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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reveling in the Summer Solstice

Air Date: Week of

For the past 25 years, the Boston—based musical group The Revels puts on shows celebrating the changing seasons and the coming of Summer. Steve Curwood talks with the director of The Revels, Patrick Swanson, about the music and traditions they work with, and why the group feels the summer solstice is worthy of celebration.


CURWOOD: It's a seasonal right here in Boston, and vocalist David Coffin has been part of it for much of its 25-year history. It's called the Midsummer Revels, a performance of traditional music, dance, and drama. Revels produces 2 annual shows, one in December to mark the shortest day of the year, and this June show to celebrate the longest day, the summer solstice. Patrick Swanson is the director.

SWANSON: One of the first scientific observations was that there was a pattern to this. That the days actually did get colder. Then there was a point at which that turned around and the days started getting longer again. And a time of plenty was up ahead. And that information had to be passed on from generation to generation.

CURWOOD: Song, dance, and ritual were important ways of passing on that information. This summer's Revels are set in the Celtic world, among some Irish nomads called the Traveling People. Their caravans and donkey carts dot the amphitheater, and the audience joins in the ritual change of seasons. For northerly people like the Irish, the coming of summer is a big deal. Snow and rain finally subside, the clouds clear, and the earth comes back to life. Patty Swanson.

SWANSON: In Ireland the weather is frequently rainy and, you know, it's not exactly laden with sunshine and so on. The moment when the sun comes out in a country like that, it is like a transformation it's just the most luscious moment. And you can see why people endure the rain.

(Voices singing: "Heigh ho, the rattling bog, the bog down in the valley, oh! Heigh ho, the rattling bog, and the bog down in the valley, oh! ...")

CURWOOD: If winter brings the mysteries of death, then summer calls up the mysteries of birth, life, and fertility, as in this song The Rattling Bog.

SWANSON: It's a cumulative song, and there are lots of them. It starts off with a tree in a bog and it links one thing to another. On the limb there was a branch, on the branch was a nest, on the nest was an egg, on the egg was a bird, and so on.

(Voices singing: " ... the rattling beak. Beak on the bird and the bird on the egg, and the egg in the nest and the nest on the branch...")

SWANSON: We're going to end it with: in the beak of the bird is a seed, but there's a longer version that goes on, there's a feather on the bird, and from the feather there came a bed, and on the bed there was a man, and on the man there was a maid, and in the maid there was a child, and on the child there was an arm, and on the arm there was a hand, and in the hand there was a seed, and from the seed guess what? There grew a tree, and you're back at the beginning again. And it's a sense of that connectedness, which is, you know, the old definition of religion. Religion, linking back to these great cycles.

(Voices singing: "Heigh ho, the rattling bog, the bog down in the valley, oh!")

CURWOOD: So there is singing and dancing, great bonfires and country fairs. Rites to honor and bring forth the earth's fertility. The Celts link the cycles of nature to the cycles of human life.

(Coffin sings: "Oh, the time did come when I went a marry, with the girl I loved I stood before my elders....")

CURWOOD: So summer was the time for love and marriage.

SWANSON: It's a sense of joining things together at the time that is most propitious. It is best to plant your peas, you know, within the lunar phase. And so, you know, by deduction, the Celts would say then there's a best time to get married. And it's not coincidental that there are so many weddings in June, you know, there is that sort of sense of fecundity there.

CURWOOD: Of course, there's the bawdy side to it. Take, for instance, the mating dance from Pad stow that's in the program. A man dressed as a horse, or in local parlance an os, dances excitedly among the townspeople and lures the young maids or mares to his side. Patty Swanson has been in Pad Stow at the very pub where the dance begins.

SWANSON: So they gathered outside the Golden Lion, and they wait there for quite a while. And then finally when the time comes they call, "Os, os!" and they answer back, "We os! Os os, we os! Os os, we os!" And then the drums kick in: bump, buh buh bum bum bum! And off they begin this song, "Unite and unite, now let us unite. For summer is a comin' today..."

(Voices singing: "... And wither we are going, we all will unite in the very morning of May. Unite and unite, now let us unite. For summer is a comin' today. And wither we are going, we all will unite in the very morning of May...")

SWANSON: And that song then carries on through the entire day, and the horse dances and the teaser dances, and this is not a wimpy dance. This is something that they sweat buckets. And they have relays of people that take over the horse when the first one is exhausted. And the horse will die and come back to life, maybe, I don't know, 40, 50 times during the day.

(Voices whoop and then sing. "Unite and unite, now let us unite...")

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Pretty steamy stuff. The closest many of us come these days to a solstice celebration is the Fourth of July, with its fireworks and barbecues. It's as if we're marking the connection to seasonal rhythms without even realizing it. And many people are rediscovering the link through Revels performances around the country.

SWANSON: I can sense sitting in an audience and suddenly you have a moment when they are all thinking or all laughing or reacting at the same time. You can see something of a need fulfilled. I don't think that is a projection. I think it's a palpable feeling of being a part of. And that's one of the generators, if you like, one of the engines.

CURWOOD: Patrick Swanson is associate artistic director of Revels in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group's Celtic solstice celebration is playing at the De Cordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, on June 22nd and 23rd, the first days of summer.



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