The Lonesome Train was a commercial half-hour ‘ballad opera’ or folk cantata, transmitted in 1944, about the funeral train bearing President Abraham Lincoln’s body home after his assassination in the Ford Theatre of Washington D.C. in 1865. This became culturally resonant in 1945 on the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when the Decca recording of the show became a sort of ‘media requiem’, played over and over again on US radio stations. The live production, directed by Norman Corwin, is a hybrid between drama and documentary, but goes further with its use of music and poetry… perhaps a musical modernist montage of traditions as varied as George Gershwin, Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. Corwin has been characterised as the American Shakespeare of radio, his We Hold These Truths (1941) possibly attracting the highest audience for any radio play in human history.
The central narrative character in The Lonesome Train is a reporter, a 20th century chronicler, a journalistic oracle representing the role of the freedom and significance of the US media under the First Amendment. And he narrates with style, dignity, sensitivity, subtlety and deploys the art of a storytelling aesthetic with a knowing understated language when describing Abraham Lincoln’s assassination: ‘and along about the middle of the evening something happened that wasn’t in the program. I guess you all know what that was. The news spread pretty fast…’ When the radio medium engages in any form of grieving and memorialising, with the full commitment of musical expression, poetic exposition and the rallying of an ethical belief system against threat and danger in the context of war, emotiveness, empathy and sympathy will be engendered with full force. Here, its cultural power and significance travels vertically and horizontally through the sociological vectors of state and federal power and people power. It can be argued that The Lonesome Train is the American equivalent of Handel’s Messiah.
Reviewer TIM CROOK is Reader in Media & Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London and Visiting Professor in Broadcast Journalism in the faculty of English, Media and Performance, Birmingham City University, UK. He is also an award-winning journalist, author, and program maker in a career spanning four decades. His publications span history, radio studies, journalism and media law and ethics. They include Radio Drama: theory & practice (1999) and The Sound Handbook (2011) both published by Routledge.