The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Ken Burns — A Master Filmmaker on Creative Process, the Long Game, and the Noumenal (#386)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (@KenBurns).

Since his Academy Award-nominated film Brooklyn Bridge from 1981, Ken has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The Statue of Liberty; Huey Long; Lewis & Clark; Frank Lloyd Wright; Mark Twain; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts; Jackie Robinson; Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War; The Vietnam War; and The Mayo Clinic: Faith — Hope — Science.

Ken’s films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including sixteen Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Oscar nominations; and in September of 2008, at the News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Ken was honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

His newest work is Country Music, which explores the history of that uniquely American art form and features never-before-seen footage and photographs, plus interviews with more than 80 country music artists. It debuts on PBS on Sunday, September 15th, 2019, at 8 EST/7 CST.

Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#386: Ken Burns — A Master Filmmaker on Creative Process, the Long Game, and the Noumenal


Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.


You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.


No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.

Tim: Ken, welcome to the show.

Ken Burns: Thanks for having me.

Tim: I am thrilled to be having this conversation. I’ve been a fan of yours for effectively as long as I’ve been consciously aware of what I’m watching in front of me, so I can’t say the first few years, but shortly thereafter.

Ken Burns: Thank you.

Tim: And I thought we might bounce around quite a bit in this conversation and begin with something that came up in the research I did for this podcast episode, and it relates to mementos in your pocket. Do you still carry mementos in your pocket? And whether it’s past tense or present tense, can you describe what those are and why you carry them?

Ken Burns: Sure. I’ve just dug into my pocket and amidst some change I have four items, which I’ve had for many, many years now. No one’s been retired. One of them is a coin palmed to me by an ex-Marine who was the headmaster at The Greenwood School in tiny Putney, Vermont. The Greenwood School is equally tiny and is a school for boys with learning differences, meaning they suffer from dyslexia or ADHD or executive function, a host of things. The school addresses this problem head on. It’s been around for about 40 years. And after Thanksgiving when the boys come back, ages 10, 11, to 17, when they come back from Thanksgiving vacation, they are all asked to memorize the 10 complicated sentences of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and then publicly recite them. A difficult task for any one of us, but if you have these learning differences, it can be a nightmare. And when the boys successfully complete that, they are given a coin by the headmaster in typical military fashion, even though it’s not a military school and he’s anything but militaristic.

But I was asked once many, many years ago to be a judge. I found myself in tears at the effort of these boys to do it and said, “Somebody’s got to make a film about it.” It obviously would be a cinema verite film, which is not my style. But as the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address came up in 2013, I thought, “You know what? I got to dive in and do it.” So we embedded in the school with a soundman, and a cameraman, and an assistant and recorded 300 and some hours. And when the whole thing was over, and we made the film, then realize that the kids had never in the then 35 years history of the school been to Gettysburg, I rented two buses and took the whole school there and put them up for a night and gave them a tour of the battlefield, as the kind of coda to this film. When it was over, he palmed a medal in my pocket, so I have that Greenwood School thing.

The oldest thing I have is what’s called a feeling heart. It’s a stainless steel shape of a heart with a little indentation in it so you can hold it and palm it. It’s not like a coin; it has a little bit more dimension to that, and it’s maybe bigger than the silver dollar. It was sent to me by a woman in upstate New York, an artist who had fashioned this. And she had written after the Civil War series was broadcast in September of 1990, and sometime in the first few weeks after that she had sent me a heart. I then got another two hearts for my two oldest daughters. And recently got two more hearts to give to my two young daughters who are 14 and eight. And so it just is always there. I can feel it, and sometimes I find myself just holding it in my hand, I’m sure doing exactly what she had intended the heart to do.

Another object I have was given to me by a friend, and it’s a Minié ball now polished and free of all the calcification that attends to it. The Minié ball is a bullet that would have been used during the Civil War, and it was found on Gettysburg as well. And so I carry around a reminder of the time when we came closest to our near national suicide. When now it turns out, through the work of Drew Gilpin Faust, the former president of Harvard’s extraordinary scholarship, that instead of the 600,000 or 620,000 that was generally accepted as the death toll in the Civil War, it looks like it’s more like 750,000, three quarters of a million. Well more than two percent of the population, an extraordinary death toll in, as the poem Casey at the Bat says, “in this favored land.”

And then the fourth and final object that I’ve carried around for years and years, is a button off a jacket of a friend of mine’s father, his son gave it to me. So a friend of mine’s grandfather as well wore on an army uniform and he had landed at D-Day at Normandy. And so I’ve kept these reminders in my pocket and they’re comforting.

I do have one object that I can’t fit in my pocket, but I have next to me at my desk at home in New Hampshire, and it’s leg irons that I purchased at auction. Heavy, weighty, horrible things. They are a human invention whose only purpose is to keep other human beings in bondage, which is a legacy of a very difficult part of our history, and a reckoning we still not have fully completed. And it turns out that, though I don’t necessarily go looking for it in my projects, that question is always lingering in our American story. And whether it’s country music, it’s there, whether it’s in the national parks, it’s there, in unlikely places, it’s there in likely places like a biography of Jackie Robinson or Jack Johnson or jazz.

But it seems too this question of the fact that we know we were born under the sign that “All men are created equal,” But the guy who wrote that second sentence of the Declaration, our creed, owned more than 200 human beings when he wrote it, and didn’t see the contradiction, or the hypocrisy, and more important didn’t see fit in this lifetime to free any one of those human beings, who had inalienable rights.

And so if you’re going to do a deeper dive than just mere regurgitation of conventional wisdom, then you have to deal with this ever-present subject of race and so I wish I could tell you that I could carry around those leg irons, but they don’t fit in the pocket. And they have a weight, and a disturbing heaviness to them, that is nevertheless very close to me when I’m at home.

Tim: Ken, you have a remarkable memory, and you also must receive, be offered, be exposed to, thousands of different objects that you could keep. What, you said as reminders earlier, are there particular reasons why you chose, of all the other options, let’s start with the objects in your pocket. What purpose do those serve for you?

Ken Burns: Well, you’re asking a question which requires an answer from the head, and I’m not sure the head made the decision to keep them. I think the heart did, and the heart doesn’t necessarily have a rational or easily articulated response to the question, which is a good one and an obvious one. And I wish I could be truthful and honest. I do get lots of stuff, objects, and mainly these are things that are close to me. I mean, I never thought when I received this feeling heart that I would put it in my pocket, but I did instinctively. And it’s never left. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve emptied it to go through TSA screenings. It’s really there, and there’s a kind of commitment and loyalty to it that I can’t explain.

And the bullet was given to me by a friend, and I adore him. He’s one of my closest friends. And he’s a big bear of a loving man. And I just sort of felt there’s something so contradictory about a bullet being anything but a bad thing, and yet it represents all of the totality of the Civil War. The woman who had sent this feeling heart wrote in her letter that she saw the series that we made on the Civil War as an American Bhagavad Gita.

Tim: Wow.

Ken Burns: And you just kind of went, “Whoa.” And I don’t think it was the flattery of that that stuck it in my pocket, it was the something of it. And it may have been the struggle that it took me to go through, the growth that I’d undergone. Obviously these kids at The Greenwood school had moved me to my core, and I just presumed that some other filmmaker better equipped to do with cinema verite film a would do it, but found myself having to do it, and found myself with a crew that was really excited and was able to get a lot of fly on the wall stuff. And it meant a lot to me.

And the button is the button is the button. The greatest invasion in human history took place on June 6th, 1944 on the Northwest coast of France. That began to end in 12 years what Adolf Hitler had intended to be a thousand-year Reich.

Tim: Well, I would like to talk about the heart, and maybe that’s almost a contradiction in terms. But I have been very hyper analytical my whole life, and I think I’ve neglected to pay attention to signals from the body, and I’ve been trying to cultivate this over the last few years in particular. And a woman named Diana Chapman, and Jim Dethmer introduced me to this concept of the whole-body, or the full-body “yes.” And I’ve read that, at least in response to questions like, “When you start one of these big movies, what’s the first step?” that you talk about looking for the big, wholehearted “yes” that isn’t coming from your head, but your heart, like falling in love.

Ken Burns: Right.

Tim: So what I’ve been trying to do is pay attention to the sensations, whether it’s heart-centered or gut-centered, to assess whether something is a full “yes” for me. What does a full, wholehearted “yes” feel like to you? And could you give us an example of a project where that was a clear signal?

Ken Burns: Sure. I think the best example is the one right in front of us, which is country music. I had had country music as an intellectual, didactic expository idea on a list that I have recently found from the 1990s, and from another list from the aughts, meaning that I was thinking about it, right? And there might be 50 different things, you know the lottery where they’ve got all these ping pong balls bounce around and one drops down?

Tim: Yes.

Ken Burns: Imagine these are all just completely arbitrary head things. “I’ve this idea.” “Oh, we should do this.” “We should think about that.” “What about this?” And so you just want to write them down so you don’t forget them, and whatever, but nothing happens. And nothing did happen. And I had forgotten that they were even there. But I remember visiting a friend of mine in Dallas, Texas who had been raising money for us, wonderful dear friend. And I came down for breakfast one day, we’d done an event, I was staying at this house, and I guess we were the first people up and he said, “You ever thought about country music?” And when he said it, it was like this huge, whole-body explosion. And I looked at him and I could feel it in my chest, and I could feel it in my gut.

I started to answer “Yes,” and then I realized that that “yes” was so feeble, and so partial, because it had to do with trying to be, “Oh yeah, well it’s on a list.” You know, like that. That I realized that my physical, and more importantly my emotional reaction to that had completely obliterated what little blip it was as a mental construct that had worked its way in the ‘90s and later the aughts onto a sheet of paper with 10, 20, 30 other subjects. Some of which I’ve done, some of which I haven’t done, some of which I’ll get to, some of which I will never get to. And so this was something else. I felt like I got down on one knee, I didn’t physically, and proposed to country music, that it was a big “Yes.”

Now the biggest thing I knew is that this project would have to go through one of my partners, who I knew knew more about country music, and more importantly, he and I had been thinking about another big project, and we’re just throwing around some ideas and doing a little research. “Could we possibly pull this off?” And we were not in quicksand, but our back rear right tire was stuck. And I went back to New Hampshire and I went to him and I said, “Look, we don’t need to abandon this other thing, but what about country music?” And he looked at me like, “Yes.” And the two of us, from that moment — I mean, I do remember what the other project was, but we hadn’t shot anything, we hadn’t written anything, there had been no budget raised for it, it was just early conceptual stuff. It was dropped in favor of the next eight and a half years of work. And it was, you say total, this is wholeheartedness. That’s what it is.

It has to be the integration so that you physically commit to it, you mentally commit to it, but you emotionally commit to it. And that, “yes” is very similar to the chemistry we feel with others when we fall in love, either romantically or as friends, and as all the films have been, it’s just been a wholehearted “yes” because you realize that the stories are firing on all cylinders. That they’re complex, they represent challenge, and opportunity, and difficulty.

I once was with a group of students recently and I told them that every film that I’d done was at least a million problems. But I didn’t think that the word problem was necessarily pejorative, that it represented friction that needed to be overcome. It was the necessary friction of the creative process, of the making progress. That wall won’t hold itself up, so builder, you need to have scaffolding and falsework, that once you’ve reached a certain stage can be disassembled.

This is what we had to do. You’re not going to be the encyclopedia, you’re not going to be the reading of the telephone book, how do you take something as monstrously big as the Civil War, baseball, or jazz, or the national parks or World War II, or the Roosevelts, or Vietnam, or now country music, and say, “What do we tell? Where do we start? How do we go back and pick up its ancestors? Where do we end? How do we tell this story?” Just really practical things that have to do with the craft and the art of filmmaking, and larger, big question things. And all of that represents, in the case of the series, maybe millions of individual problems in quotes, but if you look at them as just whatever a runner takes to overcome that brain that’s screaming “Stop” as you’re running a marathon, then you understand what we’re engaged in. Because people always come up and say, “Wow, you just spent 10 and a half years on Vietnam? Eight and a half years in country music? How do you do that?” I said, “I’m sad, I don’t want to leave it.” It’s tough.

The fact that I’m talking to you is one of the palliative aspects of this, the promotional —

Tim: It’s the hospice care of the creative process.

Ken Burns: It’s the hospice care that permits you to leave the projects, because all of a sudden you’ve been attending to the stories, you lift up and begin to share it with other people, and they begin to synthesize some ideas and they’re saying, “Oh you intended this.” And no say, “No we didn’t, we just wanted to tell the story. But now that you’re saying this, we realize the way in which this historical moment, say, resonates in the present.”

Harry Truman once said, “The only thing that’s really new is the history you don’t know.” People are so fond of saying history repeats itself. It does not. Mark Twain is supposed to have said that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” And if he did say that, he’s so on the mark, because I believe that human nature doesn’t change. Ecclesiastes put it this way: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” That’s the Old Testament, and that may be the best. “What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun.” And so I think that that suggests that human nature doesn’t change, and that it superimposes itself over the seemingly random chaos of events, and we begin to perceive patterns and echoes and themes, “rhymes,” Twain would say. And I love that.

We attend to the storytelling part of it. I happen to work in American history the way some painter works in oil as opposed to watercolor. And fortunately the word history is mostly made up with the word “story” plus “hi.” You don’t have to get into the binary, his story or her story, it’s just “story” plus “hi,” which is a wonderful greeting. And we finish it, and then we look up and go, “My God, it is resonating with the present.” And every single film I’ve done, like you will look at Country Music and you cannot believe that we were editorially complete before the #MeToo movement started. You will go, “Oh no, oh no. They were aware of the #MeToo movement and they just worked it in.”

Or I used to target my stump speech for the Vietnam War series that came out in 2017, so imagine where we’d been for the first nine months of 2017, and for the proceeding election year. And I said, “What if I told you that I had been working for 10 and a half years about mass demonstrations taking place all across the country against the current administration? About a White House in disarray, obsessed with leaks? About a president certain the press was making up stories about him, lying? About asymmetrical warfare that confounded the mighty mite of the US military? About huge, big document drops of stolen classified material into the public sphere that destabilized the political equation? And accusations that a political party reached out to a foreign power during the time of a national election to influence that election? You would say I had been working on the last year and a half.” But all of these things were true of the Vietnam War when I started in December of 2006. And were also true when we finished, locked the picture, no more work on it, in December of 2015, a month before the Iowa caucuses, out of which Donald Trump was not supposed to emerge as a candidate.

Tim: That’s —

Ken Burns: I could take any film, any film and do that, that I’ve worked on, and it’s nothing that we’re prepared for. It’s only after the fact collection of accounting, that bittersweet period when you get a chance to finish the film, you don’t want to leave it, and so you’re obligated because of the shoe leather necessary to promote Public Broadcasting films, you do in 40 cities, and you begin to construct something that talks about how you related to it. But it’s true of every film, every film, including The Civil War. Every film I’ve made, it just resonates in the present, and suggests that Twain is absolutely correct.

Tim: Yeah, that’s one hell of a rhyme.

And I have a question about motivation. You mentioned eight and a half years, 10 plus years. Some people have signs in their office, these motivational quotes of various types, effectively some version of, “Go get ‘em tiger, you can do it.” Et cetera. I have read that you have a neon sign in your editing room.

Ken Burns: Yes.

Tim: What does it read? And how did you choose this particular sign?

Ken Burns: Okay, well you know filmmakers are notorious for once something works, you don’t touch it, right? You say, “Leave that alone, it’s working.” And that may be great in Hollywood, but if you find out new and contradictory facts, you’re obligated to do it. And we never have a set research period, followed by a set writing period, followed by a script that’s now etched in stone that informs the shooting and the editing. We never stop researching. So we’re always finding out stuff, and we never stop writing. So we’re always corrigible and willing to be flexible in what we do. We’re often filming, interviewing before we’ve even written a word of a script, so that every time you see a talking head in our film, it’s a happy accident. It’s not that I’ve gone to you and said, “Hey, Mr. Hersh, could you please get me from paragraph two to paragraph three in episode four? Thank you. Thank you.” You know, “Could you say that again, but do it with a little bit more economy?” “Yeah, that was it.” “But now could you end the way you did the first?”

We’ve never done that. We just go and have an interview, and if it doesn’t work, it’s our fault. If it works, it’s their greatness. We have this complex process that I think serves us very well in the pursuit of a complicated story. So what’s the neon sign? It says, “It’s complicated.” And it’s the license to say, “Even if it’s perfect, even if it’s working, let’s open it up and add in that complicated, conflicting, contradictory fact. And sure, it might destabilize it, but let’s do it anyway.” And so it just says in cursive lowercase, “It’s complicated” on a neon sign.

And it’s something we’ve said to each other for a long time. It’s sometimes like a scarf or a muffler, warm gloves on a cold day. It just arms you against the scariness of going out into that unknown region. At other times it’s just like, “Yeah, this is what we do.” And I finally immortalized it by putting it in neon so that we could all remember that this is what we celebrate.

I remember I was making a film years ago on the Statue of Liberty. I interviewed the now passed statesman, Sol Linowitz, wonderful interview, and he was quoting Judge Learned Hand. Could there ever be a better name for a jurist than Learned Hand? And apparently Learned Hand said, “Liberty is never being too sure you’re right.” And I’m sure he meant it in a rather narrow political, perhaps jurisprudence sense, but I took it in a broad spiritual sense. That the opposite of faith is not heresy. It’s not doubt. It’s just conviction, right? So faith requires doubt. It doesn’t require certainty.

And what we’ve tried to do is instill in ourselves, which is the hardest thing to do, it’s much easier to try to instill it in others, this idea that we’re not done. We’ve got to open this up again. We’ve learned contradictory stuff and for a while, our Vietnam script, its footnotes were longer than the script itself. We would say “Four regiments of Viet Cong, four regiments of NVA, went down the Ho Chi Minh Trail that month.” And we’d have an asterisk or a footnote 117, and footnote 117 would say, “This scholar says this, this scholar says that, this scholar says that, because it’s in these two places, we’re going with four.” But later on we found out after we locked the film that yet another scholar had said three and we were beginning to feel a little bit more comfortable with that and would rather err on the conservative side and so we changed. We found where the narrator had said the word three and we cannibalized it and moved it over. Sometimes we call it a Frankenbite. And we put the three in instead of the four so that we could just exhale a little bit. No one would ever, in a million years, not even a scholar, take us to task for it, but that was not acceptable for us. If we hadn’t been able to find that three, we would have asked the narrator back in, Peter Coyote back, in and record it.

Tim: I’d like to talk about The Civil War and maybe we could start with a question about The Civil War. Do you have any idea how many people have watched The Civil War? Do you have any estimates?

Ken Burns: No idea. I know we reached about 40 million people who watched some or all of it. The first time is broadcast about this time 29 years ago in September of 1990, and I know that in subsequent broadcast it’s done very well. It’s worked itself into schools. Many, many other people look at it regularly. I assume it might be a couple multiples of that original 40 million as it’s gone out.

Tim: Those are astronomical numbers. They’re huge, huge numbers. Yet 20 plus years ago, television critics, at least some, thought nobody would watch The Civil War for many reasons, including that this new musical Cop Rock was going to blow you out of the water. That didn’t end up being the case.

What I wonder, especially given that we were just talking about faith, conviction, and so on, have you, as someone who comes across, say in an interview like this as completely confident and clear in focus, have you ever felt lost or had self doubt? Are there any stories that you can paint just to provide maybe a fleshed out human picture of you? Could you talk about a difficult time or any difficult time that you’ve gone through?

Ken Burns: Well, I am a very, very anxious person and I now don’t have too much time for anxiety because people that I love are anxious now too, and I’ve got to give my attention to them. The early days, the first films on The Brooklyn Bridge through The Civil War were agonizing every morning up at 4:00 a.m. I remember I asked Shelby Foote about Grant and he said, “Grant (meaning U.S. Grant) had what they call 4:00 in the morning courage. That meant that you could wake him up at 4:00 in the morning and tell him the enemy had turned his left flank and he’d be as cool as a cucumber.” I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I wish I had 4:00 in the morning courage.” I think I’ve developed it now and I’ve learned how to harness it and turn it around, but it was debilitating, crushing anxiety about whether this would work.

I was told while I was making The Civil War that “Yeah, sure, these first six films on The Brooklyn Bridge, and The Shakers, and Huey Long, and The Statue of Liberty, and Congress, and Thomas Hart Benton, an hour and a half, an hour in length. People will watch still photographs for that long, but they’re not going to look for the five one hours that initially we proposed The Civil War to be, and it ended up being nearly 12 hours in length. That was terrifying, to be told that over and over again. I remember, I knew the film was good when it was done, but I remember arriving in Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association meeting, and several of the critics would say, “Ken, it’s terrific, but nobody’s going to watch it because of this Cop Rock show by Steven Bochco.” But more because we were in an age when people were addicted to MTV cutting in that two and a half minutes was the length of the American attention span.

I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s too bad.” It didn’t produce anxiety to where the actual making of the film did. I’m so grateful for those loved ones and colleagues, and sometimes they were both, who shored me up and pretended that I was okay or covered for me if it was just too much. Really important people still in my life to this day. But I remember thinking that I thought that all real meaning accrued in duration. That the work we’re proudest of, that you’re proudest of, I would presume, that the relationships you care the most about, have benefited from our sustained attention and that it’s okay to have both. That we do need the fast pace, fast cutting two and a half minute MTV music video.

Just as today as people were telling me during the aughts that no one would watch The National Parks or The World War II because of YouTube, which meant that kitten with a ball of yarn. These could coexist, that the stuff we cared about, that all meaning accrued and duration an important thing. What was true was that The Civil War bore it out. Then as soon as we were working on Baseball, they said, “Geez, 18 and a half hours, not even 11 hours and 40 minutes? There’s Civil War, but 18 and a half hours? Nobody’s going to watch that.” Then there was a strike and everybody did, and Jazz? “Oh man, nobody’s going to watch 18 hours of black people.” Right? I just said, “I think so.” Or The National Parks, “That’s not a travelog. That’s not a ‘which lodge or inn you should have your family stay at.’”

I just started trusting at some point along the way and I got a — it’s funny that you asked this because I’ve just been dealing it recently with a loved one. I developed in the early to mid ‘90s a sense of three things, I call them. One of my daughters called them The Three Truths. I’m not willing to elevate them to that. I just call them the three things that I try to do as I help others, friends and loved ones, with anxiety of this debilitating kind, that this will pass, all things are transitory, get help from others, and be kind to yourself. If I had to do a neon sign, another neon sign, I think I’d do the three things.

I’ve learned to internalize them in large measure, because like that alcoholic or drug addict who becomes the most effective counselor, somebody who’s been through the ringer of it is, I think, is a much more authentic spokesperson. Then this goes back to country. This is at the heart of it is the sincerity or authenticity that is at the heart of these relatively simple songs that are as the songwriter Harlan Howard said, “Three chords and the truth.” It’s acknowledging that there’s a simplicity to it, it doesn’t have the sophistication or the complication of classical music or some forms of jazz. But that back end, the truth, it means it’s dealing with universal human things.

I find the universality of those three things similar to the effectiveness of a good country song. Charley Pride says in the introduction that, “I think there’s a country song for every mood you’re in. It might make you cry, but you’ll feel better for crying.” If you hear Hank Williams say, “Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will, he sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome, I could cry.”

If you’ve got music, which Wynton Marsalis says in this film — and country music, not just jazz — is the art of the invisible, “The only art form that’s invisible is music.” You add to it poetry, which is the distillation of language, our form of communication, then you’re mainlining a completely benign form of heroin, emotional heroin right into your bloodstream. It gets there really quick and its effects are only positive. This is the Hank Williams who also wrote, “I’ve got a hot rod Ford and a $2 bill and I know a place right over the hill,” and he goes on to talk about the joy of young love or the possibility of new love in that just as he speaks, “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are, I’m so lonesome, I could cry. There’s no one within the sound of my voice that has not experienced that.

Tim: I moved to Austin, Texas a few years ago and spend a lot of time on Willie Nelson Boulevard. I saw him perform recently at Austin City Limits and I think my memory serves me right that he was part of the pilot for that series in 1972, and it was just spectacular. Just absolutely spectacular. I’m looking forward to digging into Country Music.

I did have a followup question on the three truths as your daughter calls them. The third in particular, be kind to yourself. Could you —

Ken Burns: Yeah. That’s the hardest.

Tim: Yeah, it’s the hardest for me, too. Could you describe what that looks like for you? Are there any practices or things that you now say to yourself in your own head that’s different?

Ken Burns: Nope, I can talk myself down from the first thing. I’m smart enough to surround myself with people that are willing to put up with doing what the second thing says, but I’m a complete failure on that last thing, too. I can pay lip service to it only because I know it’s true and it’s therefore not phony. It is lip service. It is the truth, but I think this is the hardest thing for all of us is how to be kind to ourselves. How do we not murder this moment? How do we prepare ourselves for the next moment, whatever it is and to try to liberate ourselves from the prison of the contemplation of the past, which may promote depression? Not to deny the chemical origins of that, nor anxiety, which is an anticipation of the future.

Thomas Jefferson had a wonderful thing. “How much pain has caused us the evils which have never happened?” It really surprised me that Tom, who is really good at ignoring some fundamental things right in front of him, like the fact that he lived in a plantation and his comfortable life was due entirely to people that he owned and did not pay, could realize, too, that these basic elements of the human heart often have to do with worry. What that is is a great late 18th century, or maybe he wrote it in the early 19th century, commentary about worry. “How much pain has caused us the evils which have never happened?”

Tim: Thomas Jefferson was also a fan of Seneca the Younger and the philosophical school of stoicism, as was George Washington who had a play about Cato performed at Valley Forge to bolster the morale of the troops. Do you gravitate to any particular philosophies or philosophical writings? Not that you have to, but I meant, you’re very well read, clearly.

Ken Burns: Well, I love what Geoffrey Ward, who’s my long time writing collaborator along with Dayton Dunkin. Jeff has been writing a little bit longer and he wrote The Roosevelts, and he was quoting Franklin Roosevelt when I asked him what his philosophy was, he said he was “a Christian and an American,” and left it at that.

At the end of the day I’ll hide behind FDR’s skirts. I am, I think, a Christian. I’m not a practicing Christian, but I’d like to believe that I’m a believing Christian and that I’m an American. That basically says that I do not need to hew to any one political philosophy because there’s always the possibility and, in fact, it isn’t a possibility, there’s always the certainty that the opposite of what I might believe in might also be true. That requires the nimbleness of human — that requires a human dexterity that the binary aspects of politics don’t subscribe to. That’s why I think FDR said it exactly right. I have friends as close colleagues as possible who I guess would call themselves atheist and others who have other faiths in addition to Christianity, but this is, “I yam what I yam,” I think Popeye said.

I liked both. I like that American part. It’s for all the things that we’ve screwed up, for all of the things we’ve gotten so wrong, I do believe, as Lincoln said in his message to Congress, what we’d call the State of the Union in December of 1862, that we were, “The last best hope of earth.” That this myth of exceptionalism poisons us and pollutes us and allows us to incubate, isolated as we are by these two magnificent oceans that have protected us as well, permits us to incubate so many horrible tendencies. An addiction to money and guns and suspicions of the other.

I have spent my entire professional life living in a space, I like to think about it, it will sound how absurd to you as I explain it, between the two-letter, lowercase plural pronoun us, and its capitalized version, the US. That is to say all of the intimacy and warmth of us along with we and our and all of the breadth, the majesty, the complexity, the contradiction, even the controversy of the United States. What I’ve learned over 40 plus years of practicing in my professional life telling stories in American history about us and the US is that there’s only us, there’s no them.

Country music has been, since the very beginning, an alloy, a mixture of things, stronger because it has constituent elements that make it stronger, and that at any time in our history when we suggest that pulling out one aspect of it will make it pure American, you have a priori weakened the alloy and made it brittle and more breakable. I like our suppleness. I like our muttness. I like our mongrelness, which is of course abhorrent to various currents that are boiling and swirling in the United States.

This is what makes us stronger. The banjo, one of the key instruments of country music, is from Africa. A.P. Carter of The Carter Family, the original Carter Family, Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass, the aforementioned Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, people who deserve to be on the Mount Rushmore of early country music, all had an African American tutor that took their chops from here to way up here to qualify them for consideration in that pantheon on that Mount Rushmore. Jimmy Rodgers, the first superstar at the same times as The Carter Family, grew up suffused with the blues sung by the black train crews that he worked with in Southern Mississippi. While he didn’t have one mentor the way Hank Williams did, Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, about whom he said “Everything I learned about music I got from Rufus,” that’s not bad for arguably the most important country singer or songwriter. It just tells you that whatever superficial thing you’ve got about country music in your head, whatever conventional wisdom that you think you’re now going to enjoin, it ain’t true. That it’s always been a mixture.

It’s always been mostly working class. It is a story of women, really strong women from the very, very beginning. It’s a story of people coming out of poverty, black and white, and changing the dynamics of their lives. If they didn’t bring other people out, they gave them at least the tools to dream how to do that. It’s about geographical dislocation and psychological dislocation. At the end of the day, this extraordinary marriage of this invisible art form combined with the poetry of the words and the, for us as filmmakers, startling emotion we did not ever expect to find in the story of country music.

Tim: Id like to ask a question about the making of Ken burns because you said, “I yam what I yam,” which is true. You are what you are. I can’t deny that. But my girlfriend said to me recently over dinner, she was quoting someone else, but she said that “Every child is born into a different family,” in a sense that if you have two or three siblings as people change over time, you’re born into a different family. Likewise, I would imagine, that there are certain aspects of Kenness that have remained the same for a long time, but you made choices that have shaped who you are today. I wanted to ask about one in particular, and this is Hampshire College. Could you talk about Hampshire? Describe Hampshire College and how you ended up there, because I actually don’t know.

Ken Burns: I am the son of an anthropologist and a mother who had an advanced degree in biology but couldn’t really use it. She raised two sons until she died of cancer in 1965, which is the dominant event of my life. Shortly afterwards, I watched my father cry at a movie and decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had seen the safe haven that it had provided for him. A man who I had never seen cry, not during my mother’s illness, not at her death, not at her funeral. A point pointed out to me by friends, which I knew meant that there was an implicit criticism, and I saw my dad cry at a movie called Odd Man Out.

Anyway, I was going to be a Hollywood director. Flash forward. I am in my senior year at high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan and my best friends subscribes to a magazine apparently that I’ve never heard of called Newsweek. Our families subscribed to Time Magazine. I didn’t know there was anything else but Time Magazine for a news weekly, which I devoured by that time, a cover to cover. Here with a description of a tiny experimental college that had just opened in the last few weeks.

This was October of 1970. It had opened in September of 1970, which was for lack of a better word, a graduate school experience at an undergraduate level. That is to say you were trusted to either know what you wanted to do or to find out what you wanted to do when and proceeded in much the same fashion you would in graduate school with a de-emphasis on classwork and more emphasis on independent study and the assembling of your own examinations, your own proposals, and the assembling of a small faculty group of two or three who would judge it along the way and finally pass on it, pass or fail.

Like falling in love with country music, it just lit me up and I said, “I want to go there,” and he said, “I’m applying.” I was supposed to go to The University of Michigan where I could get in for free or nominal stuff because my dad taught there. Hampshire was the most expensive college on Earth. Room, board, and tuition in the fall of ‘71, the class to which I hoped to enter in, was $4,730 — $30 more than Harvard University.

I basically moved all my chips. I quit school early. I had advanced placement courses that permitted me to interpret the Michigan laws that said I needed X number of credits, not four years of high school or three years of high school. That I had that and that I was leaving after Christmas and the guidance counselor said, “You are making a big mistake.” I worked in a record store part-time. I now went full-time to that, saved up money, and my grandmother gave me $1,000. I had inherited $1,000. I pushed all my chips into year one, fully intending to come back to Michigan, just having blown it all on that experiment.

I so fell in love with Hampshire. I am so a poster boy for it that I couldn’t not do it. I took a leave from Hampshire my second year and worked literally as an indentured servant to a dear friend, still, who ran the bookstore at the college and got enough money to pay for the next two years of Hampshire. Though it took four years, I spent only three years actually matriculating there and ended up with a Bachelor of Arts in Film Study and Design. I left there with this naive and perhaps arrogant assumption that I could start my own film company rather than do what everyone else was supposed to do, which is go to New York or L.A. or whatever big city and apprentice in a film company and work your way up.

I started, with two other Hampshire grads, Florentine Films in 1976, the year after I graduated, though we’d been talking and thinking about it for a long time and that’s been my only employer, meaning I’ve got the worst boss ever, which is me.

Tim: Two quick questions. Thank you.

Ken Burns: Hampshire was central. We had two teachers, film and photography teachers, mostly still photographers, social documentary, still photographers, Elaine Mayes and Jerome Liebling. They became mentors in the best sense of the word, almost in a medieval, Renaissance sense of a real master/student relationship. My relationship with Jerry Liebling was complete through to the end of his life. He died in 2011. I still worship him and all that he gave me. If he did not exist, you would not be having this conversation, I said that once Dizzy Gillespie said of Louis Armstrong, “Know him, know me.” Know Jerry Liebling, know me. Period. Full stop.

Tim: What are some of the things that stuck with you from Jerry or were imprinted upon you that had such a tremendous impact or was it as care for you and how would you describe what was important?

Ken Burns: He was a curmudgeonly tough guy. I remember I was a precocious film student all through high school. Not having any formal courses to take, but studying and reading. I knew stuff and I had a sentence, which I think I can still do from Andrew Sarris, one of the great critics and proponents of the French auteur theory that the director is the author of the film, and he was talking about Nicholas Ray, who made Rebel Without a Cause. But he also made a film called Johnny Guitar, whose screenwriter was Philip Yordan, who was eventually blacklisted during those terrible Hollywood days in the ‘50s. There was a sentence that I had looked at as a perplexed, and you’ll understand exactly why, a perplexed a teenager where it said, “Yordan set out to attack McCarthyism, but Ray was too delirious to pay any heed as Freuidan feminism prevailed over Marxist masochism, and Pirandello transcended polemics.”

To me, that was my Holy Grail. I finally got up a nerve, second semester of Hampshire to, I had been in Elaine Mayes’. His colleagues and younger colleagues and somebody he had imported to Hampshire the year I came, the second year, he’d come the first year. And I showed this sentence — I went into his office and I suddenly just said, blurted it out, I was showing off, that not only had I memorized it, but I think I knew what it meant, and I’d like to have this discussion with him. And when I finished the sentence, he looked at me, and he got up from his desk, and he walked around the desk and he took me by the elbow, which he always did to everybody, both in affectionate ways, but this was clearly not in an affectionate way. He sort of lifted me out of my chair, moved me to the door, opened the door, and pushed me out into the hallway, and shut the door.

And I sat out there contemplating suicide because Jerry was known for this, to being a terrifying person. And I thought “Here, I’ll go in and I’ll disarm him with this wonderful sentence — which I was going to attempt to deconstruct — and everything would be great in my career, such as it is, and I rarely used the word career after that, would be launched.” And he had reminded me this was just absurd gobbledygook that Hollywood called itself “The Industry,” which ought to be warning enough, and we were interested in something else. He was a great, great still photographer. I urge you to Google him. Liebling, L-I-E-B-L-I-N-G. Extraordinary photographs, which he put up in our classes along with our photographs and our films, and they’re stunning.

He was about — he wanted us to know history. He wanted us to know ethics. He wanted us to be humanists. He understood there was an essential reciprocity that took place. Stuff didn’t occur, stuff wasn’t imparted just during classes. Often he’d say, “My car is broken down. Can you drive into Northampton, the next town over and pick up the laundry?” I said, “Sure.” And along the way, you’d get, “Look at the way the angle of that light hits. You see the way that woman brushed her arm there?” And it wasn’t kind of saying “This is a good thing or a bad thing.” He was just saying “Notice.” As his daughters say, he would always say, “Go, see, do, be. Go, get out into the world. See, look around you. Do, make something, relate. You have an exchange with somebody, be. Take it in. Go, see, do, be.”

And that to me, along with Hampshire’s sort of secret sauce of how they organized it, was it. I do not recognize the person who went into Hampshire in September of 1971 and the person who left in May or June of ‘75. I just completely rearranged my molecules and I have always had this extraordinary devotion and affection for it.

And when I lost Jerry, when we lost Jerry, his family obviously, his teaching had reached so many people that we all still gather and collect to talk about him and what he and Elaine had given us over those years and how transformative that exposure to their generosity, whether it was artistic or human, it really doesn’t matter. And I love the fact that in retrospect, those lines were blurred. Some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life were at his house where we’d just go and listen.

Tim: Yeah. I really look back also on my own history and the mentors who had the largest impact certainly had no clear boundary between sort of work hours and off hours.

Ken Burns: And that’s the same now true for me. That is to say I don’t distinguish. I mean, I understand that the world sort of Sunday night gets a little bit unhappy and that I know Friday afternoon is something that’s supposed to be good. I don’t have that. I don’t have that. The cliche is if you love your work, you don’t work a day in your life. And it is cliche and stultifying one at that, but it’s pretty true. The people I love are the people I work with. I work with my daughter; she’s one of my producers. She teaches me stuff as does my son in law all the time and people — I mean, my cinematographer, we barely talk to one another. We have been working together for 46 years.

Tim: That’s incredible.

Ken Burns: He was at Hampshire, and now we go into situations and it’s almost like telepathy where we just through hand, look, a little gesture or whatever, and all of it. If you were talking to Buddy Squires, who is this extraordinary cinematographer about Jerry, you’d be hearing different sorts of things, but the meaning would be exactly what I’ve imparted about Jerome Liebling.

Tim: How did your father respond, if at all, to your decision to push all of your chips onto the table for this one thing, particularly given that you only had funds for one year? Was that a conversation?

Ken Burns: No. I think a lot of it had to do with some stuff that befell him. He was not as mentally sound as he should be. I came across, a few years ago, a letter from my mother to his mother, her mother in law, in which she’s saying, “I’m dying. What am I going to do with my little boys? He can’t possibly take care of them.” And we muddled through. We did okay. And I think when I decided this, he knew in some respects that I needed to get out of Dodge, that I couldn’t be at the scene of the crime — that is, the place where my mother had died. And I think because he wasn’t financially involved, he had no resources, he was in a kind of publish or perish situation with The University of Michigan, which eventually ended up with the perishing, he was in no position to help. So it was really, I was going to do this. And I think he was happy for me that I had found the clutch necessary to put myself in gear because he’s still the most brilliant man I’ve ever met. But like a Maserati — my younger brother Ric described him as — without a clutch. You can rev the engine in the driveway, but you can’t go anywhere. And that was my dad.

Tim: Was the presenting symptom of the missing clutch depression or something that resembled depression? If you don’t mind me asking?

Ken Burns: Yeah, yeah. I believe so. No, no, no. I think we would all generally agree that he was probably bipolar, but no significant attempt was made at a diagnosis. He eventually ended up at a tertiary level university in Western Michigan and got somebody who was supposed to help him who didn’t really. And so he was never really treated for that, but it was a sad, sad lifetime. However, he’s the smartest person I’ve ever met. He was an amateur still photographer and a professional anthropologist.

And my very first memory, the first little film strip that runs through my head, is him, just a couple seconds of him, building a dark room in the basement of our tract house in Newark, Delaware, where he was the only anthropologist in the state of Delaware. And then the next clip is of me being held in his very strong left arm as he manipulated the tongs in that finished dark room, one of the few things he finished, in that eerie red light with those ghastly smells of the chemicals as I watched the miracle of a picture come out of a blank page.

And if you think about what I do, there is an anthropology to it. And it is rooted in the DNA — my DNA — of my work as a still photograph. Even if I’ve got all the footage in the world, I will still often default for real meaning to communicating with a single still image. And that’s my dad as much as it is Jerome Liebling and Elaine Mayes. It’s my dad with the kind of anthropology, the story of us. And so a lot of strengths and I hope goodness came from my mother who I had a very short time with on this earth. I mean, we just passed this past April 55 years without a mother, which I have to tell you, Tim, is way too long to be without a mother. But at the same time, she is present every single day of my life in the way my father isn’t. And yet I actually have to pay him the honor of having created not only me, but my brother and my mother too.

And my brother Ric is much more understanding of this. And we just had an interesting conversation together at the Telluride Film Festival, which was supposed to be talking about us as filmmakers. And we immediately went to this dynamic and he spoke about him as feeling the physical love of my mother and me always kind of pushing away and going out and doing things and having projects. And so the thing that I’m lacking is that sense of ultimate security, which he actually has if not the ability to execute in quite the same way that I am. And so it was just one of the most amazing conversations I’ve ever had in my life with the gift of my brother speaking truth to a situation that informs every film I’ve made.

I mean, I was going through a crisis and my father in law, my late father in law said to me, I said, “I seem to be keeping my mother alive because I couldn’t be present on the day she died, April 28th. It is always approaching and then always disappearing. But I was never aware of that day.” And he said, “I bet you blew out your candles as a young boy wishing she’d come back.” I said, “I did it my last birthday.” And he said, “You’re kidding, but look what you do for a living.” And I said, “What?” He said, “You wake the dead. You make Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson come alive. Who do you think you’re really trying to wake up?” And from that moment on, I plowed towards finding a way, I’ve never not been present on April 28th. For a long time, it took me going to Ann Arbor with my then small children and renting a car and making a picnic out of it and visiting a grave that we had finally established. My father had not bothered to pick up the ashes and became one of those forgotten, repressed memories of childhood. And all of a sudden at this crisis, we, my brother and I realized, “You know what? We have to do this.”

And so we tracked down her ashes at some godforsaken cemetery way outside of Ann Arbor and put a plaque there. And for many, many years I would go there every year, with or without my daughters, and turn it into an event. And my mother’s name was Lyla, L-Y-L-A, an old 19th century spelling. She was named her mother who was born in the 19th century. And when my oldest daughter Sarah had her first child, she named her Lyla, L-Y-L-A. She was born on January 18th, 2011 and I can’t begin to tell you that we never said Lyla, we still are — even at this talk at Telluride Film Festival, we refer to her as Mommy. Two men in their 60s, their mid-60s, referring to Mommy, because that’s who she was. Our father went from Daddy to Dad. Our mother always was Mommy. And I can’t begin to tell you that, though we never said the word Lyla, it was always draped in black crepe, from April 28th, 1965 until my granddaughter Lyla was born, in which case we say it 20 times a day and we talked to her and she is beautiful and the birds sing and flowers bloom and it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that has helped immeasurably with what we were talking about before — anxiety and the burden of that.

Tim: That is really beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing that and being so forthcoming. I think that not only is your personal experience informative, I would imagine for a lot of people listening, as you mentioned, I mean the similarity of blowing out the candles and wishing your mother to be back. I’m sure that transcends the experiences of the two of you to many people who are listening who have lost a loved one of one type or another. And I also think it’s really important and courageous of you to talk very directly about your father’s struggles with mental illness, with depression. I have very severe bipolar depression on both sides of my family and that applies to blood relatives, but also relatives by marriage. My aunt died of a Percocet plus alcohol overdose last year, which was certainly correlated to depression. And so this is really just a way of saying thank you for talking so vulnerably.

Ken Burns: My late father in law was an eminent psychologist and I felt when he had given me this gift of saying waking the dead, that that’s what I did for a living. I realized that I was obligated in some ways to be transparent in my individual biography and life, if I were going to continue doing what I was doing seemingly so successfully. That is to say if I was going to feel the ability to talk about Abraham Lincoln or Jackie Robinson, I needed the ability to talk about Lyla and Robert and about my brother Ric and about my granddaughter Lyla and my daughters, Sarah, Lilly, Olivia, and Willa and do so with no differentiation. I’m sure they at times would like to have a free and separate life, which they do have, and because of the notoriety of the films, sometimes there’s people who come up to me and talk to me about things that are emotional. A veteran will say about the Vietnam film, “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard. This helps me.” Or I hear from another veteran that his best friend watched it and said he thinks he’s okay now.

I mean, that’s what happens. And I realized that the emotional archeology that I had said at the very beginning of my first film I wished to pursue, I was not interested in merely excavating the dry dates and facts and events of the past, but looking for an emotional archeology that would sort of glue those shards, those dry brittle shards together. And I have to, by saying the word emotional, put an asterisk. I do not mean nostalgia or sentimentality. That’s the enemy of good anything. But I do believe that there are higher emotions that we are frightened of and so we would retreat to a rational world most of the time where one and one always equals two, when in fact what we want out of our love, out of our sex perhaps, out of our faith, out of our art, out of maybe just something simple like a cup of tea or we’re looking at a sunset, we want one and one to equal three. And I’m looking for that periodically, that improbable equation to obtain in the films that we are working on.

Tim: Well, Ken, I think that as a narrative alchemist of sorts that you have managed with many of your films, much of your work to create that unlikely synergy of one plus one equals three. If you look at all of the ingredients, all of the elements that you’ve pieced together over decades, the sum is greater — I’m going to mess up this one. I always mess this one up. What is the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There we go.

Ken Burns: Well, but you know Tim, that’s exactly it. When we say that, let’s just stop for a second and take a rational approach. Let’s say the sum of the parts comes up to here, but the whole is up here. What is in there? What is in there? That’s the only question there is. There’s the phenomenal world that we can see and we know is reflected light, filled with colors and sounds and all of these sorts of things. And there’s the noumenal world, an unseen world, which is actually much more compelling if we knew how to trust and access it. And that’s the big human dilemma. There’s nobody who gets out of this alive. No one gets out of this alive. And this is an amazingly depressing sort of thing if you wish to take it that way. And we could be reasonably excused as sentient species for lying in the fetal position, sucking our thumb, waiting for that inevitable end.

But we do not. We raise babies and we tend gardens and we build buildings and we paint paintings and we make films and we are in conversation with each other and we’re keeping, as Wynton Marsalis calls it, the wolf from the door. The wolf is the apprehension of our own mortality. And that’s what storytelling is. Storytelling is basically, “Honey, how was your day?” And then you’re required to edit human experience, and how you edit human experience is really what it’s all about. “Honey, how your day?” doesn’t begin “I back slowly down the driveway, avoiding the garbage can at the curb.” Unless of course somebody t-bones you and that’s exactly the way you describe it. But you say, “Oh, you’ll never believe what an SOB my boss is.” And then all of a sudden Aristotelian Poetics, that’s not so scary. Aristotle wrote an essay called Poetics about storytelling, beginning, middle, and end. Protagonists, antagonists, climax, denouement. You begin to obey the laws of the editing of human experience. And by sharing the story, like raising a baby, like tending a garden, like building a building, we ensure a kind of immortality.

Tim: Well said. And the editing of the human experience is also one of those ever so valuable invisible arts right alongside music. And I want to remind people that your newest work is Country Music. Explores the history of a uniquely American art form, country music. And I have a long description here that I’ll include in the show notes. It’ll also have already been heard in the introduction. I’m holding it in my hand right here. “A story of America, one song at a time,” I cannot wait to dig in. And it premieres Sunday, September 15th, 8/7 Central. You can also stream it and it’s available on the PBS video app. So you can find that on and also on the apps. I’m very excited about this and I’m so thrilled that we were able to spend some time in conversation today.

Tim: Is there anything else that you would like to say Ken, before we wrap up?

Ken Burns: No, I think that I would let Merle Haggard, who we were very fortunate to be able to interview for this country music thing many, many years ago, six years ago, and he passed away soon afterwards. He said, “It’s what we believe in but can’t see, like dreams and songs and souls.” And I love that idea that songwriting, creating songs, combining music, might be these things that we believe in but can’t see. I’ve quoted you a couple lines from Hank Williams. Could do Johnny Cash. “At my door, the leaves are falling, a cold, wild wind will come. Sweethearts walked by together and I still miss someone.”

I don’t know. That’s all unseen, and if I sang it, it would be a combination of music and words. And it’s stuff that we believe in like dreams and songs and souls. Merle Haggard, one of the greatest of all, Emmylou Harris in our film later on, five episodes later. This is in the introduction that he says this. But five episodes later she said, “You want to know what country music is? Get a Merle Haggard record, any Merle Haggard album. And put the needle” — just dating her — “Put the needle on any cut, any cut. It doesn’t matter which one. And begin from there.”

So I think if you take it from this, I always think whenever he appears on our films, he’s like Zeus. And I just think if you take it from this god from Olympus, that it’s the things that we believe in but can’t see like dreams and songs and souls. You feel like you’re dealing with that noumenal world that I was speaking about, that you are apprehending or trying to apprehend something that is just beyond our ken, no pun intended, and is there for us if we expose ourselves to it. And I think that’s the business of art. Leo Tolstoy said “Art is the transfer of emotion from one person to another.” It sounds pretty, sounds pretty straightforward and simple. And I will sort of leave you with two great philosophers, Merle Haggard and Leo Tolstoy.

Tim: And it seems easy, but sometimes it’s complicated, and it’s worth the complication.

Ken, thank you so much for taking this time. I had just a wonderful experience bouncing around here in the ether having this conversation. And I highly recommend everybody check out Country Music, They can say hello, give a hand wave on the internet @KenBurns on Twitter. And this has been such a pleasure. Thank you, Ken.

Ken Burns: Tim, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

Leave a Reply

Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)

One Reply to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Ken Burns — A Master Filmmaker on Creative Process, the Long Game, and the Noumenal (#386)”

  1. Hey Tim and team,
    Who do you use to transcribe all your podcasts. I’m looking at doing the same.
    Thank you,