The delta blues, epitomized by giants like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, was an intensely personal moan of music. Sam Pollard’s energetic and incisive documentary “Two Trains Runnin'” shines a light on a time when this beating heart of African-American culture pointed to a curious crossroads in the civil rights movement.
It tells the story of how two distinct groups of white blues nerds – one led by MIT student Phil Spiro and journalist Dick Waterman, another from the West Coast led by guitarist Jeff Fahey – ventured, unbeknownst to each other, into the same area of Mississippi. at the same time, in the summer of 1964. They hoped to find, and bring back into the scene, the “lost” country blues legends, Son House and Skip James, respectively.
Pollard weaves their story, complete with animations and interviews, against the backdrop of this concurrent freedom summer that saw white academic allies – trained by black activists in political action – make the dangerous journey into the heart of the segregated South to help to register black people to vote. The naivety of blues fans – this was the same year that three young activists were murdered in Mississippi – is touched upon, but their deep appreciation for this vein of American soul is given its loving and uplifting due.
Music naturally fills the film, including appearances from Gary Clark Jr., Buddy Guy, Lucinda Williams and others, and riveting archival footage of House and James in their final phase of revitalized stardom. As we watch these once-marginalized artists excitingly bring their past to tense times, this gazing and listening complements the urgency of our new charged civil rights moment.
‘Two Trains Runnin’ ‘
Operating time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Cinema Center, Santa Monica
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