The California Revels opens tonight (Friday) at the Oakland Scottish Rite Auditorium on Lake Merritt, celebrating its 22nd season in two weekends of music, dance and pageantry.
It’s a festive visit to the 19th-century English countryside, where a Songcatcher, collecting traditional folktunes and the tales around them, encounters various rustic characters, each with a story, and more than one of them played by popular Bay Area clown and comic actor Geoff Hoyle, himself hailing from Yorkshire.
The figure of the Songcatcher “is central to the show,” said Revels director David Parr. “Perhaps the best known was Cecil Sharpe, who, along with others, also combed the Appalachians in search of material preserved by immigrant communities. His transcription of the Ritchie Family singing ‘Nottamun Town’ provided Bob Dylan with the tune for ‘Masters of War’ so many years later. The Songcatchers took an interest in the folk customs they saw vanishing and tried to preserve them in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the homogenization of culture—like standardized children’s stories, where over 100 known versions of Cinderella went through a kind of Disney-fication.
“The Revels this year is a kind of salute to the Songcatchers,” Parr went on, “but also shows how sometimes those academic teams missed the forest for the trees, with expectations of finding druids in everything. It shows the power of folklore isn’t in its historicity, but in what it does for people, to move and delight them, and bring them together for celebration.”
Parr touched on the panoply of Revels entertainments: “There’s a lot of dancing—two English country dances, one a parlor dance and a women’s clog dance; the RapperSword dance by Swords of Gridlock, a border short-stick dance, and of course Morris dancing. An unusual version of ‘John Barleycorn’ will be sung with a melody different than what people are used to hearing. Our music director, Shira Kammen, has arranged ‘Nottingham Town’ and ‘The Wexford Lullaby,’ and there’s the Yorkshire ‘Ilka Moor Baht Tat’—‘on the moor without a hat,’ a phonetic transcription of dialect. Storyteller Jan Herlington will tell ‘The Buried Moon,’ from Lincolnshire, one of the rare English children’s tales with elemental features, which will be acted out by the children’s chorus. And we’ll have a town band of our choristers playing West Gallery music. That was another type of cooptation of folk culture: the Church of England installing pump organs and insisting on standard arrangements, banishing the old vernacular bands, where a clarinetist would sit next to someone playing serpent!”
On Geoff Hoyle’s shape-shifting appearances, playing five different characters during the course of the show, Parr would only say that “Geoff channels his Yorkshire aunt” and something about being a pig story and performing in drag—”Geoff, of course, not the pig. And you know he plays fiddle, sings and dances.”
This Revels, partly inspired by Thomas Hardy’s UNDER THE GREENWOOD TREE, will feature its traditional close, when the audience is invited to join hands and line-dance through the hall, singing “Lord of the Dance,” the old Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” with modern lyrics by Sydney Carter. On Oct. 28 this year, Discovery astronauts were awakened with the Revels Records version of John Langstaff singing “Lord of the Dance”—which fittingly declares, “I danced in the morning, when the world was begun; I danced in the moon, and the stars, and the sun.”