New Documentary Blends Civil Rights Murders With Hunt for Blues Icons ~ RollingStone

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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. Dick Waterman

 

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.”

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“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.

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Kiitella Award: Access Fund Honors Executive Director Brady Robinson

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At the Access Fund annual event in Oakland, California, the organization honored Brady Robinson, their Executive Director, for his ten years of excellent leadership. Laminated bamboo and polished steel merge in this minimal and elegant plaque by Lisa Issenberg of Kiitella, with the Access Fund logo translating beautifully into a jetcut design.

Tom Hanks Is Obsessed With Typewriters (So He Wrote A Book About Them)

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Actor Tom Hanks has made us believe he can be anyone and do anything on the big screen.

Now he’s taking us on a journey on the page: Tom Hanks has written a book.

It’s a collection of short stories, with varied subjects: a World War II veteran on Christmas Eve in 1953, a California surfer kid who makes an unsettling discovery. There’s time travel. In every story, Hanks sneaks in the machine he’s so obsessed with — the typewriter.

“I have too many typewriters, David,” he says, beginning a riff. “You want one? I should have brought one for you and the staff, just to help out, man. I don’t want these to be a burden to my children when I kick the bucket. I don’t want them to say, ‘What are we gonna do with dad’s typewriters?'”

Sometimes the typewriter is a plot device; sometimes it really does feel almost hidden. Fittingly, the book is called Uncommon Type. And in talking to Hanks, you learn that his thing with typewriters is not a gimmick – more like a love affair.

“There’s something about – I don’t know, it’s a hex in my brain – there is something I find reassuring, comforting, dazzling in that here is a very specific apparatus that is meant to do one thing, and it does it perfectly,” he says. “And that one thing is to translate the thoughts in your head down to paper. Now that means everything from a shopping list to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Short of carving words into stone with a hammer and chisel, not much is more permanent than a paragraph or a sentence or a love letter or a story typed on paper.”

Some Stories

by Tom Hanks and Kevin Twomey

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Interview Highlights

On the story ‘These Are The Meditations Of My Heart’

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Meet Rhiannon Giddens, Newly Minted MacArthur ‘Genius’

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As a solo artist — and, before that, as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops — singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens has made a career out of revitalizing and invigorating decades’ worth of music reflecting the African-American experience. That’s meant singing songs written from slave narratives and for civil rights leaders, and even occasionally offering up twists on contemporary hits.

Today, Giddens joins the impressive list of artists and thinkers who’ve received so-called “Genius Grants” from the MacArthur Foundation. The recipients — others this year include Tyshawn Sorey and Yuval Sharon — each receive $625,000 with no strings attached, in the hope that they can pursue their work without financial limitations.

If Giddens’ recognition has piqued your interest, below you’ll find a nice introduction — a cross-section of performances from and interviews with Giddens, captured by NPR Music and our partner stations in the last few years.

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How Kurt Vonnegut Found His Voice and His Themes

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COMPLETE STORIES
By Kurt Vonnegut
Edited by Jerome Klimkowitz and Dan Wakefield
911 pp. Seven Stories Press. $45.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: I once stalked Kurt Vonnegut.

There’s a sort of writer — often male, typically born in the mid- to late-20th century — for whom this won’t be a surprise, for whom “Vonnegut” is practically a stage of development (it comes somewhere between adolescence and first rejection letter).

In 1986, I was that sort, a college journalism student and young father who secured suspect press credentials to interview the famous novelist when he came to my hometown to lecture at Gonzaga University. As we settled into a classroom, I shakily read the first question in my spiral notebook (“Um, if you could give advice to a young writer …”).

Vonnegut’s eyes narrowed in those droopy, theater-box sockets. “Can I ask you a question? How old are you?”

“Oh, uh, I’m 20.”

“And you’re writing for Esquire?”

“Well,” I admitted, “they haven’t actually accepted the piece yet.”

Despite my dubious credentials, Vonnegut spent the next 15 minutes generously offering advice on how to be a writer — or, at least how he’d done it. After surviving the Dresden firebombing as a prisoner in World War II and working briefly in public relations, he supported his family writing short stories for the rich 1950s magazine market, where he developed the wry, aphoristic voice that would lead to his career as a beloved novelist and moral sage.

I found myself thinking back to that 30-year-old advice (which was 30 years old when he gave it) while lugging around the huge volume of Vonnegut’s newly released “Complete Stories.” Even in 1986, Vonnegut mused that his path was about as relevant “as how to repair a Model T.”

This is the 911-page question — what to make of a trunkful of stories written (and often, rejected) 60 years ago for a market with such narrow specs: short, kicky stories for white, middle-class readers with a snap at the end worthy of O. Henry (or better yet, “The Twilight Zone”).

For completists, this will be like a boxed set of a musician’s early work — Vonnegut’s Sun Studio sessions — 98 stories, including five recovered from the author’s papers at Indiana University and published for the first time here.

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scratchy old blues music

Pulled out an old blues record this snowy morning with nothing else to do at 5 a.m.  I’d forgotten about it and how much pleasure i’ve gotten from listening to it over the years.  You can find it on Amazon from .32 cents to $27.99.  Give it a try if you like old Robert Johnson style blues.  Can’t go wrong for .32 cents … and then I moved onto a Son House collection..

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Robert Johnson continues to become more notorious. Columbia Records recently announced (1990) that it would release a tribute album and documentary video in honor of the late blues legend, heralded as the King of the Delta Blues.

“Roots of Rhythm and Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era“

features performances by Robert Jr. Lockwood (Johnson`s stepson), Honeyboy Edwards (who allegedly was with Johnson the night he was poisoned in Mississippi), Henry Townsend, Lonnie Lee Pitchford (a protege of Lockwood`s) and the last official recordings of Johnny Shines (the singer died April 20). The album isn`t so much a tribute to Johnson as it is to the blues` 1930s infancy. It features traditional spirituals, folk songs, work songs and folk blues. Also included are interpretations of Johnson favorites such as “Sweet Home Chicago,“ “Walking Blues“ and “Come On in My Kitchen.“

 

The album will coincide with the release of “The Search for Robert Johnson,“ a British “documentary-style“ video narrated by well known delta style blues musician John Hammond Jr.,  son of the late Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond.

In the video, Hammond traverses the delta by automobile and freight car, visiting the sites of Johnson`s two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937, and talks with Shines, Edwards and other Johnson contemporaries. Keith Richards and Eric Clapton offer fervent testimonials.

Execution Still Haunts Village, 50 Years After Che Guevara’s Death ~ NYT

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A statue of Che Guevara in La Higueira, the Bolivian town where he was killed in 1967. CreditNadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times

LA HIGUERA, Bolivia — Irma Rosales, tired after decades of tending her tiny store, sat back one morning with a box full of photos and remembered the stranger who was shot in the local schoolhouse 50 years ago.

His hair was long and greasy, she said; his clothes so dirty that they might have belonged to a mechanic. And he said nothing, she recalled, when she brought him a bowl of soup not long before the bullets rang out. Che Guevara was dead.

Monday marks a half-century since the execution of Guevara, the peripatetic Argentine doctor, named Ernesto at birth, who led guerrilla fighters from Cuba to Congo. He stymied the United States during the Bay of Pigs invasion, lectured at a United Nations lectern and preached a new world order dominated by those once marginalized by superpowers.

His towering life was overshadowed only by the myth that emerged with his death. The image of his scruffy beard and starred beret became the calling card of romantic revolutionaries around the world and across generations, seen everywhere from the jungle camps of militants to college dorm rooms.

Yet the villagers of La Higuera, Bolivia, who lived through that time, tell a story that is far less mythic, describing a short, bloody episode where a forgotten corner of this mountainous countryside briefly became a battleground of the Cold War.

It was not long after Guevara and the other strangers with him first appeared in the area, promising equality, that the guerrillas were dragged away in pools of their own blood, recalled Ms. Rosales.

“It was torture for us,” she said. “For us, this was a time of suffering.”

As Latin America remembers Guevara’s death, the region also faces a larger reckoning with the same leftist movements that drew on him for inspiration.

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The Glorious Bullshit of “Reservoir Dogs,” Twenty-Five Years Later ~ By Tom Shone, The New Yorker

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Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” released in 1992, occupies its own peculiar pocket of cultural space-time. Photograph by AF archive / Alamy

 

Like matching outfits for pop bands, the influence of Quentin Tarantino didn’t make it very far into the new century. “He is the single most influential director of his generation,” Peter Bogdanovich said, during an event at moma, in 2012, honoring the director, by which time it was customary to add the phrase “for better or worse.” To talk of Tarantino’s influence now is to do so with a wince or small cluck of nostalgia for that period, somewhere between the launch of the Hubble telescope and the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when you could barely find a coffee shop in Southern California that didn’t clatter with the sound of aspiring young screenwriters bashing out talky, violent, blackly comic shoot-’em-ups on their typewriters.

“I became an adjective sooner than I thought I was going to,” Tarantino noted, in 1994, when infatuation with his work was at its peak and a host of copycat films were in theatres. These days, with few exceptions, the trail of bickering hitmen, wild-card sociopaths, and hyper-articulate drug dealers arguing about the merits of “old” Aerosmith over “new” Aerosmith has gone cold. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” on October 8th, shapes up as an exercise in slightly nervous time travel, like a college reunion, or stumbling on a high-school crush on Facebook.

Nothing around “Reservoir Dogs,” though, has aged quite as badly as its original reviews. “The only thing Mr. Tarantino spells out is the violence,” Julie Salamon wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “This movie isn’t really about anything,” the Daily News said. “It’s just a flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem.” These are the two canards that everyone seemed to agree upon, and they were the stances on which the Tarantino-bashing industry would be based. One, that his work was ultraviolent, and, two, that it was about nothing more than its own movieishness, with no connection to the real world. This was a myth partly abetted by the director himself, who often told the story of going to Harvey Keitel’s house to discuss the “Reservoir Dogs” script. “How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up? Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?” Keitel asked. Tarantino said no. “Well, how the hell did you come to write this?” Keitel said. And Tarantino said, “I watch movies.”

Both of these metrics—how violent and how realistic a film is judged to be—are volatile commodities on the film-historical stock exchange. Nothing dates faster than “realism,” and today’s “excessive violence” is tomorrow’s cinematic aperitif. The first thing to strike a contemporary viewer of “Reservoir Dogs,” of course, is how comparatively nonviolent it is—we see a couple of shootouts, a carjacking, and a cop being beaten up, but nothing that you wouldn’t see today on an episode of “24.” To those coming to the film from the freewheeling mayhem of the director’s later work, it’s a remarkably disciplined feat of storytelling, featuring just as many departures from chronology as, say, “Pulp Fiction”—its structure is a nautilus-like series of boxed flashbacks, telling each character’s story in turn—but the flashbacks never feel like flashbacks. You’re never antsy to get back to the warehouse. Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole.

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