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Hail, the Christmas Revels

Sunday 12/29/19

Here in the Valley of Aloneness, this struggle, this hell, as I fight to come out the other side, I go to many things each year--alone, of course. I go to them for a number of reasons. I never know what I might learn at something I go to, what I might feel, what might enter into my mind, and what can then enter into what I create, which, if I am struck down today, already represents, in sum, the definitive corpus of art, from a single person. I go to things--films, ballets, concerts, sporting events--to keep going, to force myself to remain moving, lest I give in to death, which would be so easy right now.


Same reason I climb the Monument--as I did twenty times this past week--though that has the added element of keeping my heart sound, so that it can endure more stress and pressure than a human heart has otherwise had to. I go because it is not like I have people who love me with whom to be; I go because it's not like there is this beautiful and talented partner in my life, by my side, and me hers, and we are taking a weekend trip to Vermont or bustling about outside the house I am not in, working on a garden; I go because of this journal, even, which, too, is a unique artistic creation. I think about the journal, and I think, "if you had written nothing else in your entire life, but those pages, that would have been enough--that would have been your work of art, your work of art to foster an entire legacy." I think that, often, about any one "type" of thing I create. "If you only wrote these short stories, and nothing else..." "If you only wrote these essays, and nothing else..." Of course, I despair all the deeper, as anyone would, when I take full stock, and conclude with, "But you did it all, you do it all at once, it is insane, it is not equable, it is not fractionally equable, and it is hurting you."


Invariably over the past several years--eight, actually--the best thing I go to each year is the Revels at Sanders Theatre, as I did last night. I write about the performance and the CD they put out each year when I can, and what I have decided I'm going to do is make sure that following each season, I will detail what I heard, saw, felt, learned, here, in this journal. And I will continue to do so when this hell is over, when I am through the other side, and still attending Revels performances, which I will hopefully be doing with a family of my own, even if that family is but a two-person deal.


There is a different theme to the Revels each year, but it is oriented around Christmas and, perhaps even more so, the winter solstice--that is, the shortest day of the year, which is, of course, the darkest day.


As one would imagine, given my present reality, I relate to that. There are numbers that appear each year--a handful--regardless of the changing theme, a storyline, and people of all ages on the stage. Accomplished, virtuosic musicians, phenomenal dancers, talented actors, comedians in the classic, theatrical sense, a children's choir (and children dancers), mummers, with David Coffin--who sings and plays the tin whistle and concertina--MC'ing. He's been with the Revels for forty years. Witty man, large-hearted man--I was reading how he takes under-deserving children out to the Boston Harbor Islands. He has a new double album out, sourced from years of Revels recordings--straight from the soundboard--which is absolutely enchanting.


Alan Casso is their dexterous publicity person. Normally, publicity people are hacks. They are not competent, you have to beg them to get them to do the most basic functions of their job, and their marketing skills come down to one thing and one thing only: spamming the hell out of you. I am writing about an Orson Welles play for the TLS, and I have written and phoned the publisher, Rowman and Littlefield, twenty times to get them to send me a review copy so their book can be covered in the historic, international magazine. We have progressed to the stage where they send me an email calling me Mr. Colin. Not atypical.


But Alan clearly loves the Revels, because the Revels is something you love. Go once, and you will never passively go again--it will infuse you. One goes to the Revels to be infused. It is not quite like anything I have ever experienced. This is an ugly, festering, unkind, cruel, sick, mephitic boil of a world right now, top-heavy with hate, venality, lies and misrepresentation, no regard for one's brother, one's sister, except insofar as the simulation of concern can generate advantage, attention, money, honing of a brand.


But when you go to the Revels, despite humans, despite how humans are tending to become, as they make Kant appear the greatest of all prophets, fostering brutishness and brutality, for a couple of Revel-y hours, there is something else that pervades, that overrides: and that thing is love. People who would kick each other into puddles if they could, for a portion of an afternoon, are linked, connected. And I suppose that is why, when I go to the Revels, I am commonly on the verge of tears. For the moment of beauty--the repast of beauty, the repose of beauty. And of community.


Themes in recent years have included Victorian London , Renaissance Italy, French Acadia. This year, it was the Dust Bowl and Appalachia, so: Shaker songs, Baptist hymns, pre-blues, prairie ballads, Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, clog dancing, gospel numbers, country music before country music became entirely about getting drunk in a football stadium parking lot.


A few observations--you hear what an impact Shaker songs had on rhythm and blues, which is a fascinating lineage. You hear how artists like the Carter Family absorbed black musical sources. You hear how Christmas carols and folk ballads are linked. The premise involved an old-time--it's the 1930s--radio program, so there were these The Who Sell Out-style commercials, that were very sharp, very witty--and a drifter named Johnnie Johnson, who has lost his way. You find out why near the end--a tragedy, let us say, befell him. And he has to find a way to keep going.


There were were two folk and traditional music bands imported for this season of the Christmas Revels, which I had not heard before, but I bought their records after, both comprised of a man and a woman. One is called Squirrel Butter--a guitarist (Charmaine Slaven) and banjo player (Charlie Beck)--and the other Tui, comprised of two violinists, Jake Blount and Libby Weitnauer). (Not that they are limited to those instruments--they all play a lot of different things.) All four sang, and let me say: they absolutely cooked. Amazing musicianship. You know how on the Million Dollar Quartet session, that band, with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins catches fire, and there is just so much joy in the music they are making? These two bands--especially when they played together--reminded me of that. Slaven would step dance as they played, and I was completely blown away. So skilled.


Was equally blown away by the unit billed as the Sourdough Teen Dancers. These kids, my goodness. Carolyn Saxon sang some great, full-throated gospel numbers, and the "cumulative song," "Children, Go Where I Send Thee." Cumulative songs--where counting is part of the set-up, lyric, structure--tend to be hugely rhythmic. Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" is a kind of cumulative song. Well, for this number, the kids had to do a ton of dancing, and it was nuts what went into it. Constant swirl of movement, pure rhythm as Saxon belted out the song. It was awesome.


They were recording the show, for a live album that will come out in the spring, and I hope they include everything. Every last number. You can listen to Revels records, I know, on Amazon, and, I would assume, Spotify. All of this unfolds within the Christmas setting, so at the beginning there was "Joy to the World," but what you get is this lovely brass band arrangement, such that even the war horses are led out of the stable nice and fresh.


As for the numbers one experiences ever year, three are central. First, is "Lord of the Dance." This year, it segued out of the Shaker tune upon which it is melodically based, "Simple Gifts" by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797-1882). I should also add that even the program is a marvel--it's a mini-book one might take home and study, with so much information. Roots of a dissertation are to be found in these beautifully-illustrated programs.


"Lord of the Dance," in one sense, is a song about the Christ--namely, his being nailed to a cross, of being doubted, smited. But, really, it is a song about endurance, which makes it almost a kind of anthem for these pages, and it is a song that, at the end of each year, I hear, and I think, "right, you need to keep going, given what you, and this work, can do for people, need to do for people."


Coffin sings the song, as he and two other men--with bells fastened to their calves--link arms and dance, a very flowing dance, across all the parts of the stage, with Coffin stopping and singing--declaiming, heralding--from various standing positions.


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.


Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he, And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be, And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said he.


The dance. The going on. The leading. The reaching. Obviously, that will mean something additional to me. But it is why I am creating a story for all-time before the dawn on a Sunday. I am dancing on. Out of faith that there must be a good reason, and I will come to see and know it, as many others will as well.


The song continues, everyone sings, as you can hear here. And then, Coffin shouts, "He we go!" and something happens which is unlike anything, I should think, that happens anywhere else. The singers, the dancers, leave the stage, racing out through the wings, into the cavernous, central hall of the towered building, and the people in the audience stand as well, link arms, and follow, singing and dancing, and the sound, the unison, fills the great hall, until it bursts into a scattering, grateful, joyous wave of applause.


And people suck a little less.


Thus concludes the first act. In the second act, towards the end, the house is divided into three sections, to sing the hymn for peace, "Dona Nobis Pacem," in the round. And it is the sound of peace, as if something occurs where all are rendered decent, good. It's a sound of connection. It is not un-feelable, if that makes sense. Maybe that is the highest compliment, ultimately, that we can pay art. The truest point of art.


The final number is "The Sussex Mummers' Carol," which has been sung at every Christmas Revels, save for one time back in the 1970s. I rank and reorder musical moments I wish I could go back to in time and experience. The Beatles in Hamburg in 1961, Robert Johnson playing some house party, Little Willie John and Sam Cooke sharing a bill, Handel premiering Messiah in Dublin in 1742, but near the top of the list would be that time in the 1970s when the Revels company did not perform "The Sussex Mummers' Carol," and the audience, instead, sang it to the company. I picture what the day looked like. Gray, early winter New England, almost certainly. Or maybe it was dark out by then. Snowing. Icy, certainly. These souls, in this place, having a moment free of the artifice which so often rules our lives now. Organic beauty is not just tonic for the soul; it's tonic for hope, upon which the soul, at least in part, measures its chances for growth and light; and better understands the essence of each. Note the descant on the third verse--tell me what that does to you.


But I don't think the rendition I hear each year is probably very far removed. Check it out. And check out the Revels--for there is so little like it, and it truly does a person--all people who go--good.


As I have been writing this, I signed off edits for the The Wall Street Journal op-ed that will run in Tuesday's paper. Nice to see that a New York Times op-ed writer who is paid like half a million dollars wrote a piece saying Jewish people are smarter thanks to their larger skulls. Nothing sick and twisted about that at all. You do you, as they say, Gary Goebbels. Same place and section where I wrote my first op-ed, where I am now hated and banned, because I dared to send more great ideas and pieces, and when you do that, they want you dead. Because you are smart and you try. Oh. Makes perfect sense. In other words, possess no ability, be an evil, eugenics-loving moron of a man, get rewarded; write infinitely better, make a good faith effort to contribute when the quality of your ideas and output and historically singular track record is beyond question, reproach, or precedent, and you are the bad person, the person who must be punished. That's the NYT, but it's a microcosm of how most of publishing and media is. I also came up with a new story idea. As we said, the dance goes on. And that--new story composed, blog post, edits--is the first part of Sunday morning.