Quick: What do Tacoma, Washington, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have in common?
Both towns boast of excellent universities and can sometimes be overshadowed by bigger cities nearby. But in winter, what Tacoma and Cambridge have in common is that each are home to a troupe of dedicated roots musicians called “Revels.”
And by “roots” I mean the European musical roots that gave birth to much of traditional American folk music. In his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin writes that we humans have always made music because we must; it is a human imperative. If Levitin is the musical theorist, then Revels founder John Langstaff was the practitioner who proved the theory.
Langstaff, like Levitin, believed that we humans need music and that the antidote to the disconnectedness of modern life is to make community through music — and not just music in a vacuum. We need traditions, celebrations and community, and he set out to reintroduce and cultivate traditional (mostly European) music, dance and story.
Starting in 1957, he developed theatrical productions, based on folk traditions, to celebrate the changing seasons: the solstice in summer and winter, and the equinox in spring and fall. In 1971, Langstaff and his daughter gave the first Revels performances in Cambridge, and since then, Revels troupes have sprung up in 10 U.S. cities, including Tacoma.
Christmas Revels is a wonderful, warm melting pot of song, dance and story, and each year it reflects a different locale and often a different historical period. Past Puget Sound Revels have been set in Elizabethan England, Renaissance Italy, French Canada, early America, Brittany and Ireland. This Christmas marks Puget Sound Revels’ 15th year, and the group will go to 18th-century Scotland to celebrate.
A Revels Christmas, however, is not exactly a Christmas show. What occurs onstage during a Revels performance has more in common with a playful and generous family holiday gathering than with the Christmas story. The audience eavesdrops on the, um, well, revelry of a holiday celebration — and even participates in making music, dance and community: It is a Revels tradition for audience members to hold hands and move together, snakelike, through the auditorium to the lobby at intermission.
While Revels Inc. in Cambridge remains the Revels mother ship — the nationwide Revels groups just call it “Cambridge” — each city’s Revels is unique and can choose and develop its own production theme. According to Mary Lynn of Puget Sound Revels, “It is the best of both, being an autonomous local group and having the benefit of being part of something bigger and well developed.”
Puget Sound Revels falls in the middle of the Revels organizations, both in size and in number of years since its founding. “For our size, if we were totally independent, we couldn’t possibly do all the research that Revels shows and events require,” Lynn says. “Nor would we know of some of the performers we have brought to our stage … or if we knew about them, it might be harder to reach them and have them agree to be part of a production — Appalachian singer/storyteller/tradition bearer Jean Ritchie or chanteyman Louie Killan are two who come to mind.”
In the spirit of founder Langstaff, the national Revels groups have made a community themselves, one that respects the diversity among them and offers an opportunity to share what they know and what they’ve learned the previous year. Every February, the artistic directors and other Revels staff from all 10 cities convene for a retreat. “Since we know each other personally, we regularly contact each other through the year for information and advice,” Mary Lynn says. “There is a strong personal relationship that binds the cities together. We are all pulling for each other and always curious how things are going when one group tries something new.”
Attend a performance of Puget Sound Revels’ Christmas Revels and you will not only enjoy yourself, you’ll be a participant in a tradition that has quietly taken root across the country.
Christine Johnson-Duell is a poet and mother, and has attended Revels in Cambridge and Tacoma.