Powerhouse Politics: One-on-one with filmmaker Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burn sits down with ABC News Political Director Rick Klein to discuss country music, baseball, and American culture.
18:04 | 10/19/19

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Transcript for Powerhouse Politics: One-on-one with filmmaker Ken Burns
My hands. If you press the two singing that song. And you're not sitting here and about tuna is only testing. In the campaign. Can hear that must have. And it sounded tell me. Hello and welcome Davies who is live on ABC news political director recliner with your help in barbecue. See this it's great. Live music that you find right here in Washington with Ken Burns who is out with a new documentary country music now airing on PBS mister burns. Welcome and congratulations thinks so I want to talk about how you chose the project and how it fits in with history because I think. Everyone in this country has some appreciation or understanding at least of country music Whittier and or not but I don't think there's an appreciation of how entwined it is with the American experience. Slow that's exactly right I mean we're all only looking for stories that are complicated and wonderful and talk to us about who we are in country music is that. It has so many amazing people and characters so much great music. That when you learn the story behind the music he gets. That much more interest and so we pick our topics. Because a good stories they happen to be in American history and this one happens to help us come to terms. From a new perspective of the very complicated twentieth century this is a music. Boren at least for commercial purposes in 1920s. And we take it out. And of the millennium so it's it's a new way to see us both the US. And us in an intimate way because. What is a country song but expressing kind of universal. Human emotions like loss and love and and and seeking redemption and I think too often in our. Culture we. Abbreviate something and we sort of categorize it commerce suggest we should do that convenience suggest we should do it as a one thing in country music has never been a one thing it's always been a really complicated mixture of influences African American influences the banjo is an African instrument. Then all the greater early stars an African American mentors and then you just proceeds from these amazing character decade after decade after decade. Who tell us a lot about. Who we are I think that's fascinating because that the stories that are told directly country songs are one thing but the stories that the coming together of the different members of the Vander the instruments in the musical styles are so much deeper and this less entries in a pretty turbulent one in the United States along racial lines along ethnic lines along gender lines. How does that come together what did you learn about America and putting this thing. It's when are we not learn about it I mean I think that when we apply this modern media culture computer age buying area code to everything. Everything is in opposition everything's red state of Wednesday its young girl interest your boards white or black whatever it is. But when you understand the us. That's connected to the US than you realize there's no van were all part of it every American story is is a combination. A mixture and how lonely may be the best way. To understand it and so country music. Has all of these influences from all these diverse places from the beginning and proceeds to then and many more influences said. In some ways it tends to sort of neutralize. These simplistic buying area arguments we get in today just give you an example though our film stops. In the mid ninety's really the end of when Johnny cache size and in 2003. The little law's ex controversy. The last year. Is sort of you can predicted by looking at the history of country music there's an African American to mention in every one of our. End the music is suffused with the blues suffused with the African American experience even though it seems to come down to us is essentially a white. Music which we then transfer as being conservative rural southern. It's awful. Types of things and and that curiosity about this music. Goes both ways when Ray Charles is given creative control and album for the first time in his professional life he did modern sounds in country and western music. In the number one hit of the summer of 1962 is. I can't stop loving you which is a country song go listen to. And he's singing Don Gibson's country song and he's singing it as a kind of because that's what he's listening to too. The stories that are embedded in the songs and the stories that are embedded in the story of the people who made this homes. Our one and one coming together and making three I mean when you learn. Why Dolly Parton wrote I will always love you changes forever your relationship to that do it becomes better than the pop crossover cover. I Whitney Houston it's a wonderful version still raises there in the back neck but when you learn why Dolly sank. Certainly that was she to the top of your charts so how or why did it become appropriated or categorized in particular way will I think we do that. All the time with everything I mean we called race music that. Which meant the blues. Back when countries being born people were selling. Blues records which were called race records and so we make a presumption that only black people by. Race records and only and losers and only black people listen to R&B stations. When in fact everybody's listening to everything and people are sharing into musicians themselves. Don't ever. Receive or realize oral day. The borders that we put on this music so Johnny Cash. Is is traveling between that country music is connected to the blues it's connected to jazz it's connected to R&B he is with R&B the parents of rock and roll. It's connected to rock and roll to folk to pop to classical to rap. And so it's connected to all those things and it's only us. Seeking understandably in the tsunami of information that we're in right now. Simple matters nation but that tends to segregate some what if you can take this story and integrated so. And a lot of people in the course of the eight and half years it's I really don't know about countries they look at the film and ago. My guy didn't realize how much and it or you meet people say I don't like country music and at the ending up why really like that and maybe it's just the good stories I think it's also the music. Because it is dealing. We've universal human emotions you know basically finding love and losing the joy of birth the sadness of death of broken heart. Jealousy anger rage seeking redemption all of these things are went Marsalis the jazz. Impresario. Says in country music countries about all of those things that we. All understand that Merle Haggard in our film says it's about things that we believe in that can't see. Light dreams and songs pencils I mean. What could be better than that to understand the power of this music or in fact any means you mention to keep. All it just now that that I wanted to hone in on because it to me it speaks to that the relationships. That are central to the narrative that that you tell it so personal so intimate at times but Merle Haggard being. At San Quentin prison when Johnny Cash. Is performing at very famous concert. If that's and he spoke to. How all of that is connected in the don't that you influences that are there and and that the that the film is filled with marriages and and affairs and and all kinds of influences that you would imagine. So there's a family and country music literally there that caches and the carters and there's that Williams's and all of that. But there's a larger family of the musicians or into related by those affairs and by those. Marriages and there's a sense of family because they belong together several haggard as the poet of the common man he's one of the great. You know he's on now rush. And we were very lucky to be able to get an interview with him before he passed away. Very few people know is that he had he was insane Clinton doing time for relatively minor crimes. But as a juvenile he escaped seventeen times in juvenile facility so. Less on the severity of the crime and on his escapes he sentencing Clinton and there in San Quentin. He sees Johnny Cash coming through and performing a concert and. And begins to dream his way out of prison which he does and becomes. One of the great presence and they have Johnny Cash who was never in prison himself but you couldn't tell any inmate or any of us who in the 1960s and child of rock and roll in our and he. Johnny Cash was part of our repertory he crossed over into everything he was friends of Bob Dylan. He touched folk he touched possible. He touched native American affairs he was interested in this story is interested in that dispossessed person use against the war in Vietnam but went to visit the troops I mean. He was everywhere and have these people sort of come together and there's. The origin myth. And it turns out to be true of where Murrow hired comes from is wonderful and then be able to hear from him directly. Was the great gift. And it there's so many radiators and it's people like Dolly Parton for instance it seems very generous at that time everybody was you know what do you know the only people that we were able to get with people who passed away before we can get them angry what you wish you could it will mean are we were on our way to Nashville. His folks in and and said that next summer there we do an interview George Jones and passed away before. But you know I've done films I didn't get an interview with Abraham Lincoln musical or that if we did okay bye bye bye Lincoln in that. So you know we may do and I'm very proud of them many chapters on George Jones in the way inner sex. With a history of this woody did in better with him. Navy and we're sorry that he's gone in recited that we didn't get a chance but to take down I had the privilege of conducting an interview here is a woman. From east Tennessee unbelievable poverty a kind of poverty that we think only happened in the depression for a couple years for grandparents it's the poverty that Sheen I mean she. She paid for the first TV her family had they were pouring water on the ground wire of their battery operated radio to try to hear that a grand a lawfully. Whistle in and out in Holler her parents paid the Doctor Who delivered her with a sack of cornmeal. For delivering I mean this is where she comes from. And yet she is possessed arguably the greatest voice that has got his ever bestowed on any singer she's never missed a note. She is a singer songwriter she's on the great songwriters idol of Jolene. And I'll always love you to any song in country music and saying you can't tell me that it's actually better than these two songs. And on top of that she's a savvy business woman on top of that she doesn't take herself too seriously on top of that she's really lovely. And what she communicates to us more than anything is how this is a family. And here we are. She's singing songs us aka Pallet in our interview that she heard from her grand. And her grand any like and her and then her mama loved it and saying to and so she sings it. And she wants to sing it for us to understand that before radio. Before. Photographs before TV obviously that's the way the news was Kerry in these scholars in east Tennessee. And you could easily substitute Kentucky or the Carolinas or Virginia. That's a good story to tell us an American story to tell and it's telling stories about people. Who may feel that their stories aren't being told today that there's some part of some vast. Flyover and let's remember black and white these are the people who made America these are the people built. The White House and the capitol these are people who built the railroads and built the things that we tape for granted provided us. We dole RR are good fortune and at the same time may not have participated good fortune. The people who came out of there wanting to sing about their experiences. Have helped elevate all of us not just the people they left behind. Who could dream to but the rest of us to realize there's there's the universality. In the poetry they called. They called Hank Williams the hillbilly Shakespeare and that was no accident. That a pick up on it universality so many of us watch and read and study and listen to history thinking about the lessons that can apply today and the leading country music suicide and I think even international lit little laws acts. Working with Billy Ray Cyrus is that the Contras Iran that. We're what are the lessons and what you learned here that you can apply to the some normalcy to this time that we. You know that's the point I think can and not to make the film I just one I'm just a filmmaker I wanna tell good stories and I don't wanna pretend. Did you go in with some ulterior motive in that game if we do this is gonna help heal so you don't. He just won a masters story. Which you find is a good history is always healing it reminds us that we are mixture we aren't alloys are stronger for our constituent parts and anytime anyone. Tries to tell you if you just. Poll out this one thing it's more American than the other thing you've necessarily weekend that Allah. The story of country music is the story of the African American. Dimension that I mentioned but it's also the story of powerful women jazz as a fraternity rock and roll as a paternity. Women are just sort of ornaments for a such a long time. But the original lead guitarist in American music. His mother may Bill Carter she invented the Carter scratch which doing a home and learn and teaches the guitar to his daughter. Doing that we and we chief functionality with years phone and you and you provide the rhythm. With your fingers this is how you play guitar he original voices air cargo all the way through the news that. Rose Maddox of dramatics Brothers and rose Kitty Wells Patsy Cline Loretta Lynn who is singing in the mid sixties don't come home and drink and we love and on your mind she's talking about spousal abuse spousal rape. Alcoholism nobody's talking about this is the same year that the national organization for women is founded she's gotten a call herself a feminist nor are. Her fans that they are addressing things that nobody in rock and roll will touch is and a third rail. And then the next song is called the pill. Like I'm not going to be your rooting him popping out a kid every year for you because now I've got the pale. Huge controversy Bandung some more conservative stations she didn't care she said if I and then when I was having kids how to pop them like I'll put it back in I mean. You you begin to realize that our conventional wisdom of history let's go back to your original question. Is. By necessity. Boring to people if it's just a series of presidential administrations punctuated by wars they're very interesting things there. But if you think that's it you've missed the possibility the richness of baseball. The richness of jazz and country music. Biographies of people who seem to be outside thing that can be the skeleton presidential administrations and the wars that's important. But what what we add too that the stories that we tell that are connected. That are bottom up stories. Are much more important and connect. Everyday people I've never since our civil war series. Had a film that had more of an emotional residence where people were coming up to me insane I cried for times an episode eight is cheaper than therapy. You know knock on my door stop me on the street thank you this is great people the demographics suggested. Shouldn't have been interest in country music and were all seek early interest in in those things. That take the US and remember that is not only two capital letters U and asked but it's the lower case version that costs that's what I'm in the business. The latest organizers passenger junior said we suffer today from too much pluralism and not enough Luna. We're in the business of whom and I can think of no better story that reminds us that we're all in the same boat is Emmylou Harris as an of them were all in this together. Then the universal truths that emanated not out of just the songs the art but of the story of the people maintenance. So what's in and around baseball for a moment because bird cameras were here in the nation's capital indeed win the nationals though the Washington franchise is set to go to the World Series for the first time in this franchise history in the first time in Washington history for 86 year 86 years 1933. Goes on us policy and its that's and that's understand how important that it and number 86. Why is this is a wonderful thing personal congratulations I was able to watch the deciding. A game against that the cardinals what a wonderful thing because. The portfolio. Like a good diplomat. That the nationals Cary is very complicated they carry the two incarnations. Of the Washington senators but to actually carry more directly. The reincarnation. On the Montreal Expos who were positioned. To go to the World Series in this shortened theory Siri the season and 1994. And didn't get there it was on paper and at the time of the strike in August. The best team in the major leagues and I'd I'd I'd eat my hat if they hadn't gone. Two the World Series and now he had a chance to avenge all of that. That you know several years than it did 25 years sadness that the Expos fans because. This is the reincarnation of Montreal excellence and it's also. Swirling around us of the ghosts of the two incarnations. Of the senate is it takes you back to. Walter Johnson successes in the 1920s and are great so this is a wonderful convergence and. There's only one sport that does and that's baseball I mean I like all the other sports football and basketball adding that nothing connects things that we baseball does. There's a timelessness to it. And there's also a sense of tradition like every moment in baseball is new and never seen before and yet you are measured against the ghosts. They went before so I find the upcoming post season Weathers the Yankees over the Astros. I hope is a Boston Red Sox fan that is the Astros. But the historian doesn't wanna see the Yankees and that the the poll with in the they beat the the way that that those franchises with billions into this kind of something compelling about the be the better the venerable yet I get it is an excellent question but let me just tell you the historian in me is completely. Repressed. But Boston Red Sox baseball fan in me in which I root for the Boston Red Sox who are by the way. The reigning world champions until they are not life until. And anyone who's playing the Yankees a laugh I appreciate that and I think any true baseball fan would as well Ken Burns. That the book and the documentary country music out now on PBS stations thank you so much it's always an honor and a pleasure. That does it from here for ABC news live I'm Rick Klein. Check back next.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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