One of the most pleasurable shows off-Broadway this season is “Lonesome Traveler.” James O’Neil, who wrote and directed the production, is the artistic director of Off-Broadway Across America and the Rubicon Theatre in California. He spoke to us about the development of “Lonesome Traveler.”
O’Neil dedicated “Lonesome Traveler” to his father, who was born in 1910 in Missouri. He left college during the Depression and moved to California as a “Dust Bowl refugee.” He worked first as a ranch hand and later as the president of the local Retail Clerks Union.
Woody Guthrie was one of his father’s artistic heroes (along with Will Rogers and later Pete Seeger). The show includes some of Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads (“Pastures of Plenty” and “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh”) and his pro-labor songs (“Talking Union”). Whenever the family couldn’t afford something, his father would say, “We ain’t got the ‘Do Re Mi’” (borrowing the title of another Guthrie song).
During the late 1950s and 1960s when the folk music revival took place, O’Neil’s father was thrilled. He brought home records by the prominent new artists and groups, which O’Neil credits as his “introduction to the idea of art and politics.” The songs dealt with the pressing issues of the day: the civil rights movement and the anti-war protests during the war in Vietnam. O’Neil credits this body of music as a massive influence on subsequent forms, from folk rock to country music and even rap.
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