Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ken Burns

In September 1990, I was in graduate school. My classes met at night, and I was taking two classes that semester so I was away from home a lot during the week.

But for five consecutive nights — from Sunday, Sept. 23 to Thursday, Sept. 27 — I tried to be home as much as possible to see Ken Burns' documentary, "The Civil War," on PBS.

Burns, who is 56 today, caused quite a sensation in 1990 with his documentary. It was really a national obsession. The series drew 40 million nightly viewers that week, making it PBS' most–watched program ever. It is regarded by many as Burns' magnum opus, even though he has done similar documentaries on jazz, baseball and World War II since then.

"The Civil War" used photographs, paintings and newspaper graphics from the time, combining them with actors reading actual quotes from letters and speeches. Historian David McCullough was the narrator and many other famous people — among them Sam Waterston, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, Morgan Freeman, Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut, Hoyt Axton, Colleen Dewhurst and Garrison Keillor — read the quotes.

The documentary also made something of a celebrity of an historian named Shelby Foote. A native of Greenville, Miss., Foote wrote a three–volume history of the war, but he was largely unknown until the documentary aired with Foote providing extensive commentary. His soothing Mississippi accent attracted quite a public following.

The documentary also featured renditions of a number of songs that were from the Civil War period. The only piece that was not from that period, the theme song, was written especially for the documentary — but many people believed then and continue to believe that it was a Civil War era composition.

The 11–hour documentary is well worth seeing, and it has been available for several years in a five–DVD set. So, if you didn't see it 19 years ago, you can rent it or buy it. If you do, you may understand its enormous appeal.

Thanks for sharing that with us, Ken. And happy birthday.