New Film Explores How the Search for 2 Long-Forgotten Bluesmen Intersected With Freedom Summer of 1964

Gary Clark Jr., who created the original music for the documentary Two Trains Runnin’
Avalon Films    

Some events from the summer of 1964 in Mississippi are well-known. It was Freedom Summer, tragically highlighted by the brutal murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The outrage ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. At that same time, two groups of young men, one set from the East Coast and the other from California, had also come to Mississippi. They were searching for two legendary bluesmen, Skip James and Son House, who had disappeared after making indelible recordings decades earlier. The story of their search and how it intertwined with the civil rights movement is the subject of a stellar new documentary, Two Trains Runnin’.


Narrated by Common with original music by Gary Clark Jr., the film is directed by Sam Pollard, one of the most respected names in film. Pollard is the director of August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun. He has produced numerous other documentaries, including Spike Lee’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls. He won an Emmy for his work on the series Eyes on the Prize II

Two Trains Runnin’ was written and produced by veteran journalist Benjamin Hedin, author of In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now. The movie will be screened Friday in Durham, N.C., at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and Saturday at the Asbury Park Music in Film Festival in New Jersey. Both Pollard and Hedin spoke to The Root about Two Trains Runnin’.

The Root: How did this film come about?

Benjamin Hedin: Two Trains Runnin' was not originally meant to be a film but was, rather, the prologue of a book I was intending to write about the summer of 1964. The book evolved into a very different project—published last year as In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now—but I didn't want to let go of the story of the searches for Son House and Skip James. Near the end of 2012, I said to myself, “You know, that would make a great documentary,” knowing that in a film one would be able to hear the songs and the testimony of the activists. So I took the old book proposal and made it into a treatment and sent that to Sam Pollard and Dava Whisenant, who eventually became the director and editor/co-producer of Two Trains, respectively.


Sam Pollard: When I was first approached by Ben Hedin, I was not aware of the parallels between the rediscovery of Son House and Skip James and what happened to Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman in 1964. And quite honestly, when Ben talked about that being the way we should tell the story, I thought we were taking on more than we could handle cinematically. But as I have learned from so many filmic experiences, so much is possible if you want it bad enough.

BN: I knew the South, and Mississippi in particular, was a hot area during the time of the searches but was not aware of how closely intertwined the stories were until I interviewed Dick Waterman for the first time. He was one of the young men who was looking for Son House, and the moment he said, “The day we found Son was the same day the three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi,” I knew I had stumbled onto something rich and provocative, which needed to be told. I think I sensed even then, instinctually, that the relationship between the stories was greater than that coincidence. The movie is about the moment when America finally woke up to the immense contribution blacks have made to the national character, politically and culturally. 


TR: There is a lot in the film that there is no footage of, particularly in the search for the bluesmen. How did you decide to use animation to depict this element of the story?

SP: Wonderful question. Growing up loving films as much as I do, one of the few areas where I have never truly embraced is animation. Sure, I grew up loving Daffy Duck and Bugs, but out of all the films I have edited, directed and produced, I never thought much about animation being a factor. And I did not for this one, but if my memory serves me correctly, when Dava Whisenant, our editor and co-producer, came on board, somehow I remember her suggesting animation being a possible way to visualize the story.


TR: Do you attribute the rollbacks in voting rights to people forgetting about this crucial episode in African-American history?

SP: No, I don’t think one has to constantly be aware of gains of the civil rights movement to understand that we live in a country where folks will always want to try to change things back to a time when the notions and power of a certain electorate being in power was the norm. We as a society always have to be on our guard and fight to keep our rights intact.


Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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