The Lonesome Train, the cantata for radio with words by Millard Lampell, music by Earl Robinson, and directed by Norman Corwin, probably originated in a dilapidated brownstone on lower Sixth Avenue in Manhattan: The Almanac House, a radical commune for music organisers in Greenwich Village, including Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Corwin is widely regarded as a guru of thoughtful radio producers, a poet-laureate of radio. From 1936, when he helped create WQXR-FM in New York City (later, voice of the New York Times) to his death 75 years later, Norman Corwin managed to be simultaneously commercial, popular, and experimental. The series in which The Lonesome Train appears, ‘Columbia Presents Corwin,’ was made up of dramatised readings, interview excerpts, dramatisations of historical moments - oral and terrifying creativity in the art, as opposed to the craft, of radio. For historians, story can be an impediment to actual recollection of an event; the more times the story of an event is told, the less value is its factual recollection. But for the documentarian, the challenge is to discover a dramatic plot in a series of facts. Faced with a fact that may or may not be accurate, but which adds spice to the narrative, a documentarian will often make the imaginative leap to include what reaches the audience most directly. Craft and artistry, as well as intended audience, inflect such hard choices. The cantata is an uncommon form of documentary but an evocative one. The musical mix of orchestra and chorus (and banjo picker) must not overwhelm readings, interview actuality, and dramatisations; in this, Robinson and Corwin were original and innovative. The story is strong, dramatically simple; A man, a train, and his spirit moving across the land. The work engages the audience by its multiple voices, dialoguing with the narrator and one another, and its elegiac, Whitmanesque themes and music. Instead of being a linear, complex account of Lincoln’s funeral train, this program uses the historical record as a springboard for a fantastic voyage.
Reviewer DAVID K. DUNAWAY is a biographer of Pete Seeger, a DJ at KUNM-FM, Professor of Radio at San Francisco State University, and Professor of English at the University of New Mexico.