- Filmmaker Ken Burns has produced documentaries about American life for more than 40 years. His work range from baseball to the Civil War.
- Burns’ latest documentary is an eight-part series on country music, an art form that is uniquely American.
- He says country music is universal, from its multi-ethnic origins to its familiar emotional messages.
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Following is a copy of the transcript.
Lionel Moise: For more than 40 years, Ken Burns has produced documentaries about life in America.
He’s covered baseball, the Civil War, jazz and National Parks, and his latest documentary is an eight part series on country music, a uniquely American art form. The series recently premiered on PBS and is currently streaming on PBS.org.
I want to get right into it, what do think country music teaches us about being American?
Ken Burns: Well I think it’s one of the great subjects that we’ve ever taken on, that goes with the Civil War, the most important event in American history.
This is a great story about race. Many people don’t understand the African American component to the founding of country music.
The banjo comes from Africa, the fiddle from the British Isles.
It’s never been one sound, it’s always been a mixture. And I think it’s incredibly emotional.
When somebody says, “I’m so lonesome, I could cry,” as Hank Williams did, there’s nobody on the planet that hasn’t experienced that.
Moise: And you’re tearing up as you’re saying it and now transferring that emotion here. You know you really do dive into different topics throughout the docu-series and covering the different areas of it.
Someone who is not familiar with country music and maybe wasn’t a fan before, what do you think is one thing that they would take away from this film?
Burns: Well I think I made it for them.
I mean I know that country fans will come along and they might quibble, “Oh you’ve left this person out.” Or, “You didn’t do my favourite song.” But I really made it for the people who aren’t aware of it.
And I think it’s just the emotionalism. If you think that country music is its own separate island nation in which you need a visa or a passport to get to any other form of music, you’re wrong.
When Ray Charles was given creative control of an album for the first time in 1962, he surprised everybody in his scene by recording an album called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
And the number one hit across the country in the summer of ’62 was I Can’t Stop Loving You, a Don Gibson country song.
And if you listen to it, it’s a country song being sung by a soul singer.
And then I don’t really have to say anything about Lil Nas X which is my mic drop moment, it’s not in our film because we’re a history and we stop at the death of Johnny Cash in 2003, but if you’ve got a black, gay rapper who’s got the number one country song of all times, then it tells you that this isn’t just a segregated music.
Anywhere in America, their borders are porous and that’s our strength.
Moise: Certainly bringing us together.
Now you spent more than eight years working on this project, what is something that surprised you the most?
Burns: Every day.
I mean I went in, I was a child of R&B and rock and roll and so almost everything was a surprise to me. But I think it tells you the power of stories.
Charlie Parker, the great jazz great, was feeding jukeboxes on 52nd street in the ’40s playing country music, playing Hank Williams, playing I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the Cats were saying, his fellow band members were saying, “Bird what are you doing? Why are you playing that?”
And he says, “Listen to the stories.”
Moise: We know that music has certainly impacted our country.
Burns: We have a corporate underwriter, Bank of America, that’s been supporting our work for the last 13 years and just signed up for the next 10 years.
And they have a tagline that accompanies their credit at the beginning and the end of every episode and it says, “Nothing connects the country like country.”
And we need that right now. We’re so divided.
Everything is a polarity, everything is, you know, a dialectic, everything’s about pointing out differences. Everything’s binary.
When I’ve learned, studying the US and also the lowercase us, that there’s only us, there’s no them.
Country music it reminds us we’re all in the same boat together.
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