From small town Minnesotan poets and potters to the African-American reclamation of the banjo in the Carolinas, St. Paul-based documentarian John Whitehead’s work has covered plenty of ground—and often water as well. Environmentalism is one of the major themes in his work, which ranges from advocacy work for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness to more personal projects such as his film Mississippi, Minnesota, and a passion for folk cultures, particularly music, runs through his oeuvre.
For Whitehead, 55, who grew up in Appleton, WI, an early involvement in and enjoyment of live theater through high school segued into a desire to create feature films. Around the time he was absorbing what film education he could from UW-Madison, he visited a cousin in London who had an entry-level editing job at the BBC.
“She had brought her work home,” he said, “and had an upright Moviola, and she was cutting a film and I was just fascinated by it. I watched her, and I even assisted her some, and that really created the distinction that this was something people actually did.”
This experience helped push Whitehead on to the film program at NYU, where he came under the influence of documentary pioneer George Stoney. Stoney awoke in him what Stoney referred to as the “documentary urge.” But though his time in New York was invaluable to his education and career—he would graduate with a BFA in film production in 1979—Whitehead found the Big Apple claustrophobic: “I really had almost a spiritual hunger to be in—I remember I used to think about just being on a highway in an open landscape!”
This desire would draw him back to Wisconsin, where he took on what he refers to as an “apprenticeship” at a TV station in Green Bay. There, he honed his shooting and editing skills, before finally landing at KTCA—now TPT—in St. Paul in 1986. He continued his work as a cameraman until in 1989 he was given the opportunity to produce a half-hour piece on Minnesotan poet and essayist Bill Holm, a piece that earned him his first of several Midwest Emmys.
He worked as a senior producer at TPT until 1996, with the recognition and awards earned allowing him the autonomy to find stories that interested him as well as to engage the communities that TPT served. “I’m very interested in local history and culture,” he said, “and kind of peeling back the layers of things that are in our back yards. It’s really a privilege to be able to do that.”
These days, though he retains his relationship with public television and projects where Minnesota is the focus, Whitehead has moved on to an independent position. He has produced two independent films, 1998’s Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang and 2004’s Make ‘Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers’ Story. Currently, Whitehead is working on a documentary called Black String Revival, which follows the disappearance of the banjo—an instrument originally from Africa and played exclusively by slaves for its first century on American soil—from the black tradition, and its current repatriation by groups such as recent Grammy winners, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Whitehead had been researching the clawhammer style of playing banjo, fodder for a possible documentary, when he became aware of and attended the 2005 and 2010 Black Banjo Gatherings in Boone, North Carolina. Here he began to fully recognize how, in American old time music, “this Scotch/Irish fiddle style was melded with an African-influenced syncopated banjo style; put the two together, you get all American popular music. And that,” Whitehead said, “is a beautiful metaphor.”
In 2010, Whitehead received a Bush Foundation Fellowship, and plans to use his grant monies to complete the shooting phase of the documentary. “Fifty grand is a lot of money, by any stretch,” he said, “but in film budget terms, it’s not a lot of money. By Hollywood standards, it’s cab fare.”
While this project remains his current labor of love, Whitehead continues to work on other projects, including a video for the Mississippi River National Park as well as a commissioned documentary on sustainable forestry. “I’m just a generalist, I really love a lot of different topics,” said Whitehead. “It’s an opportunity to have a wide but shallow knowledge of many things. You know enough to be dangerous by the time you’re done… I love that about the job.”