Editor’s Note: Ken Burns is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. His most recent film, “Country Music,” aired on PBS in September. He has an upcoming film on Ernest Hemingway, set to premiere in early 2021. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. liked to say that we suffer today from too much “pluribus” and not enough “unum,” meaning that we focus on what differentiates us rather than what unites us. More recently, I’ve looked at my work as existing in the figurative space between the two-letter, lower-case plural pronoun “us,” and the upper-case abbreviation for our country – US. In the documentaries I’ve made over the past 40 years, I have tried to magnify our shared experiences, even when they are hidden within our complicated and contested history.
And what I’ve found is that our history – and the space it occupies – is filled with stories. Perhaps that is because we experience the world through stories, whether personal – traditions passed down by family and friends – or the stories that define us as a people, from the greatest novels to widely divergent musical genres.
There’s a scene in our new film, “Country Music,” where the jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis explains, “There are things that are part of the landscape of human life that we all deal with – the joy of birth, the sorrow of death, a broken heart, jealousy, greed, envy, anger. All of these things are in music… There’s a truth in the music. And it’s too bad that we as a culture have not been able to address that truth… The art tells more of the tale of us coming together.”
Wynton’s comment carries a certain beauty: We have so much in common, stemming from our shared humanity – but it is often invisible. Sometimes it takes art and music to speak to the larger truths that allow each of us to recognize we share “the landscape of human life.”
Take Ernest Hemingway, who marked the start of American literature as the point when a white boy fleeing civilization joins an older black man who is running away from slavery. Mark Twain wrote “Huckleberry Finn” after the Civil War and the collapse of Reconstruction, a misunderstood period devoted to trying to enforce civil rights. Through this story, he was expressing his profound disappointment that racial differences still persisted in America, that racism still festered in this favored land, founded as it was on the most noble principle yet advanced by humankind – that all men are created equal. What transcended that sin, at least for Huck and Jim, was a shared experience.
“Somehow,” Huck says, “I couldn’t seem to strike no place to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog;…and such like times; and would always call me honey…and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was…”
At that moment, Huck rips up a letter he had written to Jim’s owner, recognizing that his connection to Jim was stronger that his perceived obligation to report him missing.
How do we as a society make that same kind of decision? How do we decide to recognize what we have in common with someone rather than what is outwardly different?
These are very personal, intimate questions. But they are also the big questions of faith and values. We have to learn, and then reteach the rest of us that equality – real equality – is the hallmark and birthright of all Americans.
We must draft everyone we know into a new American army that is committed to preserving these values and the sense of cohesion which have long been a part of our American nature, even when the experience of being American is often divided. Our shared aspirations as a people, while by no means unanimous, have long been a driving force for us to strive to achieve that goal of equality. It continues today, and we must embrace it.
It is tempting to segregate our lives – red vs. blue, black vs. white – and erroneously presume that we have little in common. But, as we noticed with “Country Music,” as we traveled from small towns in the south to large cities on both coasts, and as we met with people of all backgrounds, faiths and political beliefs, it is the diversity of our experiences that creates something new and better, something even more American.
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Country music – much of our music really, whether jazz, the blues, rock or country – shares a common ancestry in the American South. Within the frictions and tensions between blacks and whites trying to negotiate their stories is the story of the birth of American music in general and country music in particular.
Our political and social histories correctly chart the indignities and injustices these frictions and tensions often produce. Country music is not immune to those sufferings, but it does, like other forms of music, suggest happier and more transcendent possibilities, a civilized alternative that tries to get beyond those tribal impulses that continually seem to beset us.
It is important to affirm that many musicians and artists themselves seek to follow their own muse, unconcerned with categorization and labels, and so they cross and re-cross the restrictive fence lines, the musical boundaries we have created for our simplistic filing system. Just look at Johnny Cash, who performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong and Pete Seeger over the course of his career.
To understand these complex interrelationships, and the sublime art and emotion they promote, requires only that we heed what the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker allegedly told his incredulous bandmates when they learned of his fondness of country music: listen to the stories.
We all have stories. And sometimes they lead us back to emotions and feelings we have in common.