Lonesome Traveler, James O’Neil’s musical revue now at 59E59 Theaters, brings back the American folk music revival of the 1950s and early 1960s, which helped shape the social, cultural and political lives of a whole generation.
Over the last few decades the popularity of traditional folk music has declined sharply, with folk musicians primarily performing their own original songs and the term “folk” used for any music played mostly on acoustic instruments. But 60-odd years ago, a feeling of kinship with the music of older generations of working-class people brought traditional songs into popular culture in the age of radio and early television. Thanks to artists like The Kingston Trio, Odetta, Joan Baez, the young Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger (with and without The Weavers), as well as radio personalities like Oscar Brand, record labels, and promoters, traditional songs bubbled up onto the airwaves and the small screen and sometimes the charts, though sometimes polished almost beyond recognition.
Perhaps reflecting a paternalistic feeling towards the poor whites of Appalachia and the poor blacks of the Deep South from whom much of the music derived, the revivalists often presented the music with an element of corniness, without which we would never have had the film A Mighty Wind. Midcentury folk music also had strong links with left-wing pro-union activism, which contributed to a degree of preachiness as well. Lonesome Traveler conveys these aspects seemingly without irony, and the corniness quickly grows wearisome.
Fortunately, the show is almost all music, with a cast of talented singer-actor-musicians recreating performances by a raft of artists and groups from the revival period. Occasionally they also go back to earlier times to evoke the milieus and musical settings where the songs originated. Those few bits work well and I would have liked to see more of that early-20th-century folk music history. But the show focuses on the revival and presents a huge selection of songs to gratify just about any old folkie.
We get Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos (Deportee)” and “This Land Is Your Land,” Leadbelly singing “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special,” The Weavers recreating “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” The Kingston Trio’s slick “Tom Dooley,” Odetta’s soulful “All My Trials,” and a great many others. And if this paragraph has the ring of a PBS TV fundraiser, well, so does the show. There’s no getting around it: As evidenced by the average age of the audience at the performance I attended, Lonesome Traveler will largely appeal to the generation that today funds public television.
Among the cast are some fabulous voices and other positives. The golden vocals of Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and Jennifer Leigh Warren, the sharp onstage musicianship of Justin Flagg, and Sylvie Davidson’s droll recreation of the stage tics of Ronnie Gilbert and Mary Travers are among the show’s numerous assets. The musicianship is top-notch, both from the cast members and from the two backing musicians, Sam Gelfer and musical director Trevor Wheetman. The musical arrangements by Dan Wheetman sparkle throughout.
With less mawkishness and more historical depth, Lonesome Traveler could have been a genuine treasure instead of a nice piece of nostalgia. O’Neil worked with a better formula when he produced the excellent The Best is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman, which combined glitz, high spirits, and fine music. Still, it’s a pleasure to hear all these great, timeless folk songs performed so well.
Lonesome Traveler is at at 59E59 Theaters through April 19.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000000EFX][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000W1V5TM][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B000000EBU][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00QHCKH8U][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0079IL9ZQ]