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Skip James and Son House
Skip James and Son House

"Two Trains Runnin'" at 34th Reel Music Festival, screens Friday

By ART LEVINE // The true story of the search for two original Blues men...and justice in 1964 Mississippi.

 Anyone who loves the Delta blues may recall that moment when you first heard the raw, unique and overwhelmingly powerful music come snaking out of a dorm room stereo or a friend's record player or over the radio straight into your soul, sending shivers up your spine. It could have been the high, keening voice of Robert Johnson and his slide guitar, telling you about "Me and the Devil," or the slashing  Stella National Steel guitar of Son House and his dark, deep voice singing  of the "Death Letter" about his dead wife;  or the eerie, haunting falsetto of  Skip James, floating into your heart with his mournful plea about the times to be endured in the "Hard Time Killin' Floor."  Whatever it was, it's an unforgettable experience that makes us true believers want to hear more of it and, at times, nothing else.

 After Eric Clapton heard Robert Johnson the first time, he wouldn't speak to you at all if you didn't know Johnson, and then walked the other way. He had work to do:  holing up in his room to study Robert Johnson like it held the secrets of the universe -- and, in many ways, it did.

 In the compelling movie Two Trains Runnin' , director Sam Pollard provides a fascinating g portrait of the original seekers after the holy grail of the Delta blues in the early 1960's, a team of blues zealots led by guitarist John Fahey coming from college  on the West Coast,  and from the East , from Boston and New York, a remarkable trio of fanatics. They included  Dick Waterman, who became the manager of rural bluesmen and a noted photographer of these early greats (and Bonnie Raitt's boyfriend); Nick Perls, who went on to found Yazoo records; and the previously unknown Phil Spiro, who may be the original white blues geek. Hard as it may be to believe, one of the many surprises unfolded in virtually every frame of the film is the admission by Dick Waterman, originally an early jazz lover ,that there was a time that he didn't even know who such bluesmen as Son House or Skip James were, from the records they cut in the 20s and 30s that were already known to the original Delta blues cultists. One of those was Phil Spiro, who turned Dick Waterman onto the blues. These teams went on separate journeys to find Skip James, led by Fahey; and the Spiro group, to find Son House.

The time they chose to go down to Mississippi was in the height of the struggle for voting rights  in Freedom Summer, 1964, with white college students coming South. The film shows how the respect and admiration for the basic humanity of African-Americans and a different but complementary desire to allow these previously crushed and ignored  voices to be heard  drove both sets of young white activists -- blues researchers and civil rights workers. Remarkably, on the same day in June 1964, early civil rights martyrs James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman disappeared; and the two teams discovered after much byzantine wanderings in rural Mississippi, where Son House was living -- he was in Rochester, NY, as it turned out -- and Skip James was sick in a local hospital. Within a short time, Skip James was reintroduced to the young white blues fans at the Newport Folk Festival later that summer in a historic moment that critic Peter Guralnick recalls in worshipful terms akin to a miracle, with Skip singing for the first time before an audience in decades, his voice floating over the crowd and enrapturing them. Soon enough, Son House was cutting records for Columbia. A new world opened for them -- and for us, and all the musicians who were inspired  by them, including some, like Lucinda Williams, who appear in this film.

"We were three Jews in a Volkswagen bug with New York plates driving around in rural Mississippi,"  during the height of assaults on civil rights workers, Dick Waterman wonders all these years later. "We must have been batshit crazy to go down there."

It's that sort of craziness that makes revolutions -- in music and in human rights -- possible. It also  brings us back to an era when hope and musical discovery were still very much alive, and at times, I wanted to crawl inside the movie and never leave,  until that time when the ugliness of the Trump administration that is being inaugurated this Friday -- the same day as the film's premiere in Portland -- is finally over four years from now.

See it Friday, January 20, 7pm, Whitsell Auditorium of the Portland Art Museum. Tickets.

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