Monday, October 10, 2016

NYFF ’16: Two Trains Runnnin’

It is hard to fathom a time when Son House and Skip James were considered “obscure” bluesmen. Today they probably rank somewhere just behind Robert Johnson in the Pantheon of blues, but for decades everything and everyone associated with the old Delta blues were scorned and forgotten. A handful of naïve young record collectors hoped to find the mysterious artists, so their music could reach a wider audience. However, they picked a heck of a time to go to Mississippi—right smack in the middle of Freedom Summer. Sam Pollard chronicles the simultaneous pilgrimages in Two Trains Runnin’ (trailer here), which screens during the 54th New York Film Festival.

John Fahey had already “re-discovered” Bukka White, but he had his sights set on an even bigger cult legend: the mysterious Skip James, whose plaintive falsetto and eerie lyrics had long fascinated the small circle of blues aficionados. Inspired by Fahey’s past success, fans Nick Perls and Dick Waterman set off in search of Son House, with junior newspaperman Nick Perls in tow. It seems none of them followed current events too closely, because they readily admit they had no idea what they were walking into. Both Waterman and Perls doubt they would have made the trip had they but known.

Fortunately, they blundered ahead, because James and House were key figures in the Blues Revival that emerged out of the folk scene. Perls would later found Yazoo Records and Waterman would become the booking agent for House, James, White, and similarly re-popularized bluesman, including Lightnin’ Hopkins and Arthur Crudup. Of course, while Fahey, Waterman, and Perls were sleuthing through Delta country, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the KKK.

Perhaps mindful of other recent docs, Two Trains just gives the broad strokes of the Freedom Summer, offering a more detailed chronicle to the blues hunters’ odyssey. Pollard still makes his points, but the film never feels didactic or lecturey. Of course, the music is terrific, starting with the archival recordings of the two legends, as well as a few modern interpretations by the likes of Lucinda Williams and Gary Clark, Jr. (whose own music is also heard throughout the documentary). Pollard changes up the visuals nicely, incorporating appropriate archival footage and some brief animated sequences of the blues hunters, who were not really equipped to record their journey for documentary filmmaking purposes.

If you still don’t get Son House, Skip James, and the appeal of Delta blues after watching this film than you’re beyond help. It is also rather fitting and telling to watch the two historical narratives unfold in parallel. Recommended for blues fans and general audiences, Two Trains Runnin’ screens this Thursday (10/13) and Friday (10/14) as part of this year’s NYFF.