ORLANDO – The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival kicks off at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 16 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, and runs through May 29. This year the nearly three-week long festival will feature the largest line-up of shows in its history.
One of the shows is a collaboration between director Joseph Fletcher and writer/performer Willi Carlisle called “There Ain’t No More: Death of a Folksinger.” A one-man operetta, as Joseph calls it, the show takes place during the final performance of a folksinger confronting the life he’s led and the legacy he expects to leave behind.
“Folk arts face the same uncertain future as our hero,” Joseph noted, “yet can bring out the best in human nature: our ability to create and celebrate beauty together. Will we keep the tradition alive, or will it succumb to obscurity and its challenging past?”
The play was in development for five years, after plenty of research that included trips to square dances and exploration of folklore in the mountains of the Arkansas Ozarks. During the show, Willi picks up his banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonicas, and an old accordion and guides the audience through a life in song.
Freeline Media contacted Willi to discover more about his aging folksinger.
Freeline Media: A story told through songs. Sounds rather autobiographical, or is it?
Willi Carlisle: The story isn’t autobiographical– it tells the story of an unnamed folksinger playing his last concert. Of course, I have a lot of anxieties in common with the protagonist: concern about the commodification and erasure of vernacular culture, fear of death and irrelevance, and concerns about “authenticity” or pedigree.
While much of my writing process involved soft folklore work like visits, interviews with older musicians, poems, and work in archives in the Ozarks, the protagonist and I are outsiders, “from off,” as it is occasionally put.
But we’re all “from off,” right? Instead of an autobiography, it’s more of a kind of tribute to the experiences of a dozen or more folks I admire: folksingers — famous, infamous, unknown — fiddlers, folklorists, furniture-makers, weavers, writers, and so on who experience the same anxieties about their culture, their politics, and their place in the 21st century. Or, at least, seemed anxious about those things to me.
FM: How did you conceive of a one-man show about an aging musician?
Willi: About six years ago, I realized that many of my heroes were old, white, folksy men who usually had one foot in the late 19th century and one in the 20th: Utah Phillips, Mark Twain, Carl Sandburg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Walt Whitman, Steve Cormier, Glenn Orhlin. These poets and folksingers all have a certain dying craft. When I watched their concerts or read their speeches, their wizened, ambling oratories struck me as beautiful in their pointlessness and poignancy — their dirty jokes, their deep lore, their vernacular inheritance of pieces of culture bigger than themselves, their mastery of offhandedly representing whole swaths of problematic history they themselves were about to forget via old age and death. The performances struck me as little death dramas. On the one hand, these dying cultures have beauty, can provide us with deep context, give us lessons in self reliance, and help us to gather socially. On the other, these cultures are often based upon social conditions that deserved to perish. This double-bind is fascinating, and I have come to live inside of it over many years of fascination. The best things in my life emerge from it: faith in something larger, beautiful music, and dances with handsome girls and men.
It is fascinating to me that someone born in the 1950’s would undertake preserving folk culture in this double-bind, revising folk music to fit the struggles of a new generation, one more ready to be sold popular — ie, not folk — culture. The revival of the 1960’s is endlessly fascinating and endlessly problematic! So: I wanted to make a death drama like the miniature swan-songs of my heroes who navigate this territory. The main character would have to be old, patriarchal, masculine, perhaps a little insecure. He’d have to explore folk music as a way to grow personally and politically, as a mirror to his own life. It guides him through Vietnam, through protests, into self-discovery, into love, and into death.
The main character is loosely based on the experiences and performances of folks like Grandpa Jones, Utah Phillips, and again, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. I wrote the first lines six years ago, and elaborated upon those notes over those years. Nothing was too base to use: bathroom graffiti, sock puppets, USO routines, strip-teases, folk-ballads, pop-songs, poems, square-dance-calls and interviews. Some is raw text, directly stolen and factual. Some is quite worked over. All in all, the play, like the life of its protagonist, is a hillbilly fantasy, a yarn, a tall-tale with dire consequences.
FM: Are there some commentaries about the current state of affairs in this one as well?
Willi: Absolutely. When shows like “Duck Dynasty” represent the rural idiom to many people and the divide between poor and rich — as well as left and right — has widened farther than ever, proof that rural, traditional practices are beautiful and relevant strikes me as important. There isn’t a soul alive and moving that can’t benefit from a square dance, a hymn singing, a quilting party. Do I talk about Trump? No. But our hero does protest Nixon and McCarthy in similar situations. Our hero is also a product of his times, and sometimes struggles with “wokeness” in ways that drive the story. I wanted to give audiences that chilling dichotomy of loving an old, sexist coot while wanting to admonish him. Showing his journey, its incompleteness, is part of that.
FM: Solo shows are very popular at Fringe. What’s the key to doing one effectively that also uses music?
Willi: Musically, we wanted to represent a whole lot of styles that represent a working folksinger’s repertoire! We felt that the protagonist playing a lot of instruments would be engaging, and use banjo, fiddle, accordion, guitar, and harmonica. The result is sometimes forgotten music that should sound familiar to audiences — music of the old, weird America that includes an Ozark fiddle tune, a German accordion waltz, a cowboy song, a pop-ballad, a Stephen Foster song, and so on. You know, the sort of stuff folksingers know!
FM: Does this show also have something to say about the history of the American folk music scene?
Willi: Totally! I’m pretty sure I covered that though. I hope you’ll pardon that I’ve given these long answers.
“There Ain’t No More: Death of a Folksinger” will be performed in the Purple Venue on the following dates:
* Wednesday, May 17 at 9:30 p.m.
* Saturday, May 20 at 8:30 p.m.
* Sunday, May 21 at 10:45 p.m.
* Wednesday, May 24 at 9 p.m.
* Friday, May 26 at 5:30 p.m.
* Saturday, May 27 at 7:15 p.m.
* Sunday, May 28 at 4:15 p.m.
For tickets visit Orlando Fringe.
Willi’s debut EP, “Too Nice to Mean Much,” is available at Willi Carlisle.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..