As a teacher and singer alone, John Langstaff has had a rich and varied career. But as the founder of the Christmas Revels in the 1950s, he has also been responsible for one of the most invigorating modern day holiday celebrations. It seems appropriate, then, that Langstaff was born on Christmas Eve in 1920. He grew up in Brooklyn Heights, and at the age of eight joined the Grace Church Choir where he sang soprano. His parents, who often invited friends over for spontaneous performances of Bach chorales and Christmas carols, also influenced his musical education. As Langstaff grew older, he became a baritone, and he studied at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at Julliard in New York. Following college, he completed a successful tour of the United States and Europe.
Langstaff also developed an appreciation of folk music while attending a concert by song collector Douglas Kennedy, leading to a series of recordings of folk material in England. Langstaff simultaneously embarked on a teaching career, serving at the head of the music department at the Potomac School in Virginia for 13 years and at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts for six. He also hosted television programs, including "Making Music" for the BBC and "Children Explore Books" for NBC.
In the mid-1950s, Langstaff brought together his multiple talents to create the Christmas Revels, a theatrical event that combined dance, song, and drama. For inspiration, he drew from pre-Christian celebrations of the solstice, incorporating the death and re-birth themes, and adding a carnival-like atmosphere. But while Langstaff's Revels reminded audiences of the season's origins, he also added a unique twist. Christ, whose death and rebirth mirrored many pagan myths, would also be woven into the Revels as the Lord of the Dance. The first performance of the Christmas Revels took place at New York City's Town Hall on December 29, 1957. While the event lost money, Langstaff's second performance at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C. took place before a sold-out crowd. In 1971 Langstaff and his daughter revived the Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, establishing the production as an annual affair. Over time, the Christmas Revels would incorporate new traditions and receive simultaneous productions throughout the United States.
"Sing Folksongs And Ballads" is a collection of British and American folk songs originally released on LP by the fledgling Tradition label. Accompanied on the piano by his wife, Nancy Woodbridge, the young John Langstaff brings his rich and powerful voice to bear on a set of mostly rather familiar material. As he did on all the other recordings of this vintage, Langstaff found a perfect middle ground between decorous classicism and rustic authenticity in his delivery, never condescending to the songs but never pretending to be less of a singer than he is. Woodbridge is a skillful and sensitive accompanist, but some of the album's most affecting moments come when Langstaff is singing a cappella, as he does breathtakingly on "All 'Round My Hat I Will Wear a Green Willow". Very highly recommended!
"These folksongs, the product of centuries of oral tradition, illustrate variety of kind — the dramatic street cry, the dance — like or lulling nursery song, the more personal love lyric, and the absolutely objective narrative, or ballad. They also show the remaking of the song in the hands of different generations, as traditional singers add, work over, improvise, or discard according to their interest, knowledge and taste. This continuous unconscious selection has produced a fine patina of diction, rhythm, and melody, interlocked for so long that one cannot exist without the others. Many of the tunes are cast in scales antedating modern harmony, taking their names from the ancient Greek modes (Dorian, or D to P on the white keyboard, Mixolydian, or G to G; Aeolian, or A to A). They employ certain melodic idioms, or groups of notes, unusual intervals (as in "I gave my love an apple"), and distinctive cadences (as in "All round my hat"). Some, like "The Cruel Mother," use the old pentatonic scale. Rhythms are fluid, often so irregular as almost to defy notation. For all these reasons many songs are unsuited to accompaniment on stringed instruments. As one traditional singer puts it, "The music (instrument) gets in the way of the song."
The concert singer of folksongs must avoid "folky" imitations, personal mannerisms, over-dramatization and sentimentalizing, if the song is to stand by itself. Its simplicity is deceptive: he must keep his presentation very clear, sympathetic, always sensitive to the rhythmic unity of words and melody. Yet he cannot be a purist if he is to keep the interest of an audience usually unaccustomed to modal tunes, the voice alone, and objective presentation.
This record pleasingly mingles unaccompanied song — which John Langstaff prefers — with sonic settings by composers like Vaughan Williams and Sharp who are steeped in their native idiom, letting us hear how they enhance without loss of its style the beauty of tile song. John Langstaff's long acquaintance with folksong and folk singers, his musical training, and his experience with recording songs of many kinds, all qualify him to give us increased pleasure in the songs we know, and to introduce us to the beauties of new ones." — EVELYN K. WELLS
|A1||O, Waly, Waly|
|A3||Sir Patrick Spens|
|A4||All 'Round My Hat|
|A5||The Cruel Mother|
|A6||The Farmer's Curst Wife|
|A7||The Riddle Song|
|A8||The Crawfish Man|
|B5||The Lover's Tasks|
|B6||The Green Wedding|
|B7||She's Like The Swallow|
John Langstaff - Sings Folksongs And Ballads
(224 kbps, cover art included)