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John Langstaff

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Obit: Jack Langstaff, father of Revels (Dec 2005) (29)
California Revels (2)

Jack Blandiver 30 May 09 - 03:33 AM
Barry Finn 30 May 09 - 03:53 AM
Susan of DT 30 May 09 - 06:49 AM
GUEST,iancarterb 30 May 09 - 10:33 AM
AllisonA(Animaterra) 30 May 09 - 03:03 PM
GUEST,Jerry Epstein 31 May 09 - 02:41 PM
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Subject: John Langstaff
From: Jack Blandiver
Date: 30 May 09 - 03:33 AM

Having recently rediscovered the manifold delights of Lemon Jelly's Nice Weather for Ducks I went in search of the sample (not technically a sample, but a flawless mimic of the original by the father of one of the band members) and came across the work of one John Langstaff who hitherto had only existed in long forgotten childhood memories. Here's what wiki has to say:

John Langstaff (December 24, 1920 - December 13, 2005), a concert baritone, and early music revivalist was the founder of the Northeast United States tradition of the Christmas Revels, as well as a respected musician and educator. He attended the Curtis Institute of Music as well as Juilliard. In 1943 he married Diane Hamilton. He was later married to Nancy Woodbridge, a pianist.

Langstaff's lifelong project, the Christmas Revels, began in 1957 with a show in New York. In 1971, the longest running Revels, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began. The Revels, an eclectic mix of medieval and modern music and dance (primarily English in basis), involves the audience and the community in a continuation of pagan and older Christian traditions. Revels shows, now spread over the Northeast and the world, draw on local talent. Morris dancing, mummers, bagpipers and large choruses of men, women and children celebrate the turning of the Winter Solstice in a cheerful fashion.

Throughout his adult life, Langstaff was a dedicated music educator. In 1955, he became the music director at The Potomac School, in Washington, DC, and later taught at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He wrote twenty-five books, including the Caldecott Medal-winning Frog Went A-Courtin'. He hosted the BBC-TV children's program "Making Music" for five years, and produced a series of videos called "Making Music with John Langstaff" for parents and teachers. He also published songbooks, teacher's guides, and production guides for the Revels.

Langstaff's recording career was varied and long. Beginning with English traditional music in the 1950s, he continued with the founding of Revels Records, recording primarily children's and traditional music. Several of his early recordings were made in London, with noted producer George Martin.

On May 17, 2006, David Nath's documentary film To Drive The Dark Away, which chronicles Langstaff's life and work with the Christmas Revels, had its world premiere in Arlington, MA.

There are several CDs of his work currently available, a lot of which may be previewed at Amazon. We had a listen last night & were mightily impressed by both the breadth of repertoire and the very different slant Mr Langstaff's approach gives to such material than we're familiar with though more conventional folk artists. I was particularly taken by The Souling Song, which contrasts vividly with that recorded by The Watersons on their Frost & Fire album. Interesting to note that on one album at least he is accompanied by Martin Best, who went on to form the acclaimed Martin Best Medieval Consort (or is it Ensemble?) who popular on record & Radio 3 in the seventies / early eighties.

So to what extent does the work of John Langstaff figure in the revival I wonder? Or else in the memories of Mudcatters on both sides of the Altantic...

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Subject: RE: John Langstaff
From: Barry Finn
Date: 30 May 09 - 03:53 AM

Welcome to the Revels web site.
For all your revels wants, info & needs.

Here in the Boston/Cambridge area there's not a corner of folkdom that has not been touched by some how by Revels. There's always someone that you know or meet or hear that has some connection to Revels in some way.

Barry, from the cast of the Boston Sea Revels 1998 or was that 99?

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Subject: RE: John Langstaff
From: Susan of DT
Date: 30 May 09 - 06:49 AM

I was very fond of an LP of his, John Langstaff Sings American and British Folksongs that I picked up in 1971 - Lots of ballads on it, well sung.

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Subject: RE: John Langstaff
From: GUEST,iancarterb
Date: 30 May 09 - 10:33 AM

To this day I can feel the power of first hearing Jack, singing the Knight in the Road at Pinewoods in, I think, 1963. One of a very few measurable changes in musical perception.

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Subject: RE: John Langstaff
From: AllisonA(Animaterra)
Date: 30 May 09 - 03:03 PM

I cannot begin to try to measure the influence Jack had on my development as a musician and song leader. He had the vision and the belief that it could happen, and the Revels and so much else resulted!

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Subject: RE: John Langstaff
From: GUEST,Jerry Epstein
Date: 31 May 09 - 02:41 PM

Roy Harris just pointed me to the existence of this thread and urged that I get into it.
I hardly know where to start. I met Jack first in 1965 at Pinewoods Camp, had a transformative experience triggered by Jack at Pinewoods in 1966, I became his accompanist for folk song concerts in 1970 until his last time at Pinewoods in 2005. He died in December of that year a few days short of his 85th birthday.

Jack brought me into the Revels sometime in the mid 1970s for a performance in Washington that was a benefit for the Potomac School, which was run earlier by Carol Preston, who in turn had gotten Jack into contact with real traditional music in the Carolina mountains when Jack was 13 (1934). Carol Preston is the most important person in the revival that no one has ever heard of. And it all happened by cosmic accident. Not enough space to tell it all here. I became Music Director when the Revels came to New York in 1979 and remained so for 15 years. I am quite proud of the gobs of musical arrangements I wrote for the Revels, many of which can be heard on the Revels recordings Barry has guided you to. A bunch more are available on Jack's last recording, for Minstrel Records, which I think is his best (ok, I am prejudiced). Check out

Jack's evolution as a singer is very interesting to see and is quite apparent in comapring recordings from the early days to the later one. Jack and I talked about the issues involved dozens of times. A lot of it had to do with the handling of words and diction -- getting past in some ways some conservatory training.
But Jack always had a stunning instinct for narrative and timing, as good as any source singer in my opinion, and I have not the slightest doubt that his singing was dramatically affected for the better because he was a dancer.

He was taken later that same summer of 1934 to Pinewoods by Carol Preston and learned Morris and Sword dancing, the Abbott's Bromley Horn Dance (all nearly always included in a Christmas Revels), English and American country, contra, square dancing. He moved wonderfully, right up to his last days. And he sang that way. The connections with May Gadd, Douglas Kennedy, Vaughan Williams, Percy Grainger (who also danced morris in New York), Lily Roberts Conant, Peter Kennedy, Pat Shaw, so many more. . . . it is a magnificent history. Talk about boundless respect for the real source singers, no one had that more than Jack, even on a par with the great Roy Harris. And they both shared the desire to present the sources to a wider public, not out of some sense of duty, but because they really understood.

It was a dream of mine to have Jack and Roy meet. It never happened, though we have established that they were on the same airplane once, going back to London.

Jack sang at the 1958 celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Folk Song Society at Cecil Sharp House, with Bob Copper (and Ron) (Vaughan Williams cut the cake). I was able to bring them back together for a celebration of the 100th anniversary in New York in 1999. Bob was the keynote speaker and Jack introduced him. They had not met in between.

Jack read from a copy that his father had saved of Volume 1 of the Journal of the Folk Song Society, where Kate Lee writes of the first collecting from Bob Copper's grandfather and great uncle. Just stunning that Jack had that copy and brought it to NY to read back to Bob!

It is all too much for me, and I have to stop myself. . . . . .

There was a packed memorial in Cambridge (MA) in March of 2006, and we had a "Revels-like" memorial for him in New York in September of 2006. If anyone would like to receive my words from the memorial, please write to me off the board:

I believe, and I can make a strong case, that Jack was the most important connection to the first generation of the revival, probably along with Pete Seeger. Though they were very different, particularly in their involvement with the political side of things, they knew each other well and sang together on several occasions I was at, one being a memorial to the great collector and singer Frank Warner (1980 I think).

Jack's name is well known to children's librarians. I think it is a mistake to assume that his legacy is primarily in the Revels. But this is a whole other subject for another time.

Jerry Epstein

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