When James O’Neil sat down to write his first play after a year and a half of research and more than 35 years’ experience acting and directing, he very nearly became overwhelmed. The son of a Dust Bowl Okie who migrated from Quapaw and became a ranch hand in Goleta, O’Neil wanted to tell the story of the people and the songs that shaped his father and his childhood — Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, the Kingston Trio and their black predecessors, Leadbelly and Odetta. Folk anthems of road warriors who loved the land and its music, songs like “Goodnight Irene,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
O’Neil compiled some 100 historically significant melodies, then began the slow, painful process of whittling down the list. With several more cuts still to go, he threw up his hands. “I have to get personally involved in this now,” he admitted. He finally chose pieces that spoke to him — songs that because of “the melody, the rhythm, the message, the beat,” felt as though they belonged.
The 30-odd numbers that survived will be performed on the Rubicon Theatre stage — where O’Neil is co-founder and artistic director with his wife, Karyl Lynn Burns — during the world premiere of Lonesome Traveler. The show, a concert with onstage patter and framework story to link things together, traces the roots of folk from the 1920s through the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where Bob Dylan famously wailed “Like a Rolling Stone” on the electric guitar, and the folk movement is said to have died.
The show opens with the title character (played by Justin Flagg), a long, lean banjo-picker meant to evoke Pete Seeger, Paul Stookey and Dave Guard. While musing between sets about the origins of his music, Flagg’s character is transported back in time to a porch in the Appalachians where Alan Lomax is collecting field samples for his musical ethnography. There he meets the Muse (Tracy Nicole Chapman), who guides him through the nightclubs of San Francisco and New York, where he meets the likes of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
O’Neil was determined to make the play as authentic as possible by casting young actors. While most young people today think of folk as a baby boomer phenomenon, O’Neil says, we forget that many of the greats were still in their 20s when they got their start. By casting actors who are not only the right age but working musicians themselves, O’Neil hoped to bring a level of immediacy and realism to the show while attracting younger audiences. O’Neil and Burns put out a national call and have pulled in singer-songwriters and musicians from Los Angeles, New York and Seattle as well as Ventura County.
The production has been a learning experience for the cast members, who are living in communal housing in the Silverstrand Beach area of Oxnard. Even as musicians, they experienced a steep learning curve. Flagg, who had to learn how to frail the banjo for his role, said the first day of rehearsal was a “rude awakening.” But after hours of frantic practice and some help from the show’s backup musician, Trevor Wheetman (son of musical director Dan Wheetman), he mastered the technique.
Justine Bennett, an L.A.-based singer-songwriter, loves Joni Mitchell but was less familiar with her predecessors Sara Carter and Sis Cunningham, whom she plays onstage. The history lesson has been helpful. “I think it’s the responsibility of people who play music to know where it’s coming from.”
So what exactly is folk? Brendan Willing James, who performs as solo artist B Willing and serves as frontman for the local band Shades of Day, has a head full of cowlicks and an easy gait that make him perfect for portraying Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightoot. He says, “It’s in the name — folks. It’s about people. Pop music is kind of up on this shelf, and you can’t get to it. This is the opposite of that.”
According to O’Neil, folk music is characterized by portable, stringed instruments like guitar and banjo. It pairs basic chords that anyone can play with easy lyrics — words often borrowed from older sources like the Bible, 19th century European ballads, or earlier (often black) artists. All this is why folk songs are so singable, and can have that annoying knack for getting stuck in your head. Think of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” used in elementary school classrooms everywhere.
Those simple melodies also lend themselves to group harmonies, which ties in to another key characteristic of folk — community. “Folk music chords are about sharing,” James says. “‘Hey, I’ve got a song, but let’s all sing it together.’”
“It’s not complex music, but it’s deep — effective in its simplicity,” says Flagg.
The communal aspect of folk gave birth to its political identity, epitomized in songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Talkin’ Union,” Woody Guthrie’s set of instructions for getting organized (“Now, if you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do / You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you”). Unlike music today, which Flagg says doesn’t wear its social consciousness on its sleeve, folk music encouraged audiences to speak their minds by singing along.
The production is taking a page from Woody’s songbook. In the version of “Talkin’ Union” for the production, O’Neil and the cast have slipped in a reference to the protests in Madison, Wis. “We’re participating, too,” O’Neil says proudly. “That’s what Woody would have done.” And audiences can join in, too; at each performance, audience members will have an opportunity to vote on a list of song requests, each prepared by a member of the cast.
Beyond introducing modern audiences to the historical realities of folk, O’Neil hopes to capture its ethos, which he defines as “utter sincerity” and a culture of civility and “care.”
Folk’s earnestness might get spoofed in mockumentaries like A Mighty Wind, but O’Neil believes we are suffering without it. “People yearn for it. They want to know that you mean what you say and that you care about what you say.”
Whether a generation raised on Jon Stewart will relate to the show remains to be seen; but if the young cast is any indication, O’Neil is on to something. It’s difficult to overestimate their sincerity and enthusiasm as they discuss the production and the legendary musicians who are now their grandparents’ age, or dead. The chance to enjoy a paid, long-term gig learning about what he loves and bonding with fellow artists has been “life-changing,” says James. And it’s just beginning.
“When this is over, we’re going to spread back out into the world. All this [music] is going to go into all these other projects.”
Lonesome Traveler through May 8 at the Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org.