On one level, Sam Pollard’s documentary Two Trains Runnin’ is a chronicle of music fandom taken to an extreme, recounting the efforts of two groups of blues fans to track down the long-lost 1920s blues musicians Skip James and Son House.
Both of these journeys of discovery take place amid the racially charged backdrop of Mississippi in 1964 during the “Freedom Summer” campaign. Pollard chronicles these parallel quest narratives through a combination of talking-heads interviews; archival photos and footage; watercolor animation (by Alex Salyer and Ivan Sayon); and brief cover performances from artists like Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr. and Lucinda Williams.
Though gripping as a two-pronged adventure tale, the film’s implicit socio-historical commentary gives an unsettling edge to the inspirational storytelling. That very summer, the wider American culture only came to take seriously the cause of Civil Rights after two white activists, in addition to a black one, were murdered at the hands of local police and KKK. The blues revival, too, was a case of white America discovering the truths of minority life only when forward-thinking white folk pressed it to do so.
Towards the end, Pollard includes footage from Ferguson, Missouri, and sites of other recent police shootings, offering a bitter reminder of just how much progress still needs to be made in U.S. race relations long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the belated celebration of musicians like James and House.
Two Trains Runnin’
Directed by Sam Pollard
Opens December 2, Metrograph