As anyone who has ever felt their spirits lift at the sound of voices raised in harmony knows, songs are the lifeblood of a culture. For Americans, the folk tradition conjures not only a certain set of canonical works but also an attitude and a history—the attitude being an insistence on equal rights for all men and women in a democracy, and the history being the proud story of those who took public stands to make this dream of freedom a reality. In James O’Neil’s heartwarming new show, Lonesome Traveler, the story of 20th-century American folk music is told in song, with a variety of theatrical settings and narrative devices employed to provide a context and bring out each song’s richly layered dynamics. For O’Neil and the wonderful cast of singer/musicians in Lonesome Traveler, there’s a lot more to these songs than a tune and some words. What they set out to accomplish over the course of the evening is to unearth and energize for a new generation the whole network of associations and feelings implied by participation in the American folk-music movement.
Things began in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with an evocation of the circumstances under which musicologist John Lomax first recorded groups like the Carter Family. In this segment, we heard from Tracy Nicole Chapman, whose fine and flexible voice earns her the character name of The Muse, and from Justin Flagg, whose outstanding performance as The Lonesome Traveler is the central thread holding the evening’s tapestry together. From there, the action moved to the folk clubs and coffeehouses of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, as indicated by a pair of overhead projections displaying such landmarks as the Hungry I, The Bitter End, and Folk City. Woody Guthrie made his first appearance in this segment, incarnated by Brendan Willing James, aka The Poet, and sang both “This Land Is Your Land.”
After the intermission, the show heated up in time for the wildness of the 1960s, including a rapid montage of major moments from that decade. Anthony Manough (billed as The Man) laid down a sweet pair of tunes as Harry Belafonte, and then took up the conga drum while Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Flagg, and James put on a raucous “Zombie Jamboree” to a calypso beat. Some of the night’s most memorable numbers involved James as Bob Dylan, crooning “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” before rocking out on electric guitar for “Maggie’s Farm.” Every voice in Lonesome Traveler hit home, so it would be a shame to leave out such wonderful contributions as those made by Sylvie Davidson (as The Lady) and Justine Bennett (as The Activist), who more than held their own as Joan Baez and Mary Travers. With this show, Rubicon has what great folk has always aspired to—a hit you can believe in.