How ‘three Jews in a Volkswagon’ braved the KKK to find a lost Mississippi blues legend

Director Sam Pollard’s ‘Two Trains Runnin’ follows white college students from the North as they hunt for art and equality during the violent Freedom Summer of 1964

Screenshot from 'Two Trains Runnin'.' The three Jewish boys from New York City had no idea what they were in for. (Courtesy Avalon Films)
Screenshot from 'Two Trains Runnin'.' The three Jewish boys from New York City had no idea what they were in for. (Courtesy Avalon Films)

That there were a disproportionate amount of Jews on the right side of history during the American Civil Rights movement seems like a statement that wouldn’t need repeating.

There seems, however, to be a bit of forgetfulness concerning this matter in some circles. A perfect case-in-point is the otherwise terrific feature film “Selma,” which somehow managed to erase the presence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from that pivotal moment in recent history.

Luckily, a new documentary set during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 called “Two Trains Runnin’” can serve two purposes. For those who are old enough to remember (or for younger people who have educated themselves), the film presents the story of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in tandem with a separate, less-urgent but still notable journey of some other idealistic Jewish kids who were looking for lost musicians in Mississippi. But for those who don’t know about the martyred voter registration activists, this new film is an awakening on two levels.

The more “fun” hook is the story of, as a reminiscing Dick Waterman calls it, “three Jews in a Volkswagen with New York license plates” headed deep into Southern territory as the Jim Crow-era white power structure was at its most violent.

Waterman, a journalist, was tagging along with two college-aged kids, Phil Spiro and Nick Perls, in a quixotic attempt to find Son House, a Delta blues musician who had recorded a few 78s in the 1930s and early 1940s, then seemed to drop off the face of the earth.

Spike Lee and Geeta Gandbhir with director Sam Pollard (right) at the Peabody Awards. (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)
Spike Lee and Geeta Gandbhir with director Sam Pollard (right) at the Peabody Awards. (Anders Krusberg/Peabody Awards)

Spiro, who was studying at M.I.T. in Cambridge, was part of a vanguard of record collectors who found natural tributaries from the folk revival that was very popular at the time (think of the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary) to the “old, weird America” of field recordings dating back to the 1920s. These were records produced by people like Alan Lomax, and bundled together in collections like Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music.”

As is explained in “Two Trains Runnin’,” there wasn’t a whole lot of definitive biographical data about the artists on these older records. A lot of it sprung from myth, especially with the black performers — think of the tale of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil.

Inspired by the recent reemergence of Mississippi John Hurt, Spiro convinced Waterman (who would write a story) and Perls (who came from an extremely wealthy family of art collectors and had access to a car) to head south looking for the emotionally devastating bluesman Son House.

Skip James, left, and Son House. (Courtesy Avalon Films)
Skip James, left, and Son House. (Courtesy Avalon Films)

Oddly enough, at the very same time, the Berkeley, California-based guitarist John Fahey led an expedition of his own to find Skip James, a provocative guitar player with an altogether unreproducible sound. (Whereas Spiro’s group seemed most interested in just meeting an idol and maybe getting him to make music once again, Fahey’s interest was much more personal: he wanted lessons.)

Both excursions found that visiting Mississippi was like entering a foreign country, with codes of conduct that were driven by fear and mistrust. It took a lot of time for the local black population to want to give these Northern weirdos information about anything. But following tips and pasting together clues, their trails got hot.

At the same time, something far more serious was going on — the preparation of predominantly white (and heavily Jewish) college-aged kids to head into Mississippi to urge the locals to register to vote.

Protesters form a human chain during the Freedom Summer of 1964. (Courtesy Avalon Films)
Protesters form a human chain during the Freedom Summer of 1964. (Courtesy Avalon Films)

The Ku Klux Klan and many corrupt agents of law enforcement were conspiring to scare the organized groups from coming, and this led to the burning of a church in the town of Longsdale, where Michael Schwerner, a 24-year-old New York Jew, and James Chaney, a 21-year-old African American from nearby Meridian, had previously given a talk.

A day before the official “Freedom Summer” actions were scheduled to kick-off, Schwerner and Chaney, along with newcomer Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old Jewish kid from New York, left the base camp in Ohio. Upon entering Mississippi they were immediately arrested and were never seen alive again. Their bodies were recovered weeks later.

Because the universe works in mysterious ways, these noble young men were captured and (probably) killed the very same day that Fahey found Skip James (he was laid up in a hospital) and Spiro made contact with Son House. (Ironically, House, who hadn’t touched a guitar in decades, was living up in Rochester, New York. But it took going to Mississippi to find this out.)

One might think it is a little glib to equate the deaths of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney with finding two old singers. But this is where director Sam Pollard makes his boldest claim.

Unfortunate though it may be hard to admit, it took the deaths of two white Northern kids to wake many people up to the atrocities of the KKK and Jim Crow. One can draw a direct line to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 from these murders.

But there was another change happening in the country, and that was an appreciation of African-American culture outside of the dorm rooms at M.I.T.

Skip James and Son House were brought up to Newport, Rhode Island to perform at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Both had revitalized careers, as did a number of Delta blues performers. (And soon the Delta blues was being reinterpreted by British artists like the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin and exported back to America as a whole new thing.)

One can’t change hearts and minds by news reports alone. The majestic, impassioned music born from the pain of injustice can work in ways that a political speech can not.

Seeing that these men were not shrouded in myth, and that the heartache of their songs were not frozen in amber, did no small part in changing the thinking about black culture in America. While the stakes of these errant musicologists and the civil rights workers were certainly not the same, the missions were all part of the same song.

Two Trains Runnin’ opens December 2 in New York

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