by John Colgan-Davis
In 1965, I was 15 and a student at Central High School. I was doing that teenage thing so many of us did then and maybe still do: trying to define myself.
It was a conscious thing; I wanted to figure out who I was, what the world meant and where I fit into the world. I did a lot of that searching and discovering by what I chose to explore, experience, study and learn from. The people with whom I hung out, the books I read, the movies I watched, the political events I attended and most especially, the music I listened to and experienced live.
A lot of those attempts were misguided, wasted and silly in retrospect, but they put me on a path of looking at connections, considering new ways of expression and exploring things that piqued my curiosity and caught my interest.
In many ways those days and what was going on both within me and in the society all around me were, in addition to my mom, the most important factors in leading me to becoming the adult I am now.
I grew up in a house that had a parent who sold encyclopedias and valued schooling. In elementary school, I started haunting libraries and reading always and everywhere, even while walking down the street.
My mom had records by Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots and Johnny Mathis, and she would play them, particularly during the holidays. I did a lot of dishes at my house because the best radio in the house was in the kitchen.
Motown and Stax record labels were my soul music staples, but in high school my ears got bigger. Late at night I could pick up AM stations from as far away as New York City and Buffalo, New York. That is where I first heard some of the sounds that were new and intriguing to me — down home blues, what came to be called rock and jazz.
FM radio was just starting to take off at this time, and there were new forms of music attracting attention. Folk music was big then. “Hootenanny” was on TV, and I both heard and watched the Weavers, Joan Baez, the Kingston Trio and Tom Rush. Rock and Roll music was now called “rock,” and it had started taking over the Top 40 and dominated FM. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Animals, the Byrds and many more groups playing their own instruments became new food for me.
At the same time, I was reading Allan Ginsberg, Hermann Hesse, James Baldwin, Gay Snyder, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and many, many more. Politically I was becoming active, taking part in Civil Rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies.
And I was just starting to play the harmonica. It was a heady sometimes overwhelming and busy time for a teenager; arts, politics and culture were all coming together for me in unexpected ways.
I’ve been thinking about those years because I have recently been reminded of that time. I saw the film, “Two Trains Running” last week, and that film examines the intersections of race, music and politics in the mid-1960s in a powerful and unusual way.
Ostensibly, “Two Trains” starts as a simple look at the attempt by two groups of white folk music fans to try to find legendary country blues musicians Skip James and Son House in 1964.
These searches mean they have to go into the South, and there they suddenly find themselves in the midst of the drama, tension, hope and danger connected to Jim Crow and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
They did not try to get involved in any of that at all, but events around them brought them suddenly face to face with some realities about the country, their own social attitudes and events that changed their lives.
With wonderful juxtapositioning by director Don Pollard, we learn about the music, but we also see some of the events that led to many young whites becoming involved in voter registration and Freedom Schools in the South, the events leading up to the brutal murder of three Civil Rights workers and the rediscovery of these two black musical legends.
Skip James and Son House were found and went on to perform and record again. I was lucky enough to see and meet both musicians at concerts put on by the Central High Folk Club, the Main Point, The Second Fret, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Many white Americans were galvanized to explore and treasure blues music and to help raise its profile in U.S. culture. More people also became supporters of and participants in the Civil Rights Movement as folk, rock and other new music brought black performers in front of white audiences. (I first saw Howlin’ Wolf on the TV show, “Shindig,” where he was introduced by the Rolling Stones.)
Music in the form of gospel and folk helped sustain the Civil Rights Movement. Major changes were happening in the culture and politics of the country, and music was at the heart of a lot of it. And little of it was foreseen or planned.
If you are around my age, “Two Trains Runnin’” will remind you of the mid-’60s in a much more realistic way than most popular references to that time do. And if you are younger, it can help you appreciate the foundations of a lot of the music we take for granted now.
It will also bring home how messy, dangerous and ongoing the struggle for social justice is and has to be, something we all need to be aware of in the current political climate. The two trains were runnin’, and it turned out both were going my way.
John Colgan-Davis is longtime Mt. Airy resident, retired public school teacher and the harmonica player for the Dukes of Destiny. Visit TwoTrainsRunnin.com for more details about the film.