Review: Music, history collide in ‘Two Trains Runnin’ ’

Documentary explores the search for forgotten country blues musicians and the civil rights struggle in the summer of ’64

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In the summer of 1964, the search for several forgotten country blues musicians in the deep South collided head on with a waging war over civil rights during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. Those are the two trains in “Two Trains Runnin’,” director Samuel D. Pollard’s insightful documentary about the way those seemingly unrelated events became intertwined and helped change the course of American history.

Guitarist Gary Clark Jr. in the documentary “Two Trains Runnin.’ ”

Pollard’s story honors early country blues musicians of the 1920s and ’30s, such as Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Son House and more. In the 1960s, before the internet, Google Maps or Wikipedia, a handful of music nerds from the East Coast traveled to Mississippi to try and find the artists whose work and legacies risked being forgotten to time. That they were successful, a “Searching for Sugar Man”-like real life treasure hunt well before “Searching for Sugar Man,” is a minor miracle. But that takes a backseat to the tale’s darker half, which centers on a group of volunteers who traveled to Mississippi that same summer to help register black voters. The discovery of their bodies six weeks after they went missing opened eyes nationwide to the horrors of the South under Jim Crow.

Narrated (and executive produced) by Common, “Two Trains Runnin’ ” ties these two tales together and makes narrative sense of their parallel stories. Pollard throws a lot of information at the viewer, packing his 82 minutes with enough dates, times, locations and characters to fill a Ken Burns documentary. But it’s an enlightening journey with plenty to say about music, history and the ways music can help make history.


(313) 222-2284


‘Two Trains

Runnin’ ’


Not rated: historical violence

Running time: 82 minutes

At Cinema Detroit