Five Decades of Tradition
For nearly 50 years, Revels has drawn on the traditions of world cultures to celebrate the seasons with a truly unique blend of music, dance, and storytelling.
John Meredith Langstaff, Founder
Like the hero in a folktale, John Meredith Langstaff, founder of Revels, was born on an auspicious day: Christmas Eve. Bringing traditional music and rituals to new audiences to mark that special season became his life's work. John (better known as Jack) Langstaff grew up in Brooklyn Heights where his childhood was filled with music. His parents and their friends often held impromptu performances of Gilbert and Sullivan and gathered to sing Bach chorales, madrigals, and Christmas carols.
In 1928, at age 8, he entered the Grace Church Choir School in New York City, where he was a soprano soloist until his voice changed. He later studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York. After college, then a baritone, he began a successful concert career. After attending a concert by Douglas Kennedy, then director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Jack developed a particularly deep appreciation of traditional music. He focused on this material when he began making recordings for EMI and HMV in England.
Jack also had a long and rewarding career in music education. As head of music at the Potomac School in Virginia for 13 years and at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts for 6, he enriched the lives of thousands of children.He continued to record in Europe on HMV with producer George Martin, who also produced the Beatles' recordings. For 5 years, he hosted Making Music the popular program on BBC TV in London and was the moderator of Children Explore Books, a Saturday morning children's program on NBC TV.
An artistic director for Young Audiences of Massachusetts, Jack also wrote 25 books for children. His titles include the traditional tale, Frog Went a-Courtin', winner of the Caldecott Medal; St. George and the Dragon, illustrated by David Gentleman; and two collections of African-American spirituals with artist Ashley Bryan and musician John Andrew Ross, one of which was a notable Coretta Scott King honor book. He also produced Making Music with John Langstaff, a 6-set video series for parents, teachers, and others who work with children that showed how to involve children in making and appreciating music.
On December 29, 1957, Jack presented the first production of a Christmas Revels in New York's Town Hall. His unique theatrical concept incorporated traditional medieval music, dance, and drama into a communal performance that involved the audience, who sang—and even danced—with the cast. The critical success of that production was greater than its financial success. Undaunted, several weeks later, he sold out 1500 seats in Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. In 1966, Jack wrote and hosted A Christmas Masque for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. This broadcast contained all the elements of his earlier Christmas Revels. Dustin Hoffman played the dragon in the mummers' play St. George and the Dragon.
In 1971, with his daughter Carol, he presented the first of two performances of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From that production, Revels flourished.
Jack saw the pervasive hunger for connection in modern life and offered as sustenance the arts and rituals that have evolved from traditional cultures to nurture community. On December 13, 2005, Jack died shortly before his 85th birthday, just as the 35th anniversary production of The Christmas Revels was about to open in Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts.