“Well there’s two; two trains running...” Muddy Waters and others
I first heard Al Wilson play harmonica on the great 1965 Son House album, Father of the Folk Blues. I loved his tone, phrasing and smooth way of working in and out of Son’s playing and singing. I next came upon Al Wilson in about 1970 playing in a band named after one of my favorite country blues songs, Canned Heat. The guitarist in that band was Henry Vestine, one of my favorite guitarists, and I had several of their LP’s. I loved that band. At the same time, I was also listening regularly to Gene Shay’s long running Sunday folk music show, at that time on WRTI, and I was familiar with the incredible rhythmic and strange guitar work of a man named John Fahey. And I had seen Howling Wolf on Shindig with the Rolling Stones and decided that I wanted to be a blues musician.
These things were all happening when I was a teenager, and they all had a role in helping me develop into the musician I am now. I was getting more and more into music at that time, going to the many coffeehouses in the Philadelphia area and hanging out in Rittenhouse Square and jamming with countless great Philadelphia musicians. At coffeehouses, and even at my high school, I also got to see Son House and Canned Heat live as well as Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Sleepy John Estes, Rev. Gary Davis, and many more in person. At the time I was drinking all of this in, though, I had no idea of all that had to have happened so that all of these old musicians, who had last recorded in the 1930’s, were there in front of me and on records again. I went to festivals, met some of these great players, and even got to play and jam with many of them. But I didn’t get the whole story of how they were re-discovered until 5 years ago when I saw the amazing film, Two Trains Running at the Ritz Bourse. And what a story it was.
Two Trains Running tells the story of young white college students who set out in 1963 on quests to try and find Son House and Skip James, musicians they had only heard on scratchy old 78 records and folk music anthology LP’s. Totally separately, Phil Spiro, Dick Waterman, and Nick Perls, from MA, and John Fahey and Henry Vestine from CA set out on long journeys through rural Mississippi and Tennesse to find these performers. This documentary takes us along for the ride. We get to see some of their interactions with the people they met, some of the blind spots they hit, the ways they had to improvise, how they had to allow things to happen, and their incredible dedication to the mission that kept them going. We get to see what they had to do and go through to enable me to hear and see so many of these incredible musicians as I was becoming a musician.
This all happened in 1963 and 1964 in the South, just as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up and starting to gain national attention. This was the time of Freedom Schools, marches, and voter registration drives, and there was violence and danger all around. It was a time of deep challenge and change on so many levels, social and political as well as musical, and the film does an excellent job of setting the search for these musicians in the context of those times. There are wonderful interviews with Civil Rights workers and powerful news footage from the time. It is a powerful reminder of what it can take to produce societal change and how very little happens in isolation in a society,
Two Trains Running is an incredibly powerful and moving documentary. With interviews, live action, animation and plenty of music, it pays tribute to so many people and so many things that came together at a precise point in time to change us as a nation, both musically and otherwise. It is a film I have seen several times and will probably watch some more. It is available on Amazon Prime. You can also look up many of the people mentioned and associated with the film via Wikipedia and the web in general. I urge you to see it; it will affect you in very deep ways.