Film Review: Two Trains Runnin'

Fascinating documentary examines the convergence of blues music and civil rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
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Packed with detail, Two Trains Runnin' pulls together two familiar subjects—the folk-music revival and the civil rights movement—to open an entirely new angle on history. It's an absorbing story filled with weird coincidences, extraordinary music and heroic activism.

An opening timeline shows the spread of blues and folk music just as civil rights became a dominant social movement. When white folk revivalists searched into the past, they unearthed a largely forgotten genre, rural blues, haunting music recorded on obscure labels by largely forgotten artists.

Musicians like guitarist John Fahey and historians like Tom Hoskins used clues from song lyrics and other sources to locate former stars Bukka White and Mississippi John Hurt. Their re-emergence helped shift the folk revival away from its largely European focus to the blues.

Accompanied by two friends, Fahey returned to the South in 1964 in search of Skip James. Details about James, a pianist as well as a guitarist whose technique and tunings mystified his fans, were scarce. He dropped from sight after recording sessions in Wisconsin, but one of his contemporaries pointed the team to Bentonia, Mississippi, near the border with Tennessee.

In Cambridge, MIT dropout, radio DJ and computer programmer Phil Spiro became entranced with Son House. Reputed to have been a preacher, House recorded a handful of Delta blues classics in the 1930s. Recently an acquaintance thought she had spotted him leaving a movie theatre near Memphis. Joined by two friends, Spiro set off in a Volkswagen to find him.

The blues fans were largely clueless about the political climate in the South. At the same time, civil rights leaders were realizing that Southern blacks needed to vote to defeat bigotry and racism. They recruited white college students to fan out across the South for voter registration drives, with the hope that whites would get into less trouble with racists.

Writer John Hale notes that the volunteers had no idea of the danger and violence they faced; as historian Taylor Branch puts it, they were more used to proms than demonstrations. Freedom Summer reached a turning point when volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner arrived in Mississippi on June 20, 1964. What happened next convulsed the nation.

As director Sam Pollard makes clear, all three groups were gambling on uncertain results. For civil rights activists, the movement's political calculations brought real risks, but the blues searchers faced problems as well. Throughout Two Trains Runnin', their fates intersect in unexpected ways.

Pollard makes good use of archival footage, from home movies to newsreels. He uses animation to bridge inevitable gaps, as many of the participants have passed away. He also adds in helpful interviews with modern-day writers and musicians.

Whether reinterpreted by present-day artists Lucinda Williams, Rev. John Wilkins, Buddy Guy and others, or heard through generous archival clips, the music in Two Trains Runnin’ is remarkable. Songs like "Freight Train" and "That's No Way to Get Along" became cornerstones of both folk music and British rock.

It's rare that a documentary can bring new light to familiar subjects, and rarer still to find a greater meaning from them. In this new political era, Two Trains Runnin' opens an important conversation about the legacy of the segregated South.

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