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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker

When: March 11, 2024

Ken Burns, 1967 and 1995
Ken Burns. Left, September 1967, photo by Eck Stanger, Ann Arbor News. Right, March 1995, photo by Doug Elliard.

In this episode, AADL Talks To Ken Burns. Ken is a documentary filmmaker known for his critically acclaimed films exploring all facets of American culture. Ken reflects on growing up and coming of age in Ann Arbor during the 1960s, and how this period of intense political and cultural activity mixed with family tragedy charted his journey. He takes us down the streets we remember -- past restaurants and theaters that have come and gone -- and through a back alleyway during the 1969 South University Street Riot. Along the way, he highlights the people, places, and vibrant musical and cinema culture that left its mark on his work.


  • [00:00:09] AMY CANTU: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:10] KATRINA ANBENDER: This is Katrina.
  • [00:00:11] AMY CANTU: In this episode, AADL talks to Ken Burns. Ken is an American filmmaker known for his popular and critically acclaimed documentary films, exploring American culture. Ken's family moved to Ann Arbor in 1963, and he attended Burns Park Elementary, Tappan Junior High, and Pioneer High School. Ken talks with us about the personal cultural and political experiences that shaped his life as he came of age in Ann Arbor, where he sees Ann Arbor in his work, and how he'd approach making a documentary about his hometown. Thank you so much, Ken for agreeing to talk about your time in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:00:49] KEN BURNS: I'm very happy to. My mother was sick when we were living in Delaware. We moved when I was just short of my 10th birthday and her doctor, who had recommended the move -- my father had a choice of jobs but chose Ann Arbor because there was a hospital connected with it -- and I remember the doctor said, "Ann Arbor, kiss each corner in my name." As a kid who didn't want to be, a nine-year-old almost 10, who didn't want to be taken to some other place in the Midwest from Delaware. It was at least, Well, maybe there's something good. And he was right. I now tell people kiss each corner in my name.
  • [00:01:30] AMY CANTU: That's great. We would like to start, if you don't mind with a photo of you. It's a photo of you taken in 1967 to accompany an article or an essay that you wrote for the Ann Arbor News on the establishment, and it was for the Youth Soapbox feature in the Ann Arbor News. We know that photography is central to your work, a way to connect with people, and as a gateway into another era. We're curious what you see in this photo and what the young Ken Burns is feeling in life right now. What's happening?
  • [00:02:06] KEN BURNS: It's a rough period, and I don't think the photograph really reveals it. I was always really small and in a while, beginning in elementary school, teased by that when we moved to Ann Arbor teased for that for a couple of years. I'm now in junior high school at Tappan and I've been asked to write an editorial for the Ann Arbor News, and this is the picture they got. When I look at it, it still seems like such a small kid for somebody in seventh or eighth grade, and I'm writing this gobbledy-gook about school spirit and my dad is feeding me a couple of lines of alliteration. I can still remember from the article, I had "an administrative apparatus little geared to the needs of our time." It's all in the lead. My mom died in 1965, just a little bit short of my 12th birthday. All of us, my father and my brother, and I -- all of us -- reacted in different ways to that loss. I think probably more than anybody else, I buried it and got on with business. I think the photograph reminds me of somebody putting up a good front. But photography has been the whole thing for me. My first memory is of my dad building a dark room. My second memory is of him holding me in his arms, developing stuff in that weird light and the smells and the magic of things coming up, and photographs are central now still at age 70 to everything I do.
  • [00:03:37] KATRINA ANBENDER: In this same period in those Soapbox Articles, you write about "The Establishment." In our recent interview, we did with Bill Ayers, he said that Ann Arbor around the same time period was the intellectual center of the New Left at this time. When and how did you become aware that Ann Arbor was a hot spot of student activism?
  • [00:03:57] KEN BURNS: Pretty early. Almost right away from moving there. Certainly by '65. Just before my mom died, in March of '65, is when Johnson committed ground troops. There had been advisors, and Eisenhower had given Kennedy 700, and Kennedy at his assassination had given Johnson 17,000. But all of a sudden, he was adding real ground troops once he had his electoral mandate, his landslide in '64. The first teach-in did not occur, as most people erroneously presume, in Berkeley. It happened in Ann Arbor. It was organized by the Anthropology Department, my father's department. I remember working on our Vietnam series and getting footage out of the Detroit stations and basically using a clip in the Vietnam film of my father's closest colleague. Our best family friends, Eric Wolf and his family live just through the backyards of our house in the Burns Park area. Total coincidence. They were on Forest and we were on Wellington Court, and there was just you just had to run between two houses to get to their house. There he is. You know, I hadn't seen him in 40 years. It was a hotbed and we were all imbued with the sense of how wrong Vietnam was, how important it was to advance the agenda of not just the Civil Rights movement -- hugely important, in some ways, more important than anything else -- but also nuclear nonproliferation. All of those things coalesced in Ann Arbor. You grew up real quick when you're hearing that at the dinner table. It was all counterculture and the establishment, and we were done with it and we were sick with it, and it had not answered our needs, and it was churning up young men needlessly in a war on the other side of the world that was not in any way in our interests to fight.
  • [00:05:53] AMY CANTU: Were kids your age in middle school... Were you the exception?
  • [00:05:58] KEN BURNS: I don't think so. But there were... Most kids were not as aware, I think, as I was. My mother's illness certainly took away a childhood, which made me an adult, which made me understand about news and films and art and politics and stuff like that a little bit early. But that was either seventh or eighth grade. By ninth grade, it was '68, we were having a mock Democratic convention. The principal or the counselor asked me to be McCarthy. Another friend of mine was Kennedy and somebody else was Humphrey. It went on for a while, and it was a big deal and we were going to take five days off and have a convention, and we did in the auditorium, and it was very dramatic because you saw the conservative elements in Ann Arbor suddenly woke up to what their kids were rabidly involved in. And I was cruising to victory, and they went, "Uh-uh." The conservative parents said, "Go with Humphrey" not because they were supporting Humphrey. They were really really far right-wing Republicans. And so it looked like Humphrey got enough on the first ballot to beat me a little bit. Kids were waking up to all of this stuff in early '68 -- this is just right around just after the assassination of Martin Luther King and right before the assassination of Bobby Kennedy -- which, like, I can remember everything about what was going on, as well as when I first moved there, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But what I did is I threw my support to Kennedy who won, who made me his Vice President. We felt like, you know, that was it, and then Kennedy was killed and the whole world went crazy.
  • [00:07:39] KATRINA ANBENDER: We actually we have articles that have you as the candidate in them that we just put online. So we'll definitely be linking to those.
  • [00:07:49] KEN BURNS: Here is a really funny thing, which is: Later on in life as a filmmaker and in public broadcasting, everything we do is grant-funded. We're not getting investors to do our films. And so I needed a corporate underwriter, in addition to foundations and government grants and things like that. And I got General Motors. I lived, in New Hampshire by then, but it was General Motors. We used to take their big full-page ads, which was just a G and an M and we'd cut them out and said, Mark of Excellence. Then we do Gene McCarthy, GM, Mark of Excellence. I don't think I've ever been until I was knocking on doors for Obama and Swing states. I don't think I was engaged granularly in politics, and boy was I supporting McCarthy that year.
  • [00:08:43] AMY CANTU: You also saw and experienced the South University Riot firsthand, isn't that correct? Can you talk a little bit about that?
  • [00:08:52] KEN BURNS: Yeah. It's seared in my memory. I worked at Discount Records, which was the second store from the corner and University Towers, and it was a mainstay. The original one was on the corner of State and Liberty. We were the satellite, but we were so proud that of all these college towns that had a Discount Records, only one had two, and that was Ann Arbor. I worked for years mostly after school, sometimes being paid in records, sometimes not. Then finally hired as a part-time job, and eventually, I quit high school early because I got into Hampshire College and needed to make money and had a lot of advanced placement courses and worked there full-time as a kind of assistant manager. But that was a really scary moment. I remember our door was broken. That was...the first casualty was the door at Discount Records was smashed. I remember going home and then coming back. There was a restaurant on Forest just south of South U, on the other side of the street, a little tiny hole-in-the-wall wall place that we used to go. I remember the cops who had a year or two before, been suppressing -- I think the Wayne County and McComb County sheriff's guys who were tough MFers looking to straighten us out. Not that Washtenaw County didn't have some pretty mean SOBs, too, as opposed to what was happening in Ann Arbor. I went into this place and they were all around and people were doing this and rocking cars. I remember I looked in and I ordered something and I turned around and it was completely white outside. Completely white. Tear gas. And the guy who ran the store said, "Come on, go out the back way." So I went out the wasn't really...sort of the side door into a little alley and there was a cop there just hitting everybody who came out. I got hit on the head. And I remember running back through houses somehow between Forest and Washtenaw on the way to Hill Street. Hill Street was really the dividing line. As soon as I got across Hill Street, you knew you were kind of in residential. They weren't going to go that way. A tear gas canister came and rolled in the middle of the street, and I picked it up and turned it and threw it back and just kneejerk surprised myself. Then I went back home and I told my dad what was going on. He said, "Let's get our football helmets." We got our football helmets, not that we used them that much, but we went back and it was really really serious stuff and it was of a different character than it had been before in which there had been protests. Now, it was about -- we had been turned into a "them", and "the other." So you had a many things did that year, later on there'd be Altamont...there was just a lot of bad stuff that had happened, that you really felt things were falling apart. In fact, the episode in our Vietnam series came from an article that Robert Kennedy wrote early in the year, from quoting William Butler Yates about, "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold." Entropy is leashed on the world, something like that. It's a really beautiful thing, and we used the phrase from that from the title, and you really felt that, that things were fundamentally changing. I was a huge baseball fan, but it didn't matter anymore. I lost two or three years of baseball and back to being it, but it took shaking off those years that were so tough, and we seemed to be right in the center of it.
  • [00:12:46] KATRINA ANBENDER: Is there a particular injustice that you remember witnessing in Ann Arbor that affected your desire to be a documentarian?
  • [00:12:56] KEN BURNS: Oh, everything I saw... Oh to be a documentary filmmaker?
  • [00:12:58] KATRINA ANBENDER: Yeah.
  • [00:12:58] KEN BURNS: No. It's interesting. I mean, the injustice that made me who I am, was the injustice that I saw in Selma with dogs and fire hoses and police clubs. It's a monk burning himself on the streets of Saigon. It's later in the Tet Offensive. It's the Viet Cong guerrilla being captured and assassinated on the streets. That animated a sense of justice. I wanted to become a filmmaker because my dad who had never cried when my mom was sick, hadn't cried when she died, hadn't cried at the very powerful funeral, um, I watched him cry. He let me stay up late at night on school nights watching old movies, and I watched him cry at an old movie by Sir Carol Reed, a really great filmmaker with James Mason called Odd Man Out about the Irish troubles in the 19 teens and early 20s. He cried, and I realized right away there was nothing in his life that had provided him an emotional safe haven except filmmaking. Right then and there and I wanted to be a filmmaker, which meant Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and it wasn't until I got to Hampshire College in September of '71, that all of my teachers were social documentary still photographers, reminding me that there is as much truth in what is and what was as anything of the human imagination. So by 18, I'm now documentary, and by 22, I have connected to something that was with me since I was a little boy, which was an interest in American history. It's really tied up in all of those things, in Vietnam, particularly for me in civil rights. Race is at the heart of nearly -- I can count on the fingers of one hand with still enough to snap my fingers leftover -- the films that don't deal with race in some major way because you can't. Scratch the surface of American history without touching it. Our Founder, the guy who wrote our catechism, said all men are created equal, and he owned hundreds of human beings. And we're born on that contradiction and that hypocrisy. It's what I am, and Ann Arbor made that in huge ways. But it wasn't sort of like a fuse was lit to go and be -- because I'm not an advocacy filmmaker like my fellow Michigan colleague, Michael Moore, who really has a point of view. It's really important. The thing I worry about is that... It's very important to preach to the converted. It's very important to preach to the choir and make sure they're with it. But I don't think they make converts. I think with good stories, you can if not change people fundamentally, you can change them at the edges. And so I try to make films that hide whatever overt politics are in order to tell a compelling story that would get people to the table that wouldn't necessarily get to the table if I was saying, This is the right way. And that's the great gift of story. The novelist Richard Powers said it much better than me. He said, "The best arguments in the world won't change a single person's point of view." And argue is all we do. The best arguments in the world won't change a single person's point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story.
  • [00:16:18] AMY CANTU: Well, speaking of good stories, Ann Arbor had so much cinema at the time. It was the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the 8-millimeter Film Festival, and the campus cinema groups. You talked about seeing the film with your father, but you must have seen a whole lot of other wonderful.
  • [00:16:38] KEN BURNS: You are looking at a person... I mean I now, as an old man, I sit in front of Turner classic movies and I go, God, I saw that with my dad, or my dad took me to see this or we went to do that. I guess I'll look at it again since I haven't seen it since 1965. I took him to see Doctor Zhivago and the reason why is I said, "Dad, you can't believe the music." I was a kid. I was like 11 or 12 and I was crying. And so he went and he then explained to me White Russians, Red Russians, Bolsheviks, all this sorta stuff, which went by besides the beauty of Julie Christie. Everything was a blur except the music. But he introduced me to stuff. I lived at the architecture school in the Cinema Guild and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. The Campus Theater, right across from Discount Records, was the first movie theater built after the Second World War, and it played a funky mixture of some first-run, but mostly New Wave French stuff, foreign stuff. You could see stuff. And then of course there's the Michigan and the State theaters and they did their stuff. And so you just felt, I mean we didn't even think about it. You were just in a cinema paradise. But I can only say that in retrospect. I was looking at George Manupelli films. I was seeing stuff that they would certainly not let me in if it was at a regular theater, but it was the Cinema Guild experimental stuff that just blew my mind. My friends and I, we'd all go. We'd buy a ticket, we'd look at 15 experimental short films in three hours and just be pigs in you-know-what. It was great.
  • [00:18:16] KATRINA ANBENDER: It sounds like a dream.
  • [00:18:18] KEN BURNS: It was a dream, and I can remember going to a James Bond movie with my brother, and all the way back, we're karate chopping each other and just living it. And there's a wonderful thing that everybody who's ever been to the theater knows, is you go in with one weather and you sometimes come out with another. So sometimes you can go in and it's light and sunny, and you come out and it's dark, or it may also be raining or snowing. There's a kind of magic because you've surrendered to something else. It's the greatest communion in the world between strangers and dark places that takes place with this universal language of cinema. All of my experiences, and later as an adult, are all tied in; and weather and embodying the films that we saw in a way. I can remember just at 18 or 19 years old seeing Last Tango in Paris and running down the middle of the street in Amherst, Massachusetts, out of the Amherst cinema and down the center of the street, and just kind of in glory. Now, you look at the film, and you go, Oh boy, that's dated.
  • [00:19:23] KATRINA ANBENDER: Can you tell us about your early filmmaking efforts in Ann Arbor?
  • [00:19:27] KEN BURNS: So my dad gave me a camera, 8 millimeter Super 8 camera. And I would do stuff, and we were really torn like -- I wish I could find this footage -- but we decided we are going to do some weird space-age thing with costumes. It was sort of like Dune, I guess. The closest thing I could describe is Dune although it wasn't, right? And we had the budget for a coke. That was it. The other stuff was sort of more like environmental. I remember photographing a factory smokestack. It was really just a place letting off steam. I could have gone down the road to River Rouge or even closer and do an assembly thing but it was like, this is what we had. Or the tailpipe from a car. And nothing ever got together and got made. But I had decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I arrived at Hampshire, that's what it was, and nothing dissuaded me other than the fact that I had my molecules completely rearranged. No longer feature Hollywood, now all documentary, now, not just documentary about now, but about history and storytelling, and not advocating overtly for a certain political point of view, but telling a complex story that would let as many people in. That's the success of the films. They have to do with telling stories that everybody -- the academy and prisoner to this particular fashion of historiography, Marxist, economic, determinist theory, semiotics, queer studies, Afrocentrism, Freudian, deconstruction, whatever the fashion might be -- they may not like it because it seems to suggest reliance on narrative, but that's how all of us talk to one another. We go "and then and then" and we tell stories and we edit human experience, and that's what a story is. I'm kind of unapologetic because you can actually get all of those different perspectives into a good narrative. It just can't be an old bankrupt narrative, which just thinks that American history is from the top down, that it's the story of great man, capital G, capital M. It's not. If you tell stories in a good way that is inclusive and diverse and interesting and complicated and sometimes contradictory, then it reminds people of what their own lives are like. Wynton Marsalis said something to me in Jazz he said, "Sometimes a thing and the opposite of a thing can be true at the same time." And if you can hold that as all human beings have to do because none of us are getting out of this alive, then you've got a little bit of a start.
  • [00:22:06] AMY CANTU: Well, that's a great transition to music. We know it's central to your work and life. Ann Arbor also had several unique musical events and venues from the Jazz and Blues Festivals to folk venues like The Ark, Canterbury House, and of course, rock concerts in the parks and music at the Art Fairs. Can you talk about the music you discovered in Ann Arbor and how?
  • [00:22:29] KEN BURNS: Well, it was everything. I mean the first record I ever bought was "I Want To Hold Your Hand." It just tells you who I am, right then and there. I'd heard some stuff beforehand. Chubby Checkers' The Twist. It was Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, the Battle of New Orleans, whatever. And then I move to Ann Arbor and then I'm there at Motown and R&B, and you begin to realize how much the Beatles owed to R&B and how much they openly acknowledged that debt to that. Working at Discount Records, I sold tickets to the Blues and Jazz Festival and went. My dad wouldn't let me go to Woodstock, which I think in retrospect, as a parent now, I'm kinda okay with but I was pissed at him for about 10 or 15 years because I was selling tickets to Woodstock. I remember the guy who came by with a first copy of Rolling Stone magazine. John Lennon. If I'd bought it and saved it, it was one of those great collector's items. But we sold that and Creem and other head magazines and comics, you know, Art Crumb and stuff like that at the record store, so we were steeped in it. But let me just say this. Also on Hill Street, not far from my house, with their bandoleros and their skinny speed freak bodies was the MC5. John Sinclair would come into the store, came in once with Huey Newton. It was a big deal, but let me just say a few words: Bob Sheff and his Really Great Band. For a while, it was Ann Arbor's greatest band. We listened to it. It was a mixture of R&B and that part of rock that had gravitated, the Joe Cockers, Delaney & Bonnie, all of this stuff. We went to the Eastland ballroom to in Detroit, we saw this. Tina Turner came to Hill Auditorium and I was in the second row looking up these long legs of Tina and Ikettes, and my life was forever changed. I consider myself so lucky to have lived in Ann Arbor because, as you can tell, it just opens up associations. It's like one of those nested Russian dolls. If you say music then, but it's also spoken word. I saw Dick Gregory. I got his autograph because I was, whatever. Then I interviewed him later on for Mark Twain, who's trying to tell me that Mark Twain made an African American -- a black man -- a real figure. It's just, everything. You know, Ann Arbor has its source in so much: obviously pain, my mother is buried there, my father's buried there. There's that. But it's a source of so much richness and so much that I count as a blessing in my life.
  • [00:25:15] KATRINA ANBENDER: You talked about, you worked at Discount Records. Were there other places that you would go to hang out after school or favorite places that you would visit?
  • [00:25:26] KEN BURNS: Yeah. So my biggest complaint about Ann Arbor is they let the Drake go. It's a Bruegger. I don't know if it is now, Bruegger's Bagel. The Drake was the greatest place ever. We went there as often as we can after school in high school. Particularly when I got a car and other people had a car too. You just spend all your time driving friends around and trying to score marijuana and spend half the evening trying to do that and you smoke it in five minutes and then you're just driving everybody back home again. But we'd go to the Drake and order cucumber sandwiches and cinnamon rolls and limeade, and you wrote your order out first, and they brought it in these green booths. The fact that I can't show my kids that, I'm so pissed off. We liked Nichols Arboretum. The Caravan is still there, the place with the double images of the skull and the woman at the vanity. This was you know huge. Part of where Bivouac -- I don't know if Bivouac is still there. There was a restaurant, a kind of two-story restaurant. We used to go there for a while and get roast beef sandwiches. We sorta stayed mostly on the southeast side of things with Middle Earth. There was, in the same building as Discount Records a couple of stores down, there was a pipe shop tobacconist. You never know what went on there. Who smoked a pipe? And then there was Miller's Farm, which had a dairy, and so there was really great ice cream. And then down the road, there was all the bookstores and the Brown Jug, which we went to a lot, particularly when I was working full time. I took my lunch break and went and sat in the Brown Jug and did stuff. And stuff changed. Before Dominos opened up towards Washtenaw on the south side of South U, there was a place called Dominick's which is a sub shop in the same place, which was really great. The Village Corner. Like I go there now and it's tough because a lot of stuff is unrecognizable, but if you turn a corner and you look up and there's the Michigan Theater, there's the State Theater, you just feel like these are your grounding points. And you still look wistfully at the corner where this other Discount Records was. The whole town was it. We thought nothing of walking and then bicycling and then driving -- whatever it took -- from friends who lived at Arborland or beyond to all the way over to the Jackson Road side and Weber's restaurant. You just didn't think about it. I just realized, I spent hours of my life driving my friends back home or picking them up to go out. Oh oh and Bob's, you know down on State and Hill, I still would go back there and Dominick's, I played for a little league team that was sponsored by Dominick's. Not Tappan, but whatever that is, Monroe or whatever. Anyway, I still go back there and whenever I go, I have to go eat at one or both of those places. You know the fancy restaurants and the other stuff, the Heidelberg. You know, I don't care about that, but I really cared about this stuff. And leaving in '71, I left just before there was a wave of new places to hear music and new places to eat and new places and new venues and stuff. My brother who stuck around for a few more years knew all of that stuff in a different way. We were really...those places and then the parks. Either out of town when we had a car or the Arboretum, where you could basically smoked dope without getting in trouble, and Burns Park Elementary School, where I went to fifth and sixth grade and then Tappan and then Pioneer.
  • [00:29:02] AMY CANTU: So with the Jazz and Blues Festival, do you have some specific memories of the Festival?
  • [00:29:09] KEN BURNS: Big Mama Thornton, Howlin' Wolf. Just people who just tore the hair off my head. You just didn't understand it. It was revelatory to me and being out there and hearing that and participating in it and seeing the people, the white musicians who looked up to those. Edgar Winter was there one year, maybe more. It was great. John Mayall, I think, was there. I kind of conflate what I'm listening in the record store and listening at home to what I saw all around.
  • [00:29:47] KATRINA ANBENDER: If you were to make a film about Ann Arbor, what do you think is the story you'd prefer to tell, and how would you go about that?
  • [00:29:56] KEN BURNS: I don't know. I think I'd first have to decide whether it would be personal, autobiographical. That would determine a lot because it was filled with illness and death and therefore, loss, and absence, and coping, and then all of those things happened. Or it could just be about all of those things. I went to a place that was a new experimental college. I couldn't afford it. It was the most expensive college on Earth, and there I was, I could walk into the University of Michigan. I wanted to do that because there was something about the way Hampshire was configured that reminded me of everything that we had done in high school. We'd broken every single rule in a good way. We had challenged everything in a good way. We had forced ourselves to grow up quickly either through personal circumstances or just through societal circumstances, and I think in a good way. And I'm in touch with many of my friends. My best friend from that period, Peter Miller, lives with his husband in San Francisco, and every time I'm there...I don't think I've been to San Francisco where I haven't seen him over the last 53 years since I graduated from high school. I don't know what the story would be, but I think it would be centered around the political dynamics. But also, it has to be around the cultural dynamics. We may have been faculty brats, some of us, I certainly was. But we were also Townies too, which meant the university, even on a trimester system, which they went to, we owned the town in the summer. The students didn't. We still went through the Diag every single day, and I can tell you every step of that Diag. There was a time when there was construction and they painted a big purple fence, and it had a quote from May West, "Beulah, peel me a grape," running for yards and yards and yards, obviously, the Big M. We went to the games, paid a buck 50 to sit in the end zone. I watched Roger Staubach get creamed by Michigan, who went on to be a Hall of Fame quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Everything comes together, and it's funny because I went to a tiny college that didn't have athletics, so I retained all of my allegiance to a university I never went to. And I still to this day, I live and breathe, particularly football, the Wolverines. I really have only one thing to say now, which is, Go Blue. I gave the winter commencement at the university the year we won the national championship. Don't talk to me about sharing it with Nebraska. When Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy, which happened the night of the dinner beforehand, and they burst into the Surrey house and said, "He won!" And there was no one in the room that needed to know what this person who burst in was telling us about. The story of it is all about that. Maybe the best thing is the "coming of age," and I can't imagine, despite all of the problems and the sadnesses and the loss, that I'd change anything. My mother's great gift -- I once admitted to a sociologist before breaking down in tears -- was dying. It taught me, not that I wanted her to die, but once she did, it gave me resources to confront a lot of things. I can't imagine an environment I want anybody to grow up in than the environment that was in Ann Arbor. It was a boiling, percolating stew of lots of stuff. As you've brought up, it's political, it's social, it's sexual, it's drug, it's politics, it's rebellion. It is everything under the sun, and yet it had, from most of us, a sense of real earnest participation in it. It wasn't the kind of fraudulence that you feel right now in social media and influencers, all of this sort of stuff. It had a kind of legitimacy to it because people were really struggling to figure it out. It's a priceless gift to me. I am very much a product of that beautiful town whose corners I guess.
  • [00:34:23] AMY CANTU: So a lot of people look back on that period of time with nostalgia. They say Ann Arbor's not what it used to be. I'm curious what your thoughts are about wrestling with nostalgia when it comes to creating a film.
  • [00:34:37] KEN BURNS: Nostalgia and sentimentality are the enemies of good anything. I'll tell you this. I'm an emotional archaeologist. That is to say, I'm not interested in the dry dates and facts and events of the past, if only they come together through a higher emotional thing. But that's not nostalgia or sentimentality. You have to be very careful. I really have nothing to be nostalgic particularly or sentimental because it was a tough time, but I love that place. It provokes unbelievable memories, some of danger, some of stuff with drugs where you're going right up to the edge as a 16 or 17-year-old, and we got one more veil to go and there's stuff like that. It's a very very complex thing. The emotions are higher, and they're therefore much more durable and serviceable, and in my own work, it translates into that. I'm not interested in pushing a nostalgic button, but finding that hidden emotional reservoir. We always say that we want the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts, for one and one not to equal two, but three. I just ask, What's the difference between the sum of the parts and the whole? That's what we're interested in. What makes a thing and another thing three instead of just two? This is what that town, our town, sort of prepared me for: A very complex and nuanced life. You know, I've now lived, I lived in Ann Arbor for eight years. I've lived 45 years in the house I'm living in now in a tiny little village in New Hampshire. And those eight years are as big as those 45. I love where I am. I think it's perfect. It's in nature. It's got a lot of stuff. But as you get older, things happen pretty quickly, but those eight years are as seminal as any in my life and for so many reasons, good, bad, and otherwise. But the fact that it happened to be Ann Arbor, Michigan, A squared. I've been trying to tell people, my kids, about A squared. You could just write A squared and the letter gets delivered. They went, what? How's that impossible?
  • [00:37:02] KATRINA ANBENDER: You talked about your education at Hampshire and how you felt similar to Ann Arbor in some ways. Can you talk about being a student at Pioneer and were there any classes or teachers that stood out in your memory?
  • [00:37:16] KEN BURNS: You don't have time to hear all this. And at Burns Park and at Tappan too. But let's just go to Pioneer. First of all, there were 3,200 students. It was considered one of the five best high schools in the country, and it was. It had a planetarium. It has a planetarium. It had a mammoth library, unbelievable sports, two auditoriums, bigger thing that could hold most of the students in a little theater where I spent a lot of time doing theater stuff. But I took a course from a history professor named Randy Peacock, and it was about Russian history. Not American history, Russian history. In fact, I continued that into college, I only took one history course at Hampshire, and that was Russian history. Because of Randy Peacock. He walked in the first day of class, and he had a Trotskyite beard. He said he was a Trotskyite, I think just to scare the students who would go home and tell their parents back in the day when people would go, "So?" Now they get fired or hung or whatever it is. But anyway, Mr. Peacock was unbelievable. He said, "Now, this class is going to go from 1861 when the Tsar freed the serfs to 1917 and the beginning of the Russian Revolution. But I want to tell you how Rasputin died." Then for the next 40 minutes, like the girls in the back who spent every class of every day drawing pictures of horses heads stopped, and looked up. The horses could wait. I want to hear how this man who got poisoned, shot, stabbed, and still was trying to do it... And he had us. I credit a lot of my own reading as a kid, and love of my country -- complicated love of my country. But Randy sort of, you know, like a good Russian anarchist, he lit the fuse. And his widow wrote me. I talk about him all the time. But when he passed away his widow, and he didn't pass away that long ago, she wrote me and told me how much he enjoyed hearing that he'd made a difference, and he did. Lots of people made a difference in that school, and they were all offering a kind of radical and different view of how to teach things. Even when they were teaching. There was a guy at Tappan in eighth grade, who came in on the first day of school and gave you a grammar test, and he rated you based on your grade. Some people would have to look at a test that said 4.7. That meant your fourth grade and seventh month. Mine was exactly right. It was 8.0. Then, six months later when we'd gone through his own self-published grammar book, he tested us again, different test. I was now 13.0, meaning I was in college when I was 8.4. Mr. Bissell was his name. I've got a copy of his paperback workbook, and I still remember rules of grammar that he told me. Don't get me started.
  • [00:40:21] AMY CANTU: No. That's great.
  • [00:40:22] KEN BURNS: My next-door neighbor on Wellington Court across the street was a guy named George Coash who taught Civics. The day that Robert Kennedy was shot, he got me in the car, and he said, we're going to school, and about halfway through the day, they announced that he had died and that we were going to go home. And so everybody went home. You remember Civics with Mr. Coash for that and other reasons. It was great.
  • [00:40:50] AMY CANTU: It makes sense that you would see Ann Arbor in a lot of your work. You've already mentioned a couple of cases. Obviously, the Vietnam War with the Vietnam War protests. I see that you're working on LBJ and the Great Society. He gave the speech there.
  • [00:41:04] KEN BURNS: I was there in Michigan Stadium. We all got the day off from school, elementary school, fifth or sixth grade. I remember that, and then we were there, like "Oh, the president's here!" It was really great. Of course, his failures, as well as his predecessors' and his successors' failures are the great tragedy of the Vietnam War series that we did, which may be the best. I'm not the judge, but it may be the best thing we've ever done.
  • [00:41:33] AMY CANTU: Where else do you see glimpses of Ann Arbor in your work? That stand right out to you?
  • [00:41:40] KEN BURNS: I see it in my musical tastes. From jazz and blues, even country. We still listen to country music, Johnny Cash, for sure, but when Merle Haggard came out with Okie from Muskogee, we got it. It was only interviewing Merle later on that we discovered that it was a joke for him too, and it got co-opted by the counter-counter culture. They were smoking marijuana and passing Muskogee, Oklahoma, where his parents had been from. He'd grown up. He was born in the central valley of California where a lot of the Okies went to pick and be mistreated. Yeah, I mean, I don't know how you separate... There's a great phrase in country music, which is the title of our last eighth episode called, "Don't get above your raisin." Which is a more Southern admonishment, like don't get too big for your breaches, just know where you came from. I know where I came from. I know the extent to which things that I learned and relationships to how I learned were formed there and created who I am, good, bad, and otherwise. The words itself, I do crossword puzzles. I'm a religious fanatic with the New York Times crossword puzzle, which I do in ink every day until COVID, and now I go online and save trees, I guess. But every time there's an Ann Arbor clue, it's there, it's in my DNA. I remember I went to my 20th high school reunion, I never graduated. I didn't know whether I have a diploma, because I graduated early, and my counselor was saying, you're going to ruin your life. I said, "Look, you put me in accelerated courses, they gave me 32.5 or whatever it was. The state of Michigan says I need 32. I've now got 32.5. I'm not going back. I've got to raise money for college. I'm going to work full-time at Discount Records." Big mistake. I never went to graduation, but I came back for the reunion and somebody who was just the year after the Civil War series came out in 1990, and somebody said, "Little Ken Burns, who would have thought it?" I'm going, "Hello, I'm here. I'm in the audience! No more with the 'little.'" But I never got above my raisin. In my little town right here, oh my God, if you had any success plus $0.50 gets you a cup of coffee here.
  • [00:44:10] AMY CANTU: Ken, we know that you're great at coming up with questions that really get to the heart of a person and a place and a time. Is there anything that we did not ask that you would like to talk about?
  • [00:44:24] KEN BURNS: I do a lot of interviews, and I also get interviewed a lot. The worst question is, what else? What isn't there else? If you've got an area, you want me to go down a certain street, you know? Do you want me to go down Williams Street and the parking structures? Do you want me to go down Liberty, past the Liberty Music and the Herb's Guitar? Do you want me to go all the way to Main Street and go left or right? Do you want me to go into the West side? Do you want me to go north? I've got a kind of GPS of Ann Arbor in my heart. It's just there. I've seen the changes on the edges, and Briarwood, which all my friends called Briar Death as it was being built. It started after I left. And so I came back on vacations and saw that they had begun to take in all this stuff that was really different. Places that weren't through streets were now through streets and places that were limited in how much had been developed. Like there was space between Tappan and Arborland, like wooded space. There wasn't always just chock-a-block stuff. There was stuff, but it wasn't as much. There wasn't the connection over to Geddes with the continuation of that road that connects to Huron River Drive, and there's lots of changes that I keep absorbing each time I go. But what's so heartening to me is that the essential -- my neighborhood, Burns Park, hasn't changed that much -- that though stores are different and things are reconfigured, and the Campus Theater is gone, and the Esso station at the corner of Forest and South University where I filled up my first car paying $0.27 a gallon is long gone, because the real estate was too valuable. But there are enough little signposts and talismans, Ulrichs and things like that, Ann Arbor Savings Bank, whatever it might be, that you can do that and then you learn new things about the place that I add on. And the friends that are still there and people that I see, and I come, and I'm asked to speak there, sometimes at Lydia Mendelssohn, sometimes at the Michigan Theater, and so sometimes the commencement and the Crisler Arena. You go back to your place. Thomas Wolf is supposed to said, "You can't go home again." Of course, you can. This is my home in New Hampshire right now, four daughters and two were born in my bed. This is home, and it's where I do all my work and make my films, but Ann Arbor is my home home.
  • [00:47:19] AMY CANTU: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. We really appreciate it.
  • [00:47:25] KEN BURNS: I hope it was helpful.
  • [00:47:26] KATRINA ANBENDER: Absolutely. I loved hearing all of your memories, and obviously, Ann Arbor is very special to us, and we believe in it as a place that's special, so it's wonderful to hear that you believe that, too.
  • [00:47:39] KEN BURNS: For a while, I could tell you all the iterations on the corner of next to Discount Records, like Orange Julius, and then it was this and this, and we've all gotten out of the way. But it's so funny. I live in a tiny town. It's got 3,000 people, but I'm about a mile and a half out of the village. There can't be more than 500 people in the village itself. Then most people live on radiating stuff. I don't know half the names of the roads, but I can remember everything in Ann Arbor. Like I know. People would say, how do I get here? Well, you just go up Forest, take a left South U, and do this.
  • [00:48:13] AMY CANTU: Thank you so much for taking the time.
  • [00:48:15] KEN BURNS: My pleasure. Happy to. Hope your project goes really well.
  • [00:48:19] KATRINA ANBENDER: Thank you.
  • [00:48:20] AMY CANTU: Thank you.
  • [00:48:20] KATRINA ANBENDER: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.