Gabriel Kahane’s 8980: Book of Travelers

At The Theatre at Ace Hotel

Saturday, January 20, 2018; 8:00pm

Bound for Glory

By Ross Altman, PhD

Gabriel KahanePart folk; part classical; part pop; part musical theatre, and all modernist art; New York City’s highly touted singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane presented the most amazing set of new songs last night at the Theatre at Ace Hotel I have heard since a young John Prine opened at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago in 1971. If you have been looking for Americana that transcends the genre then you were at this art deco masterpiece of a restored movie house in downtown Los Angeles, listening to a piano man who spent thirteen days on Amtrak in the post-election depression of November 2017 wandering the country listening to strangers on a train. He had no distractions: he left his cell phone and all access to the Internet at home in the city, determined to find what he and all his liberal friends had been missing in the run-up to the election, when they counted on waking up to the news that the first woman had been elected president. Instead they woke up to the news that the first fascist had been elected—with the sole endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan’s official newspaper The Crusader “The Premiere Voice of the White Resistance—The Political Voice of White Christian America!” with the headline: “Make America Great Again.”

These are the people the future president relegated to the moral equivalent of the Jewish counter-protesters in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017—after one of them drove all the way from Ohio and murdered Charlottesville activist Heather Heyer by running her over with his automobile. These are the people KKK Grand Wizard David Duke was also championing on camera as “fulfilling the promises of the Trump Administration.” As the president put it so memorably and eloquently: “There is hatred on many sides—many sides.”

How could this have happened? Gabe Kahane takes nothing for granted; he wants to hear it from his own countrymen—so he buys a train ticket for a nearly 9000 mile journey—8980 miles to be precise—the title of his show: 8980: The Book of Travelers—and sets out on the journey of a lifetime. He takes notes the old-fashioned way—pen and paper—and talks to as many people as he can—listening to America like Bill Moyers along the way.

One has seen many a picture of a hunched-over folk singer walking down a railroad track with a guitar slung over his back—like a mythic Woody Guthrie during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Not so much a young singer sitting at a grand piano sprawled over those same tracks—a perspective by incongruity literary critic Kenneth Burke called it. Obviously he couldn’t carry his instrument on his travels; so when he finally gets back to New York City he takes out his notebooks, sits down at his piano, and starts to try and make sense of all the stories he had gathered. 8980: Book of Travelers is the result, and it is an eye-opening glimpse into the mind of America that elected an angry old man to the Oval Office. We shall never hear another so insightful, brilliant and compassionate as Kahane’s welter of songs based on characters he met that became a representative sampling of the public and electorate that rejected the most-qualified person for the job of president, and chose the least qualified candidate ever to seek the office. If you want to understand America in all her frustrated disenchantment you cannot do better than to see her through Gabriel Kahane’s penetrating eyes.

This is not the first time Kahane has told America’s story in his own way. He has put a show together before that used the famed WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guidebooks during the Great Depression to translate them into a world of song called Gabriel’s Guide to the 48 States. These were the books that FDR sponsored for America’s greatest writers—including John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway—to each contribute one volume in highlighting the most interesting features of each state and—not to put too fine a point on it—give them an actual government paycheck for their efforts. I began my life as a full-time folk singer under the sponsorship of Jimmy Carter—the peanut-farmer president who initiated a program called CETA—Civil Employment Training Act—to help support artists who were trying to make a subsistence living practicing their art form—be it painting, sculpture, dance, storytelling, poetry, prose, puppetry or folk music while they got their feet on the ground. That is why I have always had a soft spot for the WPA—it was the inspiration for Carter’s brainchild of a government program to create jobs for artists—the first time it had been done in forty years. That’s what drew me to Gabriel Kahane’s own celebration of FDR’s pioneering efforts in the same direction, and following that this revelatory new work.


But not only that: the most recent collection of songs created both for theatre and a recording—sponsored by L.A.’s own Pacifica radio station KPFK—was his homage to the City of Angels; a song cycle about Los Angeles based on specific places that collectively became a citywide portrait gallery—called The Ambassador. The title is the Ambassador Hotel—the doomed establishment where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated fifty years ago this year—on June 5-6 1968. But that is only the most notorious locale portrayed in Kahane’s groundbreaking album and show—one also encounters Griffith Park and many others, including Empire Liquor Mart (9127 S. Figueroa St.), a small liquor store where a young black woman is murdered in a tragic crime that barely made the papers or stirred anyone’s conscience. But it deeply stirred Kahane’s; who translated her murder into an epic song that will preserve her memory forever. These are the stories—of the famous to the unknown—he has been telling and singing in his powerful music and theatrical settings as a performing and recording artist from L.A. to New York.

8980: Book of Travelers takes him out of the two great bi-coastal cities and immerses him in the rural and industrial landscape that has often fallen by the wayside and been lost in the freeze-frame photo-ops that define the presidential election cycles which almost invisibly wound up electing the current president. Once again, Kahane committed himself to noticing and documenting what everyone around him had missed—especially the many protest song writers who simply used the election and bumpkin-president to raise their concerted voices in a chorus of resistance to Nixon’s once-silent majority.

Unlike any protest singer you may imagine Kahane walks out on stage quite casually—no tux to match the grand piano awaiting him—you can see immediately he is no Arthur Rubinstein about to take his seat; or even Tom Lehrer; he is dressed as you might imagine him dressed on the train itself—so as to fit in with all the other travelers—in denims and a long-sleeve pullover top. He slides onto the piano bench and quietly acknowledges the rising applause of the waiting Theatre and Ace Hotel audience. Then after graciously welcoming everyone the screen lights up behind him—showing a tri-part video backdrop of the New York train station from which his long journey begins—as he sings his first song about pulling out of the station in anticipation of what lies ahead; it’s a perfect opening song. Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again occurs to me—this will be a life-changing event. The video accompanies the entire show—revealing landscapes both urban and rural throughout the nearly 9,000 mile journey. It’s breathtaking; designer Jim Findley puts you inside the train looking out.

Surprisingly there is really very little overt politics in any of the resonant portraits he constructs out of snatches of conversation with these real people—all of whom are identified by their actual first names—and all of whom are captured non-judgmentally in a sympathetic light. The music ranges from lyrical contemporary folk-pop sounds with echoes of “Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim,” as critic Jon Pareles described it in a beautiful firsthand New York Premiere review Strangers On a Train. Around the two-thirds point, however, of a tight one-hour show, the music suddenly shifts in tone to a show-stopping modernist cast that would have brought Schoenberg to his feet—as Kahane rises up from the bench and walks deliberately to the microphone at center stage: it is a tribute to photographer “William Eggleston’s Sky” as he zeros in on a huge shopping mall with the names of virtually of every well-known fast-food restaurant in sight. This haunting catalog of modern American cuisine is presented against the musical refrain Kahane created beforehand, with a loop from the piano’s interior strings.

“All the lonely people—where do they all come from?” Kahane is determined to find out and answers Lennon and McCartney’s question in a scene-shifting montage of America’s overlooked of every race—from German Baptist Brethren to an Oregon widow who is driven to to find a new love interest. Her on-line dating stories—including one that might have come from “#MeToo,” make for a comic panorama of what Thoreau described more tragically as “lives of quiet desperation,” which despite a string of failures she endures with courage like Faulkner’s Dilsey in The Sound and The Fury.

This kind of personal resilience is what Kahane winds up paying tribute to in his most memorable portrait of an African-America woman named Monica from Tupelo, Mississippi—who has faced the Ku Klux Klan in person—and warns him “They don’t need a hood or a cross or a tree.” She concludes, “I have limited sympathy for your desire to know the suffering of the working white man.”

As stark as that counsel is, however, Kahane has another, more personal story to tell—in memories of his own grandmother who took her own train ride nearly 80 years before his. That is where this incredible tale winds back upon itself—and shows how hope and history intertwine. His grandmother was in Germany—and was arrested and put on board a train on—the date is significant—November 9, 1938. From that November 9 to the day after the recent election—also November 9, was 78 years to the day. His grandmother’s first November 9 in Germany was the date of Kristallnacht (not explicitly identified in the show itself) “The night of broken glass.” That is the night 91 Jews were murdered—and 1000 Synagogues were burned to the ground—foreshadowing the Holocaust that followed. His grandmother survived, but many other members of his family would perish. To frame this story with the portrait from Germany on the eve of the Holocaust, and his resolution to discover what lay behind the election of a man who apologizes for Nazis and Klan members in the brutal slaying of a young civil rights activist in Charlottesville, Virginia—that is art imitating life at its very finest and most eloquent.

Kahane has creating an enduring portrait of contemporary America—which is perhaps best summarized in his own character’s lament—photographer William Eggleston—who cries out in the chorus: “I am in love with America/I am betrayed by America.” This magnificent one-hour tapestry of the people whose stories we otherwise would never hear is currently on tour~ see Gabriel Kahane’s website for future dates This train is bound for glory The audience’s standing ovation is music to his ears.

With thanks to Holly Wallace of UCLA’s CAP (Center for the Art of Performance) who sponsored Kahane’s performance—she described as “a very special project.” Bravo!

Thursday evening February 22 at 7:00pm Ross Altman performs a Sing-Along Civil Rights Concert at the Silver Lake Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library for Black History Month 2018; the Silver Lake Library is at 2411 Glendale Blvd, L.A. 90039; 323-913-7451 ; in the second floor atrium; free and open to the public! Don’t miss it!

Saturday afternoon February 24 at 2:00pm Ross Altman joins author, filmmaker and photographer Byron Motley at the Pintoresca Branch of the Pasadena Public Library for “From Monarchs to Barons: The Legacy of the Negro Leagues,” a celebration of Jackie Robinson’s legacy and the history of baseball’s Negro Leagues and the players who made them successful in the decades before Major League Baseball’s integration—showing how they were not just about baseball but were an integral part of the modern day Civil Rights Movement~ for Black History Month 2018; in conjunction with the Baseball Reliquary’s month-long exhibit; 1355 North Raymond Ave.; refreshments will be served; free and open to the public—don’t miss it! The program and exhibit are sponsored in part by a grant to the Baseball Reliquary from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission; for further info 626-744-7268

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; he belongs to Local 47 (AFM); Ross may be reached at