Three Chords And The Truth
Are you recording. Are we good testing one two three testing testing grinning okay. We have something special for you all today. It's it's not a typical July episode. It's a conversation with one of our favorite storytellers Ken Burns. You might have heard of him mm-hmm. He's made dozens of historical documentaries over the years about everything from the civil war to jazz to cancer to the Vietnam War and now he's back with a new documentary about about country music and I have to be honest. I don't really care about country music in fact. I don't like it. GROWING UP I associated country music with artists like Toby Keith. Who songs were you know Gresley patriotic and were hurt for someone like me but when I heard Ken Burns was making a documentary about country music I was like okay. Let's see what this is about and that my friends is what makes Ken Burns so good at what he does. He take something that you think you have zero interesting and makes it interesting which is what we try to do every week on this show so we were super excited to sit down with him and talk about his approach to storytelling storytelling why history matters and country music that conversation when we come back Hi This is NATO Mon- from East Brunswick New Jersey and you're listening through mine from NPR AW support for this podcast and the following message come from Tito's handmade vodka born and bred in Austin Texas the live music capital capital of the world music is just kind of part of our DNA says tito beverage founder and master distiller of Tito's handmade vodka for recipes videos and more visit them Ed Tito's vodka dot com eighty proof. Tito's handmade vodka fifth generation inc.. Distilled and bottled in Austin Texas crafted to be savored responsibly Oy. I can't believe that summer is basically over. I know and you know what that means. The twenty twenty presidential races only going to heat up. It's a good thing we spent all summer sitting down with the Democratic candidates for President Colo.. It is great to be with you. Thanks for having him delighted to be here for. Bush appreciate check out the NPR politics podcast feed for exclusive interviews with all the candidates on the debate stage. Subscribe Okay so naturally literally the first question we had for Ken Burns was why country music and why now people were asking me after we did our series on jazz came out in two thousand run you know would I do rock and roll and and and I I'm a child of rock and roll and are and be that was my music and yet when the country music idea came friend of mine said hey that about country music and had been mentally on some lists but it just sort of entered in my heart. It was like this whole hearted yes S. whatever it was. We're thinking about doing next together. That's disappeared and for the next eight years. We really plowed towards this. I knew some most of my granddaddy and my daddy sang me songs but I knew that it was connected to all American music that what we tend to do in everything particularly now our there seems to be as soon. Nami of inflammation breaking over us is that just out of desperation we in silo everything into its own category but when you listen to country music and you learn a little bit about it you find out from the very beginning. It was never one thing our window on land. did a big bang took place in the summer of Nineteen Twenty seven that in Bristol Tennessee when Ralph peer an entrepreneur recorded in almost succeeding sessions the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers. We saw so you have this music growing up. That's then adding all sorts of stuff western. Swing Cowboy Music I aw rock and Bluegrass Bakersfield it sound kind of more smooth. Nashville Sound later even smooth were country Palton sign. I mean it defies category like like all the other jars documentary you explore at least in the beginning of sharing of culture even the Carter Family Family Used Basically Old Gospel Song will be unbroken the biggest country song. Maybe the most influential ever given that I know what people are going to say when he sees documentary given what happened recently with the old town road. I'm sure you're aware of it was a little not as I think what that brought up is for a lot of African Americans well. We have a history in this music too yeah that that country music is music too so it's in every episode of ours and that dynamic is there and if you made a Mount Rushmore of the top five people the Carter her family Jimmie Rodgers Hank Williams bill monroe who invented bluegrass johnny cash all of those five had an African American mentor who took their chops from here and put it way up here so that they deserved a place in the Mount Rushmore so all of a sudden you realize this is not some back forty acres of some hick thing but in fact one man of station of American music that's going to also manifest itself in the blues in Jazz in folk in rock a billy and later rock and Orrin B and soul and let's remember it's a complicated story. The two main instruments of country music the fiddle which comes from Europe and the British isles and the Banjo which comes from Africa tells you about a dynamic and so our first episode is called the Rub and normally when we think about races coming together in the American south the rubbed the friction produced is a negative one in this case while the negativity is still there all of the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation and of Minstrel there there but one of the byproducts is extraordinarily positive in which is creating a set of music jazz and Blues and country that is America's music but you know something you mentioned that I love to dig into a little more is as the tension at the beginning of country music that produce something great yes but also complicated as you you mentioned these mount rushmore sort of figures of country music all were inspired borrowed from African American music and culture. Can you talk a little bit about that sort of tension how informed the rise of country music. I think that tension is sort of present almost everywhere in American life in every subject we've done on and I think no more so than here and that's where creativity takes place not in these sort of perfect moments but in in just the complication of life if I don't see this in terms of appropriation because of course African Americans are listening and borrowing from what you see are people who are huge you for rioting of mixtures. Eh Mama I'm going on. There is a a sadness to me that we don't know Gus Cannon Johnny Cash's mentor as well as we know johnny cash as johnny cash's fault Johnny cash would to the end of his dying day would tell you the significance of gus cannon to who he was and the kind of person he began same with Elvis. There's lots of argument about Elvis but elms knew where worried came from US listening to country music. He was listening to Gospel Black and white his listening to the blues he was listening to everything and he reflected and that's who we are will you can't celebrate a melting pot on the other side and then say it's not good to melt. You know there's presumptions in commerce commerce that people are only listening to this music that are white or that. They're only listening to R&B that are black and this just isn't the case you must means that would know when Ray Charles had a chance to have creative control over an album for the first time and released modern sounds in country and western music and the great hit it was. I can't stop loving you. I mean just a phenomenal crossover in the other way that you would imagine you know. The culture is going to resist that to culture often will default to the lowest common denominator us against them and what I think art reminds us is that you can neutralize the conflict was something that sees a little bit bigger than that and good art always does you're. GonNa meet Deep Ford Bailey L. E. WHO's a harmonica player and early. African American member of the Grand Ole opry of WHO's unceremoniously kicked out at a momentous or resurgent Jim Crow and and for excuses brought back you have Charley Pride. You have ray Charles doing this spectacular thing and throughout our films rhiannon Giddens who's an African an American woman who is one of the great most driving country sound you'll ever hear and tearing the cover off almost every song song. She attempts to say you. You watched her a few weeks ago at the Reimann Auditorium home for decades of the Randall opera sing antique coins crazy and bring three thousand people to their feet in thunderous applause so it's there right in front of us. The recipe is there. I mean is that what drew you to it at the beginning I mean it seems like this is a learning process as responding eight eight years on it. Is this something you at the outset that there was this deep intricate American story at the heart of country music. You know it's so easy to back and fill in light. He who you know I'm looking in all these things for subjects that reflect us back to us and I don't WanNa do stuff that I know about out and what's so great about country is that it's elemental three chords and the truth the Songwriter Harlan Howard said and that means it it doesn't have the elegance and sophistication of say classical music or even jazz what it has a really clear lyrics and very simple music that that is telling you elemental things about human life the joy of birth the sadness at death falling in love trying to stay in love falling out of love being lonely seeking redemption. There's nobody within the sound of my voice that hasn't experienced at least one if not two if not all of those things and what we found as we are working on the film is are developing sense that we were sitting on kind of a volcano of emotional power and people would come in and they would be you know. I love country music but I had no idea that it was this or I'm not really sure. I don't like country music once you get rid of the deadwood and get the brush out. This is an extraordinary set of tunes that the series is introducing to and for those that I don't like country music. They suddenly realize how can the superficial and blind that might be that good. Music is good music. Wherever it is is their badge as yes. Is there bad blues yes. Is there bad rock. Oh my God you know so so is there bad country of course but if you can tell the kind of story multigenerational huge Russia novel of a story worry that we told across eight episodes and sixteen and a half hours you have a chance to see this. American family story that added heart is as American Dan. You don't one of the things that struck me in film was the number of women who plead read such a big role in the development of country music. This is a surprisingly feminist film from the very beginning Sarah Carter and and mother May Bell Carter are two super strong women and there followed by rose maddox too bad bad it wasn't God made honky dog gain in the words to songs and Kitty Wells Patsy cline of course all do lo around lynn so in the Mid Sixties Loretta Lynn is dealing with themes that nobody in folk has touched. Nobody in Iraq Dodge you then then making your brags around town. I love with love on your mind or any of the you're not woman in enough to take my man so what you have is this kind of surprisingly pro feminist film when that tune comes out don't come home. Drinking is the year that women's liberation and is used and and the red is not going to use that term. She's not joining any movement and neither are fans but they are imbibing of these fundamental dole human aspirations where you thought I'd be when you came home. You've been out with all album at stop and talk about unspoken thing which is rock and roll every single one of the Beatles. Their initial impulse was country. You know a quarter of of the songs that the Beatles gave Ringo to sing were or country country songs in the big star out of the and a in in fact his first big one naturally is a Bucko and tune which suddenly revitalize made Buck Owens cool when Bob Dylan Ellen fell after these just ECOMOG albums like free real and Bob Dylan highway sixty one Ribas. Where does he do rolling and he goes to Nashville and he does blonde on Blonde John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline? He's using the Nashville session musician the A team. They were called to get the best sound out the country music station `this but there's nothing nothing nothing to turn you. Just tell me what's not country about the band in or about the birds after having explored psychedelic they are going in to Nashville to record an album sweetheart of the Rodeo. I mean you have a Honky tonk woman by the rolling stones. You know if you'RE GONNA put up barriers then you forgotten that everything's on a kind of continuum and I would suggest because of the Carter family's will the circle be unbroken that is not a linear one. It's it comes around. It's it's full circle how exactly view boil down the twentieth century into a Sixteen Hour Documentary Ken Burns tells us when we come back from Washington and you're listening to NPR her support for through line and the following message come from American Express. You've got big ideas for your business but figuring out how to make them happened can be a real challenge well. The answer may be as simple as American Express financing solutions. They have over four thousand specialists who can help find the right solution for your business. Chat with them today to see if you're eligible so you can get your plants up and running the powerful backing of American. Express don't do business without what it terms apply learn more at American Express. Dot Com slash business is back with a brand new season of stories from all over Latin America and across the US kick things off with a voice that some of you may have heard me talking to excite the the resin fall of one of Latin America's most famous Mus voiceover artists and the industry that crumbled around him from NPR listen and subscribe now all right so oh after talking about country music for a while the conversation moved to music and Ken Burns films more generally and Ramtane who as you probably know scores through line had a lot of questions questions I would ask about music because I've seen all of your movies and I think they'll be look civil war and the way music was used and then the at Phnom where's your decision making from film to film about how you use music how much music us because in Vietnam I thought Trent Reznor. Atticus Russ's score was incredible unbelievable so the what was the decision to get them involved in that and so much different so actually league the music is always the same for us even when in the two films that it's been about music jazz and country music it's not just background but it sort of middle ground and foreground and sometimes kind of hyperspace as your guest writing a piece of music. We recorder music before we begin editing. We have most of our music in place most those people at the exact opposite it scored which is a mathematical term and they're sitting there to the picture and they wanna hit this at this. We never do that will cut the picture to the music music because such a powerful forum and we might shorten a sentence in order to fit of raise a music or lengthen it just to fit a phrase music or just shut up for a second. It's hard for us to do 'cause we have written films to and we celebrate that they're very we don't think image in the word are at odds and music is the great reconciler of that so we're recording our music we in in the civil war. I just sat with a person who played a piano. All of these hymns always popular music of the day all this military stuff and I picked maybe forty tunes and we went into the studio and recorded each of those tunes forty different ways and so we'd have all of these choices going in so each subject requires that you want to have the contemporary music. That's no different than Vietnam so Lynn Novick my co-director on Vietnam was watching the social network and she went credit music is unbelievable and came back and said we should get them and it was like yes what a great idea so we went to Trenton Atticus and they said yes we'd. I love to do that and they said to us. They never let us in on the process that this was one of the most satisfying creative things they'd had working on the stuff and delivered us three hours hours of material that is mind-boggling we went to Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and they took Vietnamese tunes and lullabies and folks at any one north north-and-south would know and bent them in their unique and completely original fashion and then we go out and we collect one hundred twenty pieces of music and the first thing we it is we went to the Beatles and said we can't afford this. We need you to help us and they said fine and then we went to Bob Dylan. He's fine and then we just walked our way. Through the rest of the hundred twenty visas we would have been able to afford twelve had they not said look. We understand what you're going to do and we we promise never to play a piece of music. That wasn't out that is the say you couldn't hear here at on Armed Forces radio or you couldn't hear it in your transistor radio on your car radio on the way to a demonstration against the war and that we'd use it honorably and that has to do with the fact that for US music is central. It's not like the afterthought. It's not the icing that you hope is going to amplify emotions and you hope you hope are there but in fact baked into the process from the beginning music is so powerful immune all we're talking about. Today is music and that's power. That's the power power of history right. I think one of the things that on our show we try to do is use history a better understand the world. We live in today. This is exactly the power of history and this is why ah I'm there because we like to say that were condemned to repeat what we don't remember. It just doesn't happen. Human Nature never changes. The ECCLESIASTES says what has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There's nothing new under the Sun. That suggests that human nature doesn't change in so when we think history repeats itself itself. We're only looking at these habits. You know these cycles these motifs these themes constantly recur and that gives who's the possibility in history to be our best teacher. Mark Twain said history doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes and I can't tell you there hasn't been a single film. It's almost forty uh-huh. I think some an hour in length from eighteen hours were haven't finished the film and looked up and good my God. It's about the present moment and I can't convince anybody that this film was essentially editorially locked before the metoo movement because you would swear to God in every episode road. We're like Oh. There's a nice little reference to me and I never put in any reference to the president and any of the films it's just that everything rhymes but the great tyranny the great arrogance of the present is that we somehow think that because we're alive and they're not that that we know more than them and we do not we experience everything the way they did and there were conversations ten thousand years ago that that were as complex as I hope this is when we come back more on the art of storytelling from Ken Burns Hi this is enough and Frederick and you're listening caroline from NPR support for this podcast and the following message come from Delta Delta Flyers two three hundred cities ladies around the world. That's three hundred cities where people in those three hundred cities think they're the only ones who know about that one place and three hundred cities where people bill miss someone in one of Delta's other two hundred ninety nine cities. Delta is in flying at three hundred cities merely to bring people together but to show that we're not that far far apart in the first place. Delta keep climbing. I mean I'm starting to get a sense of sort of your approach to telling History Rian all these stories because it seems like with all of your documentaries. You're bringing together things. It's just it's way more complicated than you go in. Maybe thinking it says you know it's funny. I think I've grown as a filmmaker but my very first film for Public Broadcasting is one call Brooklyn Bridge and I I was raising money. Elect about twelve years old and everybody was turning me down. Ha Ha this kid strengths only the Brooklyn Bridge nope and I used to have binders filled with the rejection letters just to remind remind me of how complicated is particularly in public broadcasting to get anything done but I was writing a letter and I added added that I that I was uninterested in excavating dry dates and facts and events of history that I was interested in an emotional archaeology agey. I wrote that in like seventy seven when I was trying to raise money or seventy eight and I don't know of any better way to put it than that that if we want to use news history as a weapon then you're only speaking to the choir young speaking to the converted. You can't possibly change minds. The novelist Richard Powers said that the best arguments in the world won't change a single person's mind. The only thing that can do that that is a good story and a good story. I think we'd all agree is the one that has that complication. One that has that undertow when that has a thing in the opposite visit of thing being true at the same time and our ability to tell each other stories and to remind us that we are obligated as human beings not not as Democrats or Republicans are white people or black people or gay or straight people are male or female people or West Coast people are east coast pibor north be poor south depot but as people is that we're going to have to negotiate these things for ourselves first and to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable opposites and when you have the possibility to do that and art and storytelling are all part of the infrastructure of helping us get through that stuff then you have the possibility of of what everybody wants to what everyone wants to be which ages a better person a better everyone yeah emotional archaeology which is really interesting because one of the things we struggle with I think is the balance balance between story and timeline right late on the one hand and you're telling history you want people to get a sense of what happened of course yesterday but but the I we I completely agree with you. That narrative and story is what makes someone. It's the only thing you know who knows first of all. There's lots of things as I of alumnae explain emotional archaeology it. This is not sentimentality. This runs dowager. those are the enemies of good anything the other thing. Is that quite often. We go through our own fashions in historiographer. Riyadh graffiti. You know you drop an atomic bomb. After you've murdered sixty million people and mean us I mean the human race does this in the Second World War and everything has this question and narrative is the first thing to go so to and then and then and then seems hopelessly bankrupt and inadequate to the situation and so we we begin to have Freudian approaches we begin to have Marxist or economic determinist approaches things we have later on symbolism Eliza him and semiotics and deconstruction and Afro Centrism and all sorts of ways of saying that this is the way in and what we have have come back to understand. Is that a much more informed we would say today woke narrative allows for all of those possible things. I've just watched with great satisfaction that often might there was a knee-jerk criticism to the work that I had done in the nineties because it didn't fit into an academic definition because it's subscribed to this old bankrupt thing called narrative now. There are some narratives that are Bancorp.. If you think a top down story of great men is only the story of American history then yeah it does work but if you're engaging a bottom up as well as the top down when you begin to realize that to tell that complicated store you have to bring in all of these other things these are the tools of narrative not the sole new way to-do history and so I think we come back and I've found the academy back to this idea that Yup it's narrative and then and then and then we just to be a little bit more conscious to be a little bit more expansive and generous. We have to be a little bit more inclusive. If we're going to call it our if we're going to do our jobs and I think the thing that we struggle with and that I think you do well is when you're telling a story you mentioned that you've told the Twentieth Century America however many times and each each time sort of a slightly different story. How do you know what to leave in what to leave. Ou- like what do you make this traces so that is actually my our job. We're amassing a vast body of information stuff. That's in the script stuff. That's in the interviews stuff. That's in the photographs stuff. That's in the footage. The Live cinematography whatever it is it's at least forty sometimes fifty sixty seventy times what we're GONNA end up using and then it's cutting it away the key for us. We've found his time you know. We're not doing these things in a couple of years. We're doing them over a decade in the case of Vietnam ten and and a half years or we're doing him in eight years and that's because we wanna wrestle with this material. We won't don't want to disqualify something. We WanNA learn. We WanNA throw throw stuff out are cutting floor is not filled with bad stuff. It's filled with really really good stuff that if we picked it up and showed you to go my God. Why isn't that in that go yeah we're. We're still hurting about that but it didn't fit. We edit human experienced down. Do you ever worry that you leave something out that all the time I of we you just we do know nothing is definitive. You do what you can do and I imagine that if I worked on civil war now now it would be thirty five hours right but it may not be as good a film it was who I was at that time and just struggling and waking up at four in the morning which I still do going and sometimes it hurts so bad that I'll say okay. Let's put it back and then and then you'll see and then maybe two months later three eight months eight or you go okay. Can we take it out. You see that destabilize Meritas that scene is it's now made something an hour later seemed kind of boring and you can watch people look look at their wives or shift their endeavor chair as because you've just in that moment lost them and I have. I make really long films that Zeke huge demand demand on our audience in a time when people are supposed to be butterflies flitting and we go now. We need you to stay for ten episodes eighteen hours of Vietnam or eight episodes in sixteen hours of this but then I'm obligated to make sure that if you've sat down there are GonNa be no interruptions for two hours and that it's my the obligation that if you bring your attention I will not squander that great gift that you've given me and if they're curious we want to reward that attention agean and that that's the compact of storytelling so much for this and we really appreciate. It's my my bits been my pleasure. That's Ken Burns his new eight part. Documentary Country Music Begins Airing on your local. PBS Station Station on September fifteenth and that's it for this week's show. I'm roundup but that I'm Rob Tina Louis and you've been listening to live from. NPR This show is produced by me and me and Jamie York Jerry ANAHUAC man Lawrence Lane Kaplan levinson smiling summer Heidari Greta pitting a fact check. This episode original music was produced for this episode by routine and has banned drop electric. Thanks also to on your Grun men and of course Ken Burns and PBS if you like this episode or you have an idea please writers at through line at MPR dot org or find us on twitter at do line NPR. Thanks for listening support for this N._p._R. Podcast and the following message come from nature's way maker of winter remedies like SAMBUC elderberry dummies. It's not just our way. It's nature's way learn more at nature's way DOT com.