When I wrote in my “Sweet Honey” post that I had “at least 10 T-shirts directly related to music,” I was thinking strictly of my D.C. days. I’ve got a bunch more from after I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, but I haven’t counted them yet.
Anyway, this is an odd-shirt-out from my years in Washington: it has nothing to do with women’s music. Well, almost nothing: At the moment I’m playing a Musical Heritage record: A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and Hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, which features soprano Emma Kirkby and the ensemble Gothic Voices, directed by Christopher Page.
I didn’t learn much about classical music growing up, but I liked it. A friend of the family introduced me to the Musical Heritage Society, a subscription service that operated like the Book-of-the-Month Club. Each month a new recording was featured, which you could take or waive, and you could also order from their extensive catalogue. This spared me the angst of browsing the offerings at local shops without knowing what I was doing — although there was a sales clerk at a record shop on Connecticut Ave. who knew I liked early music and usually had a recommendation for me whenever I walked in.1
My tastes were fairly eclectic but I was particularly drawn to music of the medieval period, the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and anything choral. While living in England (1974–75), I even came to enjoy opera. It wasn’t hard to find full-length performances on TV, and all things classical could be found on the radio.2
Back in the States, I became a regular listener of Robert J. Lurtsema’s Morning pro Musica show on public radio. Based in Boston, it was carried by one of the D.C. stations, but I can’t remember which one. WETA-FM? WGMS-FM? I vividly recall waking one morning in the early 1980s to a eureka! moment: Robert J. was playing Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance.” Oh my God, thought I. Someone’s put Jesus in the pagan tradition from whence he came, of the dying god who rises again in the dance.
The singer (you may have guessed this already) was John Langstaff and the recording was from the Christmas Revels, of which up to that moment I knew nothing. This was long before search engines could tell you anything you wanted to know in seconds — I was several years away from even owning my own PC — so it took me a while to put it all together, but Robert J. was crucial: year after year he was a regular performer at the Revels in Cambridge. Before I left town, I managed to see the D.C. Revels company at (IIRC) George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium and to dance with the rest of the sell-out crowd to “Lord of the Dance.”
At the end of the decade, on Martha’s Vineyard, I got to perform in a local version of the Revels, directed by Mary Payne — to sing those songs and dance the sword dance. Serious thrill, and a connection between my various worlds.
No, the Revels never appeared on a Musical Heritage Society recording, but my Revels collection spans several media, from LP to cassette to CD to MP3. Feel free to blame this digression on Robert J. Lurtsema (1931–2000).
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1. Memory tells me this record shop was part of Kramerbooks, but I can’t find any confirmation that Kramerbooks ever carried LPs, so it might have been a separate shop in the same block of Conn. Ave., below Dupont Circle.
2. I may have discovered Steeleye Span and the Chieftains during my time in the UK, or I may have been aware of them earlier. What I know for sure is that their earliest LPs in my collection came back with me from England.