'Lonesome Traveler' tells folk music's story

‘Lonesome Traveler, the Concert’ at Westminster College

Thursday, September 13, 2018

By GUY D’ASTOLFO

dastolfo@vindy.com

NEW WILMINGTON, PA.

If folk music comes from a place in America’s musical soul, the “Lonesome Traveler, the Concert” follows its path.

The show, based on the hit musical, will make its Youngstown-area debut Saturday at Orr Auditorium, on the campus of Westminster College.

The original “Traveler” used a cast of actor-musicians who played the actual folk artists. It premiered Off-Broadway in 2015 to critical acclaim and was soon after re-worked into a concert version of the musical to facilitate a U.S. tour.

Like the musical, the concert version celebrates the giants of folk, and includes the music of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, the Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel, to name a few.

It includes dozens of songs – hymns, union anthems, protests – such as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” “This Land is Your Land,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “The Times They are a-Changin’” and “Hallelujah.”

What: “Lonesome Traveler, the Concert”

When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Orr Auditorium, Westminster College, New Wilmington, Pa.

Tickets: $33, $35, $37 and $42; call 724-946-7354 or go to westminster.edu/celebrity

The original musical – created by James O’Neil and Dan Wheetman, with orchestration by George Grove of The Kingston Trio – premiered in 2011 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Calif.

Karyl Lynn Burns is the artistic director of the Rubicon Theatre. She was a producer of the original “Traveler,” and maintains her role for the touring concert version.

In a recent phone interview, Burns talked about the birth of the musical and its transformation.

“After we did it Off-Broadway, we decided to take it on the road as a concert,” said Burns. “Now, the actors are not playing the folk artists as characters. Instead of them speaking in first person, the action is now described [by a narrator]. But it is still much the same.”

The time frame has also been expanded. Originally, the story ended with Dylan’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in the early 1960s but now it continues beyond that.

“It goes into the folk-rock era,” said Burns. “It’s a larger piece of history and something that more generations will relate to.”

At one point, the folk version of “Turn Turn Turn” is followed by the Byrds’ 1965 hit version of the same song.

Folk music parallels the political and social upheavals of American history, and “Traveler” does the same. In fact, a tagline of the musical is “the music that made history and the history that made music.”

During one medley, a video screen on stage shows the historical events that inspired songs – including “Ohio,” Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s protest song about the killings of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970.

“You get a sense of the continuum,” said Burns. “There is history, and anecdotes are shared that are fun and informative. It gives a greater understanding of where we came from and the issues we now face.”

Audiences often find themselves moved by the communal power the music harnessed.

“Folk music used to be a sort of beacon,” said Burns. “Now, people are disenfranchised. There are so many loud voices and it feels like one voice will not be heard. But there is a coming together that is part of the folk ethos and that is needed in our world right now.”

The show has earned praise from those who were at the vanguard of the folk movement.

When the original version was running in New York, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary attended a performance and talked to the cast afterward.

“They were just weeping,” said Burns. “He told the story of his music and his activism, and it inspired them so much.”

The Westminster College performance is expected to get a visit from another folk great, said Burns. The Kingston Trio’s George Grove, who had a hand in creating the show, will be in attendance to honor a cast member who just had a baby.