Lonesome Traveler celebrates a great American genre
"Tom Dooley" encapsulates the spirit of Lonesome Traveler. When the actors portraying the Kingston Trio perform that classic song, everything from their harmonies to their crisp button downs recall the folk music era of the 50s and 60s. But at the same time, we still see these performers in this moment, adding their own vocal flourishes and banjo breakdowns. They're both honoring the tune and making it their own.
In other words, they're using a folk song to draw a line between yesterday and today. Those connections get made throughout the show, now at 59E59, as nine performers guide us through the genre's history.
On a set that recalls brick-wall clubs like The Bitter End, the actors sometimes play iconic figures like Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and Leadbelly, and sometimes they essentially play themselves, talking to us directly about how folk music became one of the most enduring American art forms.
And no matter which persona they use, they're always singing. Lonesome Traveler boasts almost 40 numbers we've heard on the radio or around the campfire, including "This Land Is Your Land," "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," and "Puff, the Magic Dragon."
According to writer-director James O'Neil, capturing the spirit of this music is more important than straightforward impersonations: "I said to [the cast], 'It's partly an homage to these wonderful performers, and it's partly you. And that's okay. It's why we ended up making a lot of jokes about time travel and not really being in the exact place and the exact time. It just works better if they feel freer in that way."
Plus, by simply acting like themselves, the actors underscore that folk music still resonates in today's culture. Superstar bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers are obviously indebted to the scene, and you can hear its influence on everyone from pop stars like Pink to country outfits like Lady Antebellum.
"The major theme of the show is that we borrow from the past," O'Neil says. "Everybody does, in every profession. There's no Einstein without Newton. We travel in the footsteps of those who came before us."
And besides, folk music is supposed to be the sound of the people. By letting its actors inject themselves into this material---and by frequently inviting us to sing along---the show embodies the idea that a great song eventually belongs to everyone.
To emphasize the point, Lonesome Traveler opens and closes with the 19th-century hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing," and it features new verses specifically written by this cast. "The writing happened in about four hours," says O'Neil. "It was unbelievable. For nine people to take a song like that and knock it out in that short amount of time: It was pretty awesome. And it put their stamp on this thing."
Mark Blankenship is the editor of TDF Stages
Photo by Carol Rosegg