President, poet, engineer, farmer, truth-teller. Jimmy Carter is a fascinatingly complex person, but above all, he is, according to Mary Wharton’s documentary ‘Rock & Roll President, a simple man—a man who recognizes that it is the simplest things, like showing kindness and forgiveness, that leads to true progress.
America has a long history of failing to engage with reality. And one of those realities is that of what is arguably this country’s greatest cultural export: American popular music. Take jazz for example. Born of Black ingenuity, jazz was, at first, dismissed in “respectable” circles across Western society. Much like how hip-hop’s lyrics and aesthetics are often deemed as morally corrupting in our modern era, critics went as far as to pathologize jazz’s swinging rhythms and shedders in the 20th century. But what is perhaps the most egregious move made by these White critics was their attempt to omit the Black origins of the genre completely; thus, attributing its creation primarily to White innovation.
Plainly speaking, these were racist works, forms of academic warfare reducing the truth of American popular music to an illegible footnote. Despite the efforts made by scholars to change this narrative, the Black origins of music, extending into genres like rock n’ roll, house, and punk, still remain under-appreciated, unwritten, and unsung. Yet academics can only do so much; our moral and spiritual leaders must also guide us to and spread that truth. And when we think of who those leaders have been, people like civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and writer-critic James Baldwin come to mind. You might be surprised to hear that President Jimmy Carter, the subject of Mary Wharton’s latest documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock n’ Roll President, is of that same ilk.
Unlike his predecessors, Carter was a president that engaged with reality, speaking to the issues of race and identity in America—which was, in the late 1970s, indelibly radical. And to get his point across, he often used music as a more palatable vehicle to communicate those ideas. During a jazz festival Carter hosted on the White House lawn, we see him do just that. As he joins Dizzy Gillespie on stage, he grasps the mic to deliver a quick, but powerful history lesson on the origins of jazz: “If there was ever an indigenous art form, one that is special and peculiar to the United States and represents what we are as a country, I would say that is jazz…At first, the jazz form was not well accepted…I think there was an element of racism in the beginning.”
Carter was one of the few, if only, presidents to care very little about accruing political capital; after all, his criticism of America created large rifts between him and his detractors, ruining his bid for a second term. But he was, at his core, an empath, someone who deeply cared about providing all Americans the chance to pursue economic, social, and spiritual freedom. His ability to see how America could redeem herself through anti-racism and democratic socialist policies is why musicians—who are, in many ways, arbiters of the truth—like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson were so drawn to him. As Carter says in the film, jazz is a lot like how democracy works. Each member, improvising, following a melody, must find a way to work together, even if things are falling apart. Perhaps it’s that process of struggling together, despite differences, that truly breaks down the barriers between us, allowing us to, in the words of Jimmy Carter, “work, play, and make beautiful music together.”
The Knockturnal had the pleasure of speaking to director Mary Wharton and producer Chris Farrell about their experiences with Jimmy Carter onset, the significance of his presidency, and how his passion for music might be the key to solving the polarity in this troubled nation.
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The Knockturnal: You’ve interviewed many musicians and legends over the years. I’m curious: was there something unique about this batch of interviews compared to the others you’ve conducted.
Mary Wharton: Well, I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of the interviews in the film. We have a fabulous writer and interviewer on our team, Bill Flannigan, who has a great relationship with a number of the folks that he was able to bring to the project—including Bob Dylan. One remarkable thing about this project was that we were able to get so many celebrities on board to talk about Carter. If you’re promoting their product, it’s not as hard to get them in front of the camera. But to get them to sit down and give you an hour to talk about somebody else is very unusual—and with Jimmy Carter, that was never even an issue. Every interviewee in that film was so willing to give us their time and felt so gracious to talk about Jimmy Carter. It is a real testament to the respect and admiration that he garners amongst a wide variety of people from all different industries and walks of life.
The Knockturnal: Definitely–and there was that rare Bob Dylan interview in the film!
Mary Wharton: It really was! I think that Dylan had clearly put a lot of thought into what we wanted to say before the shoot, and you can tell when you watch the film. There’s a piece of the interview that we used towards the end of the film that I really love where he’s listing off all these things about Jimmy that make it difficult to define Jimmy. Dylan says something along the lines of ‘He’s a farmer, he’s a poet, he’s a nuclear physicist. If you told me he was a race car driver, I wouldn’t even be surprised.’ It was as if he were writing a song about Jimmy in that moment, I just thought that was the coolest thing ever.
The Knockturnal: Someone in the film conveyed the idea that music is one of the most reliable witnesses of history. Filmmaking is another medium that is capable of the same thing. As a filmmaker, as a human being, what is your most valuable tool when you are endeavor to speak to the truth of something, to get to the core of the matter?
Mary Wharton: When you’re making a film like this, where you’re interviewing a number of people from different backgrounds, there are always two to three sides to the story, and the truth lies somewhere in-between all that. You have to realize that you can’t necessarily say the “truth” outright, but rather show it if that makes sense. Archival materials can help support that was said in the interviews. In the process of making the film, we would often be searching high and low for archival footage to complement the interviews, and it was truly amazing to see everything come together and work with each other.
Other times, it would be the reverse where we have this piece of footage, and then we would have people talk about it. I feel like the truth is like the cream always rises to the top. It’s bound to come to the surface eventually. People are always asking me, “How do you piece all these things together when there’s so much to sift through?” In the same way, the truth always rises to the top, I allow my creative decisions to do the same. My process is very intuitive. The answer often jumps out of nowhere, and you just have to grab it. There’s no magic formula to it. There are obviously certain things that need to be in the film and certain rules to follow, but sometimes, you just have to feel it. It’s kind of the same way you have to judge whether or not someone is telling the truth or a lie. It all comes down to how it feels when you hear and see it.
Chris Farrell: I agree with that. There’s a word that we use constantly to describe that quality of truth: authenticity. And I think the subject matter of this film, being president Carter, allows the truth to just naturally rise. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to put this film together. You still have to have a great team behind you and a great director like Mary. Obviously, you need all of those elements, but I really do think that there’s a reason he’s the star of the show and why he seems so authentic.
The Knockturnal: There are many people who have a limited view Black origins of popular and traditional music, dating from the 18th century to the present day. Carter certainly did not and saw songs as crash courses in history and literature and collective consciousness, which ultimately made him more inclusive. What can future presidents and politicians learn about his wide-arm embrace of culture?
Mary Wharton: Over the last forty years or so, we’ve seen how divisive politics has become in this country—and not just politics, but even simple issues like the question of should wear a mask or not. I mean, how can that be divisive? Carter was the opposite of all of that—that rhetoric and divisiveness and derision that we have for each other nowadays. Apparently, half the country believes in one agenda and half the country believes in the other. But Carter wasn’t like that. I mean, his embrace of rock and rollers and that culture definitely embodies Carter’s tolerance. The Greg Allman story and the way Carter helped him perfectly highlights that ability—the ability to forgive and not pass judgment. He was a unifier, not a divider. There’s a moment where a Republican comes up to him at the Capricon music festival and tells him that he’ll vote for him. In contrast, when Obama came in, almost all Republicans, whether it was a politician or voter, said we’ll never do anything to help you.
Chris Farrell: In the film, we talk about the power of music and that music should give us hope, but the other thing that we talk about is moral courage and moral leadership. At the end of the day, we should be challenging ourselves to be better people. I might like a certain football team and you might like another, but if we are good people, we are not going to fight about it in unproductive ways. That’s something not only politicians need to learn, but all of us need to learn because many of the issues that were prevalent during the Carter presidency are still being fought over on the front lines and making in onto the front pages.
The Knockturnal: I could be wrong, but I feel like there is this small boom in documentary filmmaking—at the very least, there is a greater interest in documentaries, particularly ones that highlight stories, people, events that have been covered poorly in the past. Do you agree with that, and if so, why do you think that is?
Chris Farrell: Because there is such a proliferation of content, it is getting harder and harder to find stories to tell. But when you find a story that hasn’t been told, it makes it all that much more exciting. This film is our first project together, and we certainly hope to do more projects like this. In other words, they’ll have some social commentary attached to them, but in a way that is engaging, surprising, and educational. The story of Carter and his affinity for music had been reported on in the Rolling Stone years ago, but no one had ever really rolled up there sleeves and dug into the details.
Mary Wharton: We have come to the point where people don’t know what to believe anymore. We’re in a post-truth world, and I think the thing that is appealing about documentaries is that there is this notion of truth within them. That’s not to say that every documentary is 100% accurate, but there often is some value of integrity and truth behind them. To see real stories about real people reminds us of our own humanity and gives us something to connect to in this time when the world feels very slippery and chaotic.
The Knockturnal: I really loved the soundtrack. When you were working with your music supervisor, how did you go about choosing what songs to use?
Mary Wharton: I have to say that Mari Kiko Gonzales had a number of really excellent and sometimes surprising music choices that worked really well. But in the beginning, Chris and I had put together these very long lists of songs that we thought would be appropriate and seemed relevant to the story. It was all, again, very intuitive. We had about 150 songs on the initial playlist that we had put together over a good period of time, adding to it along the way. But when you’re in the editing bay, you make these very instinctive choices of what song to choose and where it should be placed. We try to be careful about the timeline of things. For example, when we needed a piece of music to help us switch gears and go into the scene where we introduced the Democratic National Convention in New York City, and we’re kind of taking the viewers to a new location and a new chapter in the story, we needed a piece of music that helped start that new chapter in the narrative. Mari ended up choosing that one, which was “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind, and Fire. I think on the surface of things, you might not really think that would be the first song that would come to mind, but for setting that scene of New York city in 1976, it was perfect. It just does exactly what it needs to do. There were a lot of moments like that where a song kind of emerged, even though the song may be a little bit counterintuitive to place in that scene.
One song that was intuitive and made a lot of sense was “Simple Man” at the end, which I love. And Mary knows that I love that song. I had no idea if it would make it in the film, but I do think Carter, as complex as he is, is, at the end of the day, a “simple” man. I was in my car, and Mary called me and told me that she had made the decision to put “Simple Man” at the end. I couldn’t hear or see the scene, but by just thinking about it, I was brought to tears.
The Knockturnal: President Carter was clearly a talented poet. Why was that important to highlight in the film?
Chris Farrell: People often ask us, “What surprised you in your research?” You know, it’s easy to understand why we, why you, why Mary adores musicians. But I was very curious as to why all these superstars are so infatuated, so taken, with Carter—and a lot of it has to do with his attitude and character. Like I said before, authenticity has to do with it. The second thing that is fascinating about him is his deep knowledge of music and its history. And the third part of that adulation has to do with the fact that Jimmy is an artist and an artist that appreciates art. Mary and I have visited the Carter center many times, and there’s a beautiful art that adorns every wall there. I think it was important to highlight that part of him because many people don’t know that side to him, and it ties into who he was as a person and how his artistry extended into his politics.
The Knockturnal: So what was Carter’s superpower?
Chris Farrell: I’m going to give you three or four answers, and then we can decide together which one is best. His ego is definitely an important aspect of his superhuman-ness. After all, you don’t get to being president without having a solid ego. But that ego was tempered by his humility and grace. Again, that idea of authenticity, of staying true to one’s beliefs, defines Carter’s very being. People have asked us why we call him the “rock n’ roll president.” A part of it was because he loved rock n’ roll, but it was also because he was a rock n’ roller! And what I mean by that is that he is a rebel. He held a strong set of beliefs and he followed that path without compromising, even if that put him at odds with the status quo. He was a famously religious guy, but he had a falling out with his church because he thought they were too dogmatic and not humanistic.
I’ll tell you a quick story that really shows the kind of person Carter was: I almost died during the making of this film. I almost had a stroke, and I was hospitalized between the filming of the first and second interview. I had open-heart surgery and it wasn’t looking good, but I gathered my strength to make it to the second interview with a PICC line in me. I wasn’t fully recovered, so I had to get the doctor’s permission to even go. So I get there, and Carter comes up to me at the beginning of the interview and says, “Chris, I just want you to know that Rosalyn and I have been thinking about you and praying for you and just want you to be well. If there’s anything we can do for you, let me know.” When he said that, I just felt a bolt of electricity go through me. He is just an incredibly gracious human being. That might not be the solid answer you were looking for, but it is impossible for me to just say one word about him.
The Knockturnal: Your answer makes me think of sociologist W.E.B DuBois, who coined the term double consciousness, which argued that black Americans perceive the world through their own eyes, but also through the lens of others constantly, which can be exhausting. I think Carter, growing up in a predominantly black community, seems to understand this concept very deeply, which is why he’s a part of that liberal New South block. It’s why he saw music as a way of breaking barriers, and I think that ties back into the idea of empathy, doing the work, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. While that empathy was a big part of his persona and success, do you think it might have actually precipitated his downfall? And if so, what does that say about American politics?
Chris Farrell: When Carter made it to office, there was no president had ever stood up and said America was racist. He did that. If you need proof, there’s that scene where he talks about why jazz musicians, blacks and whites, had not been playing together historically. So again, it all goes back to moral courage and moral leadership, and now, to use your word, empathy. I think he used empathy to his advantage to bring people together, and that’s probably why he got so many musicians to help him and so many young people to vote. That empathy he had was a resh of breath air. There were so many jaded people post-Watergate scandal, post-Vietnam, and they saw him as something different. Did empathy causes downfall? No, I don’t think it was his empathy. I think that it was something tied to that though. He constantly tried to do the right thing regardless of the political ramifications. And you know, that just doesn’t work if you want to stay in power. To answer the second part of your question—What does that say about us, and what does that say about American politics?—it’s not great. I mean, I want someone in the white house who has empathy. I want someone in the white house guiding not only our country, but the free world to have humility, compassion, and the ability to forgive. So yeah, maybe you could tie his empathy into his political downfall. He absolutely refused to campaign during the Iran Hostage Crisis. But empathy also led to one of his greatest achievements in American political history, and that was the Camp David Accord. As a deal maker myself, I can tell you how tough it is to get two people to agree on anything. He had that empathy that really allowed those gentlemen, who just were diametrically opposed to everything, to come to an agreement. That’s empathy right there.