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Minnesotan's civil rights documentary nominated for Grammy

Buddy Guy recalls the music of blues icons Son House and Skip James in “Two Trains Runnin’,” a documentary that writer Benjamin Hedin said he anticipates theatrical release of “Two Trains Runnin’” this summer. Submitted photo

RED WING , Minn.—"Two Trains Runnin'," a documentary written by former Minnesota resident Benjamin Hedin, has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category "concert/performance films or music documentaries."

The feature-length film had its Minnesota premier last March at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing. Both Hedin, the screenwriter/producer, and award-winning director Sam Pollard were in Red Wing for the event.

Hedin is a former Red Wing resident.

They will be in New York City for the 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremonies on Jan. 28 in Madison Square Garden. A "little bit of a press campaign" is under way online, Hedin said, since the final round of voting is taking place from Dec. 7-21.

"Two Trains Runnin'" takes place in Mississippi at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. On June 21, 1964, three young Civil Rights activists were murdered by the KKK.

On that same day, two groups of young music fans on a very different mission — both were searching or Delta blues music icons of the 1930s — succeeded in locating Skip James and Son House.

The film got its name partly because "Two Trains Runnin'" is a classic folk-blues song, but mostly because the documentary interweaves the two separate but related stories: One about civil rights, the other about the rediscovery of country blues.

Hedin came across the story of how the blues fans found James and House on the same day the Civil Rights workers were killed while he was researching his book "In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights, Then and Now."

He convinced Pollard to turn the saga into a film. The documentary uses archival footage, contemporary interviews and animation, all blended with musical performances. The film is narrated by Common, a rapper and actor.

"Two Trains Runnin'" had a limited theatrical release in September and October, Hedin said. In addition to East and West Coast showings, it spent a week in Minneapolis at the Uptown Theater.

Reviews praised the music as well as the storytelling aspects of the documentary.

"Music naturally fills the film," reviewer Robert Abele wrote in the Los Angeles Times in September, "including appearances by Gary Clark Jr., Buddy Guy, Lucinda Williams and others, and mesmerizing archival footage of House and James in their late phase of revitalized stardom" after being rediscovered.

The Washington Post's Mark Jenkins commented that "The blues revival wasn't as cataclysmic as the Civil Rights movement, but like it, it transformed the relationship between blacks and whites in the United States (and beyond).

Jenkins quoted Civil Rights chronicler Taylor Branch, who says in the film, "Music was the forerunner. It was ahead of politics."

Odie Henderson, reviewing for Roger, was equally complimentary: "The musicians are young and old, Black and White, male and female, and all extremely talented. The songs become the glue that binds the movie's seemingly disparate halves.

"When the stories converge, 'Two Trains Runnin'' becomes a powerful meditation on the origins of an African-American musical genre and the painful reason for its existence. ... Pollard's choice to end with a stirring a capella number by Son House still provided the uplift needed to fight another day."

Pollard, in an October interview published in Rolling Stone Magazine, gave a lot of credit to co-producer and editor Dava Whisenant. "She understood that using the music was going to be a very important aspect of telling the story, which she did very successfully," he said.

"Two Trains Runnin'" has received several honors already, Hedin said. It was named Best Documentary at Dallas VideoFest 2016, and Rolling Stone called it one of the best four documentaries of 2017.

Also, Hedin and Pollard met Michael Moore in England while on an international tour and Moore invited them to bring the documentary to the Traverse City Film Festival last summer. Pollard received a director's award.

Learning of the Grammy nomination was "tremendously exciting," Hedin said. More than 100 documentaries and videos were submitted for consideration. "To be one of five" chosen for the final voting was "an honor and a thrill."

Most of the Grammy Awards in 84 categories will be presented at a Premiere Ceremony on the afternoon of Jan. 28, Hedin said. The Grammy broadcast that evening is essentially a concert at which 10 to 12 awards will be presented in pop music categories.

Theme for the 60th annual Grammy Awards is "Long Live Music," celebrating creators and movements that have shaped music's lasting legacy.

Hedin, Pollard and most of the other key people will be in New York for the event. "They're all very excited," Hedin said. "Beyond the prestige" of a Grammy nomination, "The excitement has to do with the exposure it brings to the film."

The Minnesota premiere of "Two Trains Runnin'" at the Sheldon acknowledged Hedin's local roots. He is the son of poet Robert Hedin and Carolyn Hedin, co-founders of the Anderson Center at Tower View. Pollard is an acclaimed filmmaker and multiple Emmy Award winner.