“Well, there’s two, two trains runnin’…)
In 1965 I was 15 and a student at Central High in Philadelphia. It was an important time for me: I was doing that teenage thing so many of us did then and maybe still do; trying to define myself. It was a conscious thing; I wanted to figure out who I was, what the world meant, and where I fit into the world. I did a lot of that searching and discovering by what I chose to explore, experience, study and learn from. The people with whom I hung out, the books I read, the movies I watched, the political events I attended, and most especially, the music I listened to and experienced live were my major ways of trying to do that. A lot of those attempts were misguided, wasted and silly in retrospect, but they put me on a path of looking at connections, considering new ways of expression, thinking about how people and societies change, and exploring things that piqued my curiosity and caught my interest. In many ways those days and what was going on both within me and in the society all around me were, in addition to my mom, the most important factors in leading me to becoming the adult I am now. It was a time of a lot of changes and opportunity for me and for the country.
I grew up in a house that had a parent who sold encyclopedias and valued schooling, so reading, writing, and learning about things were always major parts of my life. In elementary school I started haunting libraries and reading always and everywhere, even while walking down the street (I still do that). Mom had records by Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots, and Johnny Mathis, and she would play them, particularly during the holidays. I did a lot of dishes at my house because the best radio in the house was in the kitchen. Motown and Stax record labels were my soul music staples, but in high school my ears got bigger. Late at night I could pick up AM stations from as far away as New York City and Buffalo, NY: that is where I first heard some of the sounds that were new and intriguing to me-down home blues, what came to be called rock, and different forms of jazz. FM radio was just starting to take off at this time, and there were new forms of music that was attracting attention. Folk music was big then. Hootenanny was on TV, and I both heard and watched the Weavers, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio, and Tom Rush. Rock and Roll music was now called “rock,” and it had started taking over the Top 40 and dominated FM. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Animals, the Byrds, and many more groups that played their own instruments became new food for me. I was scooping up huge chunks of all of this and at the same time reading: Allan Ginsberg, Hermann Hesse, James Baldwin, Gay Snyder, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and many, many more. Politically I was also active, taking part in Civil Rights marches and anti- Vietnam War marches. And I was just starting to play the harmonica. It was a heady sometimes overwheliming, and busy time for a teenager; arts, politics, and culture were all coming together for me in unexpected ways and with unexpected results.
I've been thinking about those years because I have recently been reminded of that time. I saw the film, Two Trains Running last week, and that film examines the intersections of race, music and politics in the mid 1960’s in a powerful way and unusual way. Ostensibly, Two Trains starts as a simple look at the attempt by two groups of white folk music fans to try to find legendary country blues musicians Skip James and Son House in 1964.Through interviews, narration and film about the folk music scene, animation, and some good storytelling we follow these teams on their quests, one from the West Coast and one from the East Coast. These searches mean they have to go into the South, and there they suddenly find themselves in the midst of the drama, tension, hope, and danger connected to Jim Crow and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. They did not start trying to be involved in any of that at all, but events around them brought them suddenly face to face to some realities about the country, their own social attitudes, and things that came to define them and change their lives. With wonderful juxtapositioning by director Don Pollard we get to learn about the music, but we also see some of the events that led to many young whites to become involved in voter registration and Freedom Schools in the South, the events leading up to the brutal murder of 3 Civil Rights workers, and the results of the re-discovery of these 2 black musical legends. The coming together of these things had a huge impact on our culture in an indirect but very real way. Yes, James and House were found and went on to perform and record again- I got to see and meet both musicians at concerts put on by the Central High Folk Club, the Main Point, The 2nd Fret, and the University of Pennsylvania. But the results went way beyond the resurrection of their musical careers. Many white Americans were galvanized to explore and treasure blues music and to help raise its profile in US culture. More people also became supporters of and participants in the Civil Rights Movement as folk, rock and other new music brought Black performers in front of white audiences. (I first saw Howlin’ Wolf on the TV show, Shindig, where he was introduced by the Rolling Stones). Music in the form of gospel and folk helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement. Major changes started happening in the culture and politics of the country and music was a the heart of a lot of it. And little of it was foreseen or planned.
Two Trains Runnin’ is leaving Philadelphia, but I urge you to track down where it goes next. If you are around my age, it will remind you of the mid-60’s in a much more realistic and clear-headed way than most popular references to that time do. And if you are younger, it can help you appreciate the foundations of a lot of the music we take for granted now. It will also bring home how messy, dangerous and ongoing the struggle for social justice is and has to be, something we all need to be aware of in the current political climate. It brought back to me a clear memory of an important time in my life and in the larger life of our nation and culture. The two trains were runnin', and it turned out both were going my way.