There is nothing about feeling lonely in Lonesome Traveler, a musical playing at 59 E59 Theaters that spans the history of American folk music from the dust bowl days to the present. It's the kind of music that represented a country able to recognize its own suffering and injustice and express that recognition through song. Of course, folk music couldn't by itself resolve the problems of unfair wages, unjust wars, and racism, but they went a long way in helping to heal the pain. Folk music helped bolster the creation of communities, including the unions, and in rallying support against war.
The U.S. was a less populated country when singers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Odetta brought the news to the people through song. And people were spread out... riding box cars, moving west to look for work...always hoping to better their lives. Songs helped tell their stories and help relieve the pressures of life's challenges.
In this wonderful production, a group called the Lonesome Traveler folds and unfolds on itself, portraying the different periods of folk music and the bards who led the songs. The narrator, a brilliant Justin Flagg playing guitar, banjo and stand-up bass, portrays the music of Pete Seeger, Dave Guard, Peter Yarrow and others. This is the style of the show. Whether singing as Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez, they are all extremely accomplished performers who bring the different periods of musical history alive.
We learn a little bit about the lives of each of these singers and writers, and what inspired them to write what they did, some literally lifting old songs that were long part of musical history and updating them for the time. The audience is encouraged to join in, and This Land is Your Land started the ball rolling.
The video projections help convey the different periods, from dust bowls to mountain shacks to the March on Selma. We see how the tunes corresponded to our lives, from union busting, Talkin' Union, to Hitler and Pete Seeger's, Last Night I had the Strangest Dream.
Two of my favorites were represented, Judy Collins and Joan Baez, but I missed hearing "Joanie Mitchell" sing Big Yellow Taxi's folk rock anthem to gentrification.
By the second half, tears stared to flow. Ian and Sylvia's beautiful tune Someday Soon was like stepping into a time machine. "The Kingston Trio" sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone, so poignant after all these years of lost lives in the Middle East and other wars.
Lonesome Traveler is the kind of show that should play college campuses and music schools and certainly PBS. It is an oral history of our country...with music. As the performers are all so great, I will mention them by name: Matty Charles, Sylvie Davidson, Jamie Drake, Justin Flagg, Sam Gelfer, Anthony Manough, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Trevor Wheetman. The show is directed by its writer, James O'Neil, with Trevor Wheetman as musical director. Mr. Wheetman's bio sweetly gives thanks for the job which also led to meeting his now fiancé, musician Syvlie Davidson. Ah, the power of music.
59 E 59th Street Theater until April 19