Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 4, 2014

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

“The Winding Stream” opens today at the Elinor Bunin Theater at Lincoln Center. Simply put, it is the greatest documentary about musicians I have ever seen. The title of the film is a song made famous by the Carter Family, the subject of the film. But more broadly, it is about the great folk tradition of the Appalachian Mountains. In a period of deepening hatred and violence, watching a group of musicians expressing what is truly great about the USA is reason enough to put this film on your calendar. If there is anything civilized about this festering wound of a nation, it is that it produced musicians like the Carter Family.

Do not disturb my waking dream
The splendor of that winding stream
Flower in my canoe, his eyes they looked me through
That someone there with golden hair
Is very much like you

My knowledge of the Carter Family was probably about the same as most of my readers. I bought a copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in 1972 that featured Mother Maybelle Carter along with other country music pioneers. Then, 32 years later I saw Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter in “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic. Neither the record nor the film prepared me for the astonishing story of arguably some of the most important musical pioneers of the 20th century.

Alvin Pleasant (AP) Carter grew up in rural Virginia and had much in common with many of his neighbors: deep religious faith, a love of music, and grinding poverty. When he wasn’t eking out a living as a farmer, he was performing at local dances and supplementing his income selling fruit tree seedlings door-to-door.

One day as he approached the home of a potential customer, he heard a young woman named Sarah Dougherty singing a folk song. When he came face to face with her, he knew that she would be his wife. What he didn’t know right off the bat was that she would become part of a trio called the Carter Family. AP’s cousin Maybelle would join him and his wife and start performing locally as the Carter Family. But they were not making the kind of money that would allow them to quit their day jobs. Indeed, for most local musicians performing was a sideline to farming, preaching, or other traditional ways of making a living.

That all changed when music producer Ralph Peer came down South to recruit local talent for a burgeoning recording industry that considered such music marketable. This was before the term country music was coined. Instead the Carter Family was playing what was called old-timey music. In 1927 Peer set up a temporary studio in Bristol, Tennessee and auditioned the Carter Family, who knocked him off his feet. In many ways this was the forerunner of the Sun Sessions of the 1950s that featured Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis et al. Not only was the Carter Family discovered at the Bristol Sessions; so was Jimmie Rodgers. After signing contracts with Peer, the Carter Family became full-time professionals.

The next big breakthrough occurred in the late 1930s when they were featured on XERA, a “border radio” station in Mexico along with some of the younger members of their extended family, including June Carter. The segment on their stint there is mind-boggling. Border radio came into existence when entrepreneurs felt thwarted by the 60 thousand kilowatt ceiling on radio transmitters. One of them was a physician named John Brinkley who upped the ante by creating a 250 thousand kilowatt transmitter that could reach not only the USA but also the entire world. As one interviewee put it, that was the Internet of its day.

Brinkley was able to launch the station with funds he made from a lucrative practice that amounted to the Viagra of his day. He earned millions performing surgery on men that involved putting a goat’s gonad nearby their testicles. Among the amazing film clips included in the documentary is Brinkley delivering a spiel about removing the hood of a clitoris so a woman could enjoy full sexual stimulation. Well, at least he helped the Carters reach millions.

The documentary moves along with interviews of Carter Family relatives, including Johnny Cash who appears to be close to the end of his life based on his snow-white hair and frail demeanor. In contrast to the morbid quality of his final great recordings, he is positively rapturous about the impact that the Carters had on him, long before he met June.

It also benefits from some very savvy commentary from musicians in the Carter tradition, including Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who adored Mother Maybelle. You see some amazing performances from the assembled musicians as well as footage of some incredible performances they were part of, including a duet of Hank Williams and Anita Carter, June’s sister.

I could write another thousand words about this amazing film but will leave it like this. If you get yourself over to Lincoln Center and begin watching it, a smile will come to you immediately and even stay with you hours after it ends. You could see one on my face now as I finish this review.

Five years ago I posted a Dossier on FBI entrapment in “war on terror” prompted by what had happened to four men in Newburgh who were arrested by the FBI for their alleged role in a plot to attack Riverdale synagogues and fire a missile at airplanes on the Stewart Air Force base tarmac. The NY Times displayed some skepticism about the arrest. An FBI agent provocateur had no luck recruiting men from a local mosque who regarded him as suspicious. Instead he approached someone who had only a fleeting connection to the mosque and who was more interested in a quick buck than in jihad. In claiming that the four men were Islamic terrorists, the District Attorney did not let the facts get in the way:

Law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday. Mr. Payen reported himself to be Catholic during his 15-month prison sentence that ended in 2005, according to a state corrections official. Mr. Cromitie and Onta Williams both identified themselves as Baptists in prison records, although Mr. Cromitie changed his listed religion to Muslim upon his last two incarcerations; David Williams reported no religious affiliation.

Now, five years after their arrest and five years into their 25-year sentences, HBO has begun airing a documentary titled “The Newburgh Sting” that is both a stunning exposé of the entrapment but a timely warning to all people involved in social struggles to maintain a watchful eye against those who urge “more revolutionary” actions such as planting bombs. From the looks of things, they are likely to be FBI operatives.

Much of the film consists of footage that was recorded by hidden FBI cameras to make its case. There is something both pathetic and comic about the discussions that take place between the “brains” behind the conspiracy and his unwitting dupes. Sadly, the four men, who are not very bright, show little appetite for killing anybody and are far more interested in talking about what they are going to do with the money they make. As happens universally in such cases, there was less than a zero possibility that any of them would have gotten involved in such a plot if the FBI had not set the gears in motion, particularly a Haitian youth who was barely capable of taking care of himself even if he had a bankroll. The NY Times reported:

Payen, described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window — striking two teens — and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen’s apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.

For those of you who are HBO subscribers, you are probably aware that it has supplanted PBS as a primary source of cutting edge documentaries. It broke the story on the West Memphis Satanic Cult miscarriage of justice and is continuing in that vein with “The Newburgh Sting”.

“The Newburgh Sting” can be seen on-demand from HBO now. If you are not a subscriber, I suggest you find a friend who is or find a new friend with one if necessary. This is an important film. And if you can’t make such a connection, I urge you to go to the film’s website (http://www.thenewburghsting.com/) and find out how you can get involved in reversing the railroad convictions of four young men whose main offense is being gullible and desperately poor.

Finally, while on the subject of PBS’s failure, I can at least recommend a documentary titled “Fallen City” that can now be seen on their website until August 28: http://www.pbs.org/pov/fallencity/

It was directed by Qi Zhao, who served as executive producer for “Last Train Home”, a powerful study of the hardships faced by factory workers forced to leave rural poverty.

“Fallen City” looks at the plight of three families in Beichuan, a small city that was totally destroyed in the Sichuan province earthquake of 2008 that killed 69,195 people and left 18,392 missing.

Initially I was disappointed to discover that the film says nothing about the failure of the government to enforce earthquake-resistant building codes but was finally able to accept it on its own terms as a study of how people cope (or in some ways, not cope) with a terrible disaster. All families lost love ones in the earthquake and have been barely able to move forward. In one case, the loss of a beloved daughter has left a husband and wife incapable of bringing a new child into the world.

The director’s statement on the website linked to above should give you a sense of his motivation in making the film:

I’ll remember for the rest of my life the day when I arrived in the worst-hit city in the earthquake zone, Beichuan. The wreckage was greater than anything in a Hollywood disaster film. Survivors stumbled along with their belongings in baskets; a lady was crawling among the debris of a school, crying for her only son. A man was begging rescuers to stop digging him out because he would rather die with his wife and child, who lay beneath him; a young boy was checking every body bag for his parents. Sirens screeched, helicopters deafened, smoke and dust mixed with the smell of rotten corpses and disinfectants. For a while, all I could do was cry. But then, my instincts led me to film very wide and long shots, slowly and quietly. It was the only way to make sense of the turmoil, and it captured the soul of the disaster.




  1. Great reviews! Cannot wait to see the other 2.

    The Newburgh Sting was brilliant in illustrating how the so-called War on Terror is really a racist class war.

    A truly shocking travesty of justice everyone must see to believe.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 5, 2014 @ 2:02 pm

  2. Thanks for the interesting post on the Original Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers

    Comment by Nolan Porterfield — August 16, 2014 @ 10:56 pm

  3. […] be covering the same ground as the “Newburgh Sting”, a documentary I reviewed in August 2014 (http://louisproyect.org/2014/08/04/three-documentaries-of-note-4/). But what distinguishes this new film and recommends it particularly to a left audience is the […]

    Pingback by Four new films | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 9, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

  4. […] Finally, I want to recommend a documentary titled “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes & The Course Of Country Music” that also opens at the IFC Center today. I reviewed it in August 2014 and found it one of the finest documentaries about musicians I have ever seen. (http://louisproyect.org/2014/08/04/three-documentaries-of-note-4/) […]

    Pingback by The Emperor’s New Clothes | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 16, 2015 @ 9:46 pm

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