The new documentary ‘Two Trains Running’ pairs the search for lost 1930s blues singers Son House and Skip James with the tragic Mississippi Burning murders.
On June 21st, 1964 three young civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi were brutally murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan while they participated in the Freedom Summer voter registration initiative. Racially-motivated killings were nothing new in that part of the country during the Jim Crow era, but two of the victims were affluent, young, white males from the north. That was enough to turn their deaths into major national news, attracting the attention of the FBI and President Lyndon Johnson and acting as a catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On the same day the killings, known as the Mississippi Burning murders, took place, another trio of young males from the north were driving through Mississippi with a different agenda. Led by guitarist John Fahey, the three men were obsessive fans of 1930s Delta blues musicians. Many of the key figures from that era had disappeared without a trace decades earlier, and they were determined to track down Skip James, whose sole recorded output was a handful of scratchy 78-RPM records in 1931. Through a combination of luck and guile, they found James at a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi.
Amazingly, another threesome of young, white males from the north were driving through Mississippi that same day in 1964 seeking out Son House, another Delta blues icon from the 1930s. They tracked him down via telephone and met up with him at his house in Rochester, New York two days later. Much like James, House had no idea that his old recordings had found a cult audience eager to see him play live. They both wound up attending the Newport Folk Festival the next month – James performed, though an ailment prevented House from taking the stage – relaunched their careers in the years to come after decades in complete obscurity.
The remarkable coincidence of these three historic events taking place on the same day in 1964 is the subject of the new documentary Two Trains Runnin’, which hit the festival circuit last year and is now rolling out to theaters across America. The incredible story was going to be told in writer Benjamin Hedin’s book In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now, but once the focus of the work shifted, he was unable to fit it in. “It pained me,” says Hedin, “I had done lots of research and interviews, [but] there was no place in it for the story of the searches for Son House and Skip James set against the backdrop of Freedom Summer.”
“Two Trains Runnin’,” Sam Pollard’s compact, resonant documentary — part essay film, part road picture, part musical anthology — is built around an astonishing historical coincidence. On June 21, 1964, two lost giants of the Delta blues, Skip James and Son House, were found by separate crews of obsessed music fans after weeks of amateur sleuthing along the back roads of Mississippi. James and House had each made a handful of recordings in the ’30s and ’40s, and then faded into obscurity until the folk revival of the early ’60s piqued the interest of students and coffeehouse guitar pickers in the college towns of the North.
One car, captained by the guitarist John Fahey, set out from Berkeley, Calif., in search of Skip James. Another left Cambridge, Mass., following a wisp of a clue about where Son House might be. At the same time, other, larger groups of students were preparing to travel to Mississippi for reasons having little to do with music. They were part of Freedom Summer, a campaign organized mainly by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to register black voters in the state. On June 21, three of those activists — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — disappeared near Philadelphia, Miss. They were killed by the Ku Klux Klan.
With deep historical knowledge and nimble storytelling techniques, Mr. Pollard explores how idealism, horrific brutality and artistic genius converged in a single historical moment. Interviews with survivors, eyewitnesses, scholars and musicians are complemented with archival material, animation (which is fast becoming a staple of modern documentary filmmaking) and the retrospective thoughts of critics, journalists and musicians. Some of these are a little distracting. It’s nice to hear Lucinda Williams, Gary Clark Jr. and others testify to (and demonstrate) the enduring influence of James and House, but it’s infinitely more valuable to hear the men themselves.