Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
“Two Trains Runnin’” intermingles two completely unrelated non-fiction threads which converge in the state of Mississippi on June 21, 1964, One of them is triumphant, the other tragic. One is a well-known story, the other is a mystery whose outcome is not so well-known. Both sections feature idealistic, college-aged White men from the North whose quests could not have been more different: One group came to the segregated South looking for music while the other sought justice. Those Holy Grails are by no means equivalent, but director Samuel D. Pollard and his editor, Dava Whisenant, expertly weave these two threads into a thematically rich whole cloth. Hidden similarities emerge as “Two Trains Runnin’” rides towards its final destination.
“The US was a segregated nation at the time,” Phil Spiro tells us when we first hear his voice on the soundtrack. “But I was a prototypical White college kid at MIT, so it didn’t impact me very much.” This would explain why he, and two other people he recruited, would venture into Mississippi to search for an obscure blues musician who hadn’t recorded in 30 years. Unbeknownst to Spiro, Mississippi had a reputation as not only the most racist state in the Union, but also the least welcoming to outsiders of any hue. This was the year of the Freedom Summer. People were coming into the state to register Black voters, which was seen by Mississippians as the next wave of Northern Aggression. If you were a White out-of-towner, the residents would think you were planning to, in their words, “mess with our Nigras.” Spiro and company had no such agenda, but three Jewish guys in a Volkswagen with New York license plates were definitely going to raise the eyebrows under a Mississippi state trooper’s hat.
Spiro’s love of old Delta Blues records from the 1920’s and 1930’s was enough to get him to quit MIT and take a job coding for one of the world’s first computers. The gig allowed his nights to be free to pursue his musical obsession, Son House, a contemporary of Robert Johnson whose records were so powerful they gave Spiro goosebumps. Acting solely on a hot tip regarding House’s whereabouts that he received from a recently found blues musician named Booker White, Spiro went to Mississippi. He was accompanied by Dick Waterman, a journalist whose paper would publish the story if House was found, and Nick Perls, a guy who has a car, a tape recorder and a lot more money than Spiro anticipated. Perls is rich enough to live above a gallery of expensive art works.
While Waterman and Spiro have difficulty putting into words just what drew them to not only Son House’s music, but to the Delta blues music of the era, African-American author Greg Tate offers us a theory: “It spoke to another way of life that was more expressive, more erotic, more dangerous.” And yet, as many of the blues performers in “Two Trains Runnin’” point out, these Depression-era blues musicians were quite often singing about universal things like money and relationship problems. It only seemed exotic when viewed from within the bubble of privilege Spiro alludes to in his opening lines of dialogue.