The call of history : Ken Burns delivers a classic speech at A&L’s anniversary event

UCSB’s Arts & Lectures capped off its 50th anniversary season with a special dinner, auction and lecture event at the Coral Casino on Monday night. With the Pacific Ocean rolling and crashing right up to the rocky berm not that far below the resort, the evening reminded the $350/plate guests how their support plays out in season after season of musicians at the top of their game, stellar dance and theater companies, humorists, intellectuals and the best in cinema. Part fund-raiser for next season, part thank-you, and part private party, the evening ended with a special appearance by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

In his 50s now, but still looking a boyish early-30s, Mr. Burns is coming off his most recent multi-part documentary for PBS: a history of the National Parks. In the style that he made famous through docs on the Civil War, baseball and jazz, this journey through our national treasures once again made centuries-old voices come alive, still photographs look like they were shot yesterday, and revealed the weird and wonderful fabric of America.

All this was on Mr. Burns mind as he took to the podium to read an essay he first premiered some years ago called “Sharing the American Experience.” It’s not a new piece, but it was a forceful, eloquent work, and to quibble over its freshness is like critiquing Bob Dylan for playing “Like a Rolling Stone.” (It’s also less well-known.)

The speech connects those three major documentaries Mr. Burns is best known for (though he has made many others, beginning with a doc on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1983) with his overarching view of American history.

“I am interested in that power of history, and I am interested in its many varied voices,” he said. “Not just the voices of the old top-to-bottom version of our past, which would try to convince us that American history is only the story of Great Men. And not just those pessimistic voices that have recently entered our studies, voices which seem to say that our history is merely a catalogue of crimes.”

Mr. Burns has always been about the middle way — the rich and the poor and the middle class in between, the famous and the unknown, and the popular celebrities who spur the imagination during historical periods, but may be unknown to us until somebody like Mr. Burns points out how popular they are.

The lecture brings up Yogi Berra, the “clumsy” New York Yankees catcher who coined surreal non-sequitors that delighted many. When asked about some of the quotes, Berra quipped “I didn’t say half the things I’ve said.”

Mr. Burns also recalled Jackie Robinson, who looms larger to him than just his accomplishments in sports. “When Jackie Robinson walked out on to that ball field in the spring of 1947, his glorious moment was the first real progress in civil rights since the Civil War.”

Forming those links into a narrative of America and showing how we all connect to these past moments — it’s pure Burns.

He does show his cultural conservatism, contrasting jazz with the “nearly execrable sound that passes for popular music today.” This, of course, got a big knowing laugh from the crowd, but you have to wonder why someone who so fully understands the continuing narrative of America believes that popular music has stopped evolving. Authoritative music journalist Greil Marcus would beg to differ, surely. (It’s also one of the lines in the speech that he has rewritten from its more cautious original.)

Arts & Lectures’ 51st year may not have that sexy ring of a round number, but it will continue no doubt through the interest shown by the assembled donors and supporters on Monday night. Celesta Billeci and her team are not on a summer break by any means — there’s a new schedule to arrange.

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