fourteen years before the first Christmas Revels in Cambridge. It is remarkable that the 46 year old tradition that we all are a part of today ever got going at all. What does it take to get things going?  Jack once confided to me that there was no mystery about getting 1200 strangers to sing together. “I just believe that they will do what I ask them to do. That’s it. I just believe it.” And when the houselights came up and Jack stepped forward, raised his arms and said “Sing!” they did. There is something heroic about that confidence that inspires.

Out of that first Christmas Revels performance in 1971 grew a tradition and then a community. Soon Jack persuaded other cities to create their own Revels communities, New York, Washington, Revels North, Houston, California, Portland and Seattle. Well actually no. It was supposed to be Seattle but at the end of the first meeting of potential Revels supporters Gayle Rich who was Executive Director of Revels Inc. at the time asked who would organize the next meeting. After a lot of mumbling and calendar flipping a young red haired woman stood up and said, “Well if nobody else can do it I will, but I should tell you I’m not from Seattle, I’m from Tacoma.” And I think she added sotto voce, “So that’s where Revels is going to be.”  Curiosity and independent thought. That’s what it takes to get things started. As it happened Mary Lynn was the revolutionary mover and shaker who started this 25 year old tradition and I was her first director.

On Friday April 30th 1993 at 7.58 pm Mary Lynn looked at me very wide-eyed and solemn and said. “It’s happening isn’t it?” Five minutes later the first 18th century street cry rang out and the first Puget Sound Spring Revels came into existence. Like many a birthing experience it was both glorious and messy. During the Sheep Shearing Song the Dorset ewe whose fleece was being trimmed by local farmer Ward Schwider released a generous amount of bodily fluid onto the stage. Unfazed, members of the New Oyster Chorus launched into the next number  (which happened to be “Country Life” – we just sang it ) and using large clumps of the newly shorn wool energetically swabbed the floor dry. Traditional songs were frequently used to accompany chores and to lighten the burden of the work. Thus was the Puget Sound area introduced to the unique Revels experience – tradition brought to life in a dynamic and lively context.

The next year was a celebration of the sea. Local fishermen and boatbuilders arrived and built a mast structure with a crow’s nest even supplying the right spar buff paint for authenticity. A brilliant percussionist John Keliehor emerged, a virtuoso accordionist Laurie Andres appeared and along with them came all sorts of musicians and actors and singers. Jack brought along his old friend and traditional chanteyman Louis Killen and there was a show. In her introduction in the program of that year of 1994 Mary Lynn noted that Revels never simply remembers traditions but reawakens the community.

Revels is an odd duck in the performing arts world. Indeed the National Endowment for the Arts (that venerable organization now on the endangered species list) could not classify Revels and eventually suggested that our spectacularly unsuccessful funding applications should be put into a new and separate category. Bringing together children and elders, amateurs and professionals, the sacred and the secular, the present and the past, high art and low art, the Revels melting pot produces a unique form of musical theatre. At its best it is a theater that I think is related in spirit to the ancient Greek Mysteries, having some affinity to the celebration of Dionysus which is commonly considered  to be the  origin of western theatre.  Celebration, after all, is our watchword – we know better than most how to celebrate.

The root of the word “celebrate”  (I like etymology) is the Latin celebrare which indicates coming together to observe something important. Something like a birthday or a wedding.  In celebration purpose underpins the event. It is necessary to pause everyday activity in order to pay attention to something or someone. In a number of cultures (I would go so far as to say in any culture) it is possible to pinpoint the core moment of a celebration. It is when the cake arrives with flaming candles, or the toasting glasses are lifted or a song is sung and everybody looks intently at the person being celebrated. Revels invites us to pay attention to some important things: the shortest day, the changing seasons, the cycles of human life and the deeper mysteries of death and rebirth.

When Jack Langstaff founded Revels his major currency was music, choruses of adults and children, brass and early instruments. And Jack wanted more than a concert. He added bright colorful costumes, sword and morris dancing and a traditional mummers play, all things that he enjoyed. But over and above this, Jack’s big idea was to underpin the event with a celebration of the shortest day of the year that approached the perennial mystery of the year’s dying and subsequent rebirth.  He told me that he thought the core of every Revels was the moment when the sword dancers draw the lock and the hero falls dead. The Lord of the Dance which is performed by every Revels city at the end of the first act is emblematic of Jack’s vision:

They cut me down and I leapt up high, I am the life that’ll never, never die;

I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me; I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.

The man who wrote that, Sydney Carter, another rebel, was, as the Manchester Guardian described him:

“.. a folk poet, a holy sceptic and an iconoclastic theologian – in the amateur tradition of the folk movement, deconstructing the theology of the academic establishment and bringing it to life. He played a leading role in the folk revival of the 1960s and 70s, and it was then that he wrote most of his songs, composed both to please and to shock. Life, as he embraced it, was for dancing.”

Those same cross currents, the wild and the holy, seem to have run through Jack’s life and vision. Jack was vehement about preserving the secular nature of Revels despite the many Christian overtones of an event that actually goes by the name of the Christmas Revels. I suppose that secular aroma is what attracted me to Revels in the first place. Brought up as a Catholic in the postwar Latin-chanting ceremonial era of the 1950’s , I was familiar with the powers of religious ritual. My life since then has been mostly in the theatre and lived in a manner which I suppose one might describe as profane although I believe that theatre at its core examines the same deep existential mysteries as religion. The great English theatre director Peter Brook says that the closer you get to the mysteries the coarser becomes the acting. I like the idea of the Fool in the mummers play, the lowest of the low in the medieval pecking order, sidestepping the doctor and all his scientific learning and successfully bringing the dead to life again with his alternative medicine. The paradox of theatre is that the actor and the audience both accept that what happens on stage is not real but can become real if both agree to suspend their disbelief for a little while. In the mysterious world between reality and dream fake magic can become real magic.

Interestingly, the willing suspension of disbelief was what Vi Hilbert, a Native American storyteller and Upper Skagit Elder asked of that first Puget Sound audience. She was telling a tale about lifting the sky from the Lushootseed, the language of the First People of the Puget Sound.  In the second act she asked the audience to stand and take long poles in their hand and push together to lift the sky back into the firmament and as a few braver individuals stood up and began to mime poles she added,  “..You have to lift all together if you want it to work – just like this Revels.”  As succinct a definition of community as I have ever come across and a remarkable and generous act of confirmation for the first Puget Sound Revels from a respected elder of the First Nation.

So what is important about Revels?

Singing and making music together is the most direct and uncomplicated method of communicating with others. Experiencing the rituals of other cultures introduces us to the treasures that they consider the most important part of their lives – the things that are worth preserving for future generations. And maybe one Revels bias that is underrated at this time in our history – curiosity about other cultures can replace fear.

Most of all it is that attitude of curiosity and the culture of openness that is attractive to me and that makes the rich musical and theatrical legacy of Revels worth passing on to others.  And to end on a paradoxical note – we might also pay attention to our own attitude as we pass things on.  Revels is not a sect and we are not missionaries. Bear in mind that the emblematic moment at the end of the first act of every Revels when we sing “The Lord of the Dance” is joyfully anticipated by many but alarming for others:

The dance is not for everyone

Not all can move in time

Yet in the hand that’s offered

Is an old established sign

The open palm says welcome

And the readiness is all.


But some decline the offer

Not all will heed the call

Why should they take a strangers hand ?

Why should they dance at all?

It’s not as if they all are friends

Or relatives by blood

Or even a community

Where things are understood, 


Yet in the hand that’s offered

Is a message written small

The open palm says welcome

The readiness is all.

Patrick Swanson November 2010