Filmmaker Ken Burns

One of the most acclaimed documentarians in the business, Burns discusses his latest film, which unlocks the importance of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Ken Burns has been making films for more than 30 years and shaped some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made. His credits include Brooklyn Bridge, the landmark TV series The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz and The Central Park Five, and he's received 12 Emmys and two Oscar nods. The Brooklyn native set the stage early and, at age 22, co-founded Florentine Films after earning his B.A. at Hampshire College. His latest project, The Address, looks at students at Vermont's Greenwood School as they memorize President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and he's working on docs on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War and the history of country music.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Since his landmark documentary series “The Civil War,” filmmaker Ken Burns has chronicled so many of the experiences that define this nation, from jazz to baseball to the fight for women’s suffrage.

His latest project, which of course airs, thankfully, here on PBS, is called “The Address,” and follows a group of boys, ages 11 to 17, all of whom face a range of complex learning differences as they memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address.

Here now, a look at a scene from Ken Burns’ “The Address.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So this has to be the first piece you’ve ever done where the narration is done by a bunch of kids themselves.

Ken Burns: Well we originally thought we were just going to have title cards superimposed over the old Civil War photographs to provide the historical context of the Gettysburg Address and its importance.

Then it occurred to us, why don’t we let the boys narrate it, because some people might have reading or learning difficulties just reading that. Then you could hear, almost from the very first moment of the film, that this is a little bit different.

These kids are stumbling a little bit, there might be a little bit of a lisp, and you begin to understand the sort of baggage that they carry and are struggling to overcome.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln talks about a new birth of freedom. He’s doubling down on the Declaration, the Declaration being the flawed document written fourscore and seven years before, that says, by Thomas Jefferson, that all men are created equal.

But oops, Thomas Jefferson owned more than a hundred human beings and didn’t see the contradiction or the hypocrisy, or see fit in his lifetime to free any of those individuals.

He owned and set in motion an American narrative that would lead to the Civil War. Now after the greatest battle, Lincoln is coming there and saying look, we really do believe it. I’m doubling down on this.

He’s giving us a new operating system – the Declaration 2.0. But it’s interesting the way it’s resonated over time, the way the words, the poetry of these words that have such durability, have lasted.

Then across the river from where I live in New Hampshire, in this tiny town in Vermont, are these boys who are themselves experiencing a new birth of freedom by learning the Gettysburg Address.

Not just memorizing it, but publicly reciting it. It’s a daunting, daunting task. We could do it. I’m asking you to memorize it, and you can do it. You’ll curse me for a few days, but then you’ll have it on your hard drive.

These kids, it takes two or three months, and they struggle and they agonize, and that’s what the film is – following them, but also accompanying it, sort of bumping up against them with the historical context.

Because we’re all liberated by this speech. We’re all liberated by the struggle, and that liberation can extend in many places. When 9/11, first anniversary of 9/11 happened, the English words spoken besides the desperately sad list of the dead? The Gettysburg Address.

Has nothing to do with 9/11 but everything, because words, as you know as well as anybody I know on this planet, are medicine, are medicine.

Tavis: I want to come back to “The Address” in a moment. Let me stay with these boys for a second, and particularly with your artistic decision to let them do the narration.

How far into that decision, into the process, did you know you had made the right decision, or were you rethinking your decision?

Burns: Well I made the decision to try them really late in the editing process, and it instantly clicked and it was right, it felt right. It was a way in which you start off and you don’t go, this isn’t another Ken Burns film. This is different.

In fact, this is not the historical documentary; this is about these kids struggling. They’ve got this range of stuff – dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, executive function – a whole alphabet soup of learning differences.

In our society, as one of the psychiatrists in the school says, we think we celebrate individuality, but we don’t. We want conformity. These kids have been bullied and marginalized at their school.

The Greenwood School is often a place of last resort, and they come there and they don’t say your glass is half empty or empty, they say it’s not only half full, what do you do well? We can teach you how to overcome this.

A disproportionate number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are dyslexic, so that meant the strategies that they’ve developed to sort of circumvent these differences, initial differences, turn out to be such novel strategies that it makes them advanced when it comes to other areas of our life.

That’s the good news, that these kids can escape the specific gravity of this prison. They can have a new birth of freedom, just as Lincoln was saying we can outgrow this unbelievable hypocrisy that we inherited at our founding, the idea that we could have four million human beings owned by other Americans and still brag to the world that we’re about individual liberty.

Tavis: So back to what you said a moment ago, and I agree with you, that “words are medicine.” Words matter, language matters, and I’m curious, before we get too deep into the conversation, why it is that you have chosen to use the phrase a few times already in this conversation, and I took your lead initially, the phrase “learning differences” as opposed to “learning disabilities.”

Burns: That’s my learning curve too. I went in and thought that when they talked about LD schools it was learning disabilities and learning disabled and things like that.

What happens is that we tend to, with all our sympathy, reinforce stereotypes and prejudices that diminish it. But if it’s a difference, it just means that your neural pathways are going to get to this – reading, memorizing, speaking – in a different way than many of us do.

That’s not saying your road is worse, it just means that we actually, as a culture, tend to teach down this road. You’re on that one. So we can help you get along that road farther.

That meant there was no stigma attached to it. These are kids from all over the world, from Saudi Arabia, from Indonesia, from every walk of life and background in the school, and they’re struggling.

The come to this place and they do all the things that little boys do. They run out in the snow in bare feet and no shirt, and we cover that. You see this sort of wonderful life, but then in between is this struggle, and some of them, up until an hour before the gala performance, say, “I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to do this.

“I know it, but I can’t do it. I can’t talk to anybody. I can talk to you right now, I could recite it to you, but I can’t go out in front of more than a couple of people and talk.”

Then all of a sudden who shows up? There he is, and he’s doing it. Then they’ll have it on their hard drives for the rest of their life. Just like the person who ran in the marathon, who climbed that mountain.

Nobody can take that away. Alums have come back from the school – the school’s been open for 35 years. They’ve been doing it since their founding, and they take over lots of the curriculum.

It might be English; of course it might be history, of course remedial speech. But lots of other places where they’re all working together at different paces to learn the address.

Some kids memorize it right away, but they can’t speak it, they can’t articulate it. They’ve got speech problems. But then you see an alum come back and it’s 30 years past or 25 years past.

They still have it, and it’s something that they keep. It’s like a talisman; it’s like something that’s crystallized in them. You realize in the same way, in a larger sense, as Lincoln himself put it, we’re all beholden to him in those words that gave us a new reinvigoration of our catechism at the darkest moment of our republic’s history.

After the greatest battle ever fought on American soil, 56,000 casualties, 10,000 dead, he still could go there and in two minutes say, first sentence, this is where we’ve been, second sentence, this is where we are, and the remaining eight, this is what we have to do.

Tavis: I want to deconstruct the speech a bit more here in just a moment, because it is fascinating, and that’s the best word I can come up with right now.

It’s mind-boggling that a two-minute presentation could have the kind of impact this has had all these many years later. We’ll come to that in a moment.

But I wonder whether or not, as you follow these young boys, you get the sense that they’re not just learning it, not just reciting it, but they are getting what Lincoln was – this is heady stuff for kids of a certain age.

I recall when I had to learn this thing when I was in school, but I was forced to get it because there were some people in my universe who happened to be African American who were going to make sure that I understood.

Burns: And understand the meaning behind the words.

Tavis: Absolutely. So are they getting this, the meaning of it?

Burns: Yeah, that’s the best thing, and that’s the central question, because we’ve stopped in our schools asking kids to memorize anything. My dad had six hours on his hard drive – Shakespeare passages and long poems and famous speeches.

They didn’t teach me, they didn’t ask me to memorize the Gettysburg Address when I was growing up, the idea that that wasn’t relevant, that we didn’t want our kids to be parrots or monkeys, that we could just teach them these tricks.

But in point of fact, we like to do things together. We like to sing in church together. We like to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” or the national anthem together.

Yet everything in our media culture suggests that we shouldn’t do things together. We’re all independent, free agents. The interesting thing about the Gettysburg Address for these boys specifically is it gives them, paradoxically, a free agency.

But it does it in the context of the community, of the collective, that they’ve worked together. So my worry is you can memorize it, you do it, and some of them, because of their learning differences, do sound a little bit rote, but they’re struggling through things.

But when you see a kid who fully invests in the meaning of the word, inhabits the meaning as well as the great task for them of memorization, for any of us of memorization, it’s impressive.

That’s where you feel like I’d rather err on the side of having our kids, whatever their learning status is, memorize lots of things. Because our brain, this human brain has a capacity to put thousands of things on it if we could train it that way, and worry about the rote later.

Because some of that meaning is going to accrue, even to the most diligent person who’s just remembering it just so they can pass the test. I think memory, if it lodges in your memory permanently – like I can think of Lincoln’s first inaugural, the last sentence.

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I’m never going to lose that. That’s mine. It’s his, but it’s mine, and more importantly, it’s ours. I think that’s what “The Address” does, and I think when you see the film, anyone who watches the film, you’ll see that the kids get it, and that’s the most important thing. Not just memorizing, but getting it.

Tavis: So I wonder whether or not it is your assessment that this is the ultimate, the quintessential example of that notion that less is more, (laughter) “this” being the Gettysburg Address.

Burns: Yeah, I thought you were going to ask the best speech in American history, and that becomes sort of apples and oranges.

Tavis: Yeah, I’d fight you on that, but if you took that, I’d fight you.

Burns: Yeah, no, no, you can make that argument, but it is -

Tavis: It’s up there.

Burns: – apples, and it is there, and Lincoln’s got three others that I can think of just off of the top of my head, and Dr. King’s got two, and I suppose John F. Kennedy has one and Barack Obama has three or four that are, like, really out of the park.

George W. Bush, right after 9/11, a joint session of Congress in the National Cathedral also was equal to the challenge. Franklin Roosevelt, we just finished a big series on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and he’s got several speeches that qualify in the running for that best of.

But what he was able to do, and you have to put it in the context that he was invited as an afterthought. The featured speaker that day was Edward Everett, who was the noted orator of the time, who spoke almost two hours, and he didn’t blow it.

That’s what people came to hear, was like a jazz musician, he’d go off on these tangents. People would applaud when he’d come back to the main theme out of just the beauty of the construction of the English language.

The president’s asked as an afterthought to add a “few appropriate remarks,” (laughter) and what does he do? He takes 272 words, if you accept the most recognized version draft of the speech, and he nails it.

But it took a while for that to catch on. The Chicago newspaper, this is his home state, says, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the president of the United States.”

So if you’re wringing your hands about partisan politics in America and MSNBC versus Fox, it’s been going on since the beginning of the republic. But then the speech sort of got it.

Edward Everett wrote the president and said, “I wish that I could have come as close to the heart of the matter in two hours as you did in two minutes, Mr. President.”

Then we began to read it again and we asked our students to remember it and we read it at different times, and all of a sudden it had meaning. Not just for some Americans, for all Americans, because what it meant is that we were going to be in the pursuit of happiness.

This wasn’t just a limited, all men are created equal didn’t just mean white men of property. It meant everybody, and that the continuing narrative that of the United States beyond Gettysburg was going to be continually enlarging what “man” meant.

It’s going to be women, it’s going to be people of color, it’s going to be handicapped, it’s going to be the unborn, we’re going to debate about the elderly and all the different things that all men are created equal means. So we’re a nation in the process of becoming. That’s what “pursuit of happiness” means.

Tavis: See, that’s what fascinates me about this address, because here you have an address that is, at best, aspirational.

Burns: Yeah.

Tavis: It’s aspirational, given what has just happened, which, as you mentioned earlier, precipitates Lincoln giving these remarks.

Burns: Exactly.

Tavis: So it’s aspirational at best, number one. It’s precipitated by a war that’s being fought over the institution of slavery.

Burns: Exactly.

Tavis: It’s in juxtaposition to documents that were pro-slavery in their original form to begin with.

Burns: Exactly.

Tavis: So the nation is founded on these pro-slavery documents, and yet it endures for a nation that is now more multicultural and more multiracial and more multiethnic than ever before. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Burns: It’s wonderful, and we have to give Thomas Jefferson his props, because he distilled a century of Enlightenment thinking into one sentence vague enough that it satisfied the white, in many cases property owners, not just of physical property but of human property, enough to sign it.

But it also was elastic enough for us to continually evolve. Now it cost, in the case of the liberation of the African American in the United States, at least in law, if not in spirit, 750,000 people in the Civil War, the Greatest Crisis, and that’s what he’s addressing right there.

But the aspirational aspect has drawn us into our future. It basically says it’s not just about this moment; it’s about the future moments. There’s no proper names exalting a great battle, there’s no proper names.

He’s asking us to look ahead. He uses the word “here” like seven, eight, nine times. He places it in different contexts within each sentence, and sometimes more than once in a sentence, as in be here, listen to me now, but we are looking forward.

And that for these dead to not have died in vain, we have to continue to have a government of by and for the people. There’s no emphasis on the prepositions of, by, for. He meant the people, the people, the people.

It is, when you invest yourself in it, you suddenly realize how revolutionary a thing it is, because all he could have done, and we assumed if he gave it today somebody would stand up and say the president came to Gettysburg to try to distract attention from his disastrous military campaign out West, meaning Tennessee.

Or we’d miss it; maybe C-SPAN would have it, and it would go by in two minutes and nobody would know about it. But we did. Something, he said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

It’s interesting that many of us have forgotten what they did here, the real facts and forms of the Civil War, but we haven’t forgotten what he said there. It’s a great irony and a contradiction, again underscoring that words, words matter.

Tavis: See, every time I think about that address or see it, I think about the brilliance of it. As we were discussing a moment ago, I think about the aspirational nature of it.

But then I think about all the amendment, all the nullification, all the interposition that it took to make these documents come to life -

Burns: Yeah, exactly.

Tavis: – for a generation of Americans now who enjoy these liberties.

Burns: And you are just invoking words of nullification and interposition that had to be spoken exactly 100 years later by Dr. King. Because we were still tripped up, our journey, that aspirational part of it, was still impeded by all of those things that still to this day – you have a birther movement that’s just a real clean way of saying the N-word all over again.

Tavis: Yeah, and King does that, of course, standing in front of Lincoln, at least metaphorically, in front of the monument, so it’s – yeah.

Burns: Well this is where you feel – history is quite obviously time travel, but I think what happens is that – Ecclesiastes said it best: “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Now many people favor the idea that there are cycles of history. I don’t buy that. Some people say you’re condemned to repeat what you don’t remember. I’m not even sure I can subscribe to this.

But I can tell you that human nature remains the same. That’s what Ecclesiastes means, and that means that we can study the past and you can have a conversation between two men sort of most responsible, in many ways, at least rhetorically, for giving voice to those unspoken aspirations that both of those documents, both of those speeches, both of those men fully represented.

Tavis: How fascinated were you or are you at the journey that those words took that kept them alive not just in our minds, but in our hearts and out of our mouths, to the point that these boys in Vermont are still memorizing this speech?

I’m asking that because I think about, since you mentioned African Americans, I think about the Black national anthem, “Life Every Voice and Sing.”

Burns: Yes.

Tavis: As you know, the words and deductible, written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, Jay Rosamond Johnson. So these two Negroes come together in Florida, they write this piece, words and music.

They teach it to a bunch of kids, and the only reason all these years later that we still sing at every Black gathering “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is because these kids were taught this song for a one-time occasion -

Burns: And carried it.

Tavis: – and they kept, and as they grew up and went out and started families and moved around, they kept singing that song, and all these years later, thanks to them, this song is still being sung. So I think about these boys here who are carrying on this tradition in this film.

Burns: We’re making, among many, many projects we have in our pipeline, a big series on the history of the war in Vietnam, and Tim O’Brian has written one of the best, if not the best, books about it, called “The Things They Carried.”

Of course in that context you feel like it’s burden, and in many ways what we’re talking about is burden too. But like the blues, it’s not just – the misunderstanding about the blues is oh, I’m beat down. The blues is boy, it’s tough, but I’m carrying on.

So when we have words like this, regardless of whether our media consciousness or the conventional wisdom, which is such a bedeviler today, is willing to accept them, some of us hold on to them, and we are enarmored by them, and they survive.

Those kids say, “Life every voice and sing,” and all of a sudden someone else remembers those lyrics, and it comes down. I turn around and one day as a single dad with two little girls, 12 and 8, now all grown up and making babies themselves, at Christmas said, “Daddy, I have a present for you.”

She stands up and she recites the Gettysburg Address for me. It’s the greatest gift I’ve ever received. It was nothing I unwrapped. I saw a little girl in a nightgown standing in that early morning light of Christmas, by the Christmas tree, all the material stuff that this great holiday has been distracted by.

And what is she doing? She’s giving something that she thinks is the best gift she can give to her daddy, who’s just made a film on the Civil War, and what is it? She recites the Gettysburg Address.

So it goes on. And she hands it in that really personal way; the school does it in a little bit bigger way, and that we hope by the challenge – now we’re saying if these kids can do it, you can do it.

We’ve challenged the whole country. We immediately reached out – every living president recited it for us. We have Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow. We have Nancy Pelosi and Marco Rubio, and Conan O’Brian, and we have Steven Spielberg and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Uma Thurman and Taylor Swift and Usher and Shane Victorino, a dyslexic infielder for the Boston Red Sox – I mean right-fielder for the Boston Red Sox.

They’re all in one mashup that we’ve done, and I’ve forgotten a couple of people – Robin Roberts, Mayor Dinkins. They’re all in this one mashup that we did, but they’ve all read it.

If you go to LearntheAddress.org, you’ll find there’s schools in Alabama and schools in Hawaii and schools in Utah, there’s a 100-year-old person doing it. Somebody’s singing it in the shower. Stephen Colbert hamming it up. Lots of people really taking it seriously.

Now that we’ve sort of charged the PBS system, the largest network in the country, they’re going down to their governors and their legislatures and their school systems and their churches and say, “What if we did this all together? Couldn’t we do this?”

In which it’s no longer red state, blue state, it’s not Black or white, it’s not gay or straight, it’s not young or old or rich or poor, but it’s us. We suffer today from too much pluribus, not enough unum? (Laughter) Well, this is unum. This is unum.

Tavis: His creative juices are flowing now as well as they ever have, and you’re what, 60 now?

Burns: I just turned 60, and I’m working on seven films, and bring them on, bring them on.

Tavis: I know. (Laughter)

Burns: It’s so exciting.

Tavis: How can you not love Ken Burns? I always enjoy talking to him, especially and particularly when he finds his way, on the rare occasion that he does, out of his editing room, out of his (unintelligible), to the West Coast.

So the project that you’ll want to see now, this Gettysburg piece with these young kids, is just, it’s amazing.

Burns: It’ll blow your mind, and then you realize there but for the grace of God go I. Then you watch them learn it, and then you go I wish I was them. The clarity, the dedication to purpose, the end result, the sense of accomplishment – it’s stuff we all crave.

Tavis: I’m sure I won’t be lucky enough to have him on the West Coast again when that Roosevelt project comes out, but I want to talk about that. Ooh.

Burns: We’ll be back in the summer if you’re around.

Tavis: I’ll be here.

Burns: We’ll come back.

Tavis: Unless PBS has something else in mind that I’m not aware of.

Burns: (Laughter) No, no, no. No, no, no. I have a feeling we’re lifers.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, I think we’re going to be here for a while. All right, and I’m happy to be anywhere Ken Burns is. Ken, good to see you, man.

Burns: Same here.

Tavis: Congratulations, my friend.

Burns: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

Burns: Tavis, my brother, you’re making history by getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Congratulations on this honor. I think you’re only the second person – well, the second PBS entity to do this.

The original one was Big Bird, which I think were pretty big feet to fill, but you do it, and you do it with grace and honor, and I can’t think of anyone who deserves this more than you. My love and blessings to you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor ad]

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 17, 2014 at 12:47 am