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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Labels: Documentary, NYFF '16, Skip James, Son House