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Five decades later, Black Woodstock finds its rhythm again

The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, an epochal event in black music history, has been resurrected by a new documentary

A poster for ‘Summer Of Soul’ by Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson.

The year 1969 can evoke two particularly enduring memories of big world events. The first one, of course, is the Apollo 11 mission that—on 20 July—landed men on the moon for the first time. And the second is the three-day music festival in August famously known as the Woodstock Rock Festival, acknowledged as a landmark event in popular music and the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  

There was, however, a third event that year which perhaps should have got at least as much attention as Woodstock. I am referring to the Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place in that New York borough.

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The festival, which was organised in a space now known as the Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem over six weekends in July-August, was attended by more than 300,000 people, featured a who’s who of mainly African-American and Latino musicians, and was considered an epochal event in the history of black culture. It was even referred to as the Black Woodstock.  

But for more than 50 years it was largely ignored by the mainstream media. Footage of more than 40 hours, covering the entire festival, and shot by the late TV producer Hal Tuchin on second-hand cameras, had been languishing in his basement since1969, after several major networks rejected proposals to produce and telecast the event.

Until this summer, when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer and co-founder of the Philadelphia hip hop group The Roots, resurrected it in a new feature-length documentary, Summer Of Soul (...Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised). The two-hour film (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar in India) documents performances by artists such as a young Stevie Wonder (he was 19), B.B. King (then 44, but already a blues legend), Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, the Staples Singers (including Mavis Staples), the jazz drummer Max Roach, David Ruffin, the erstwhile lead singer of The Temptations, the vocal group Fifth Dimension, and many others.

The festival went largely ignored despite the fact that it took place during a very significant period in black history. It was held not long after the assassinations of two black activists: Less than a year before the festival, Martin Luther King Jr had been killed; and in 1965, Malcolm X had been shot dead. The African-American community was at a turning point, with the movement to assert its identity and culture gaining ground. It was also a period, well documented insofar as the other Woodstock festival was concerned, when dissonance and rebellion were in the air: Richard Nixon was in the White House and America’s divisive involvement in the Vietnam war was at its peak.

The Woodstock festival, which had an array of famous (and mainly white) artists, got massive publicity—mainly owing to the widely distributed Oscar-winning film made on it. Filmed on a budget of $600,000 (around 4.4 crore now), it grossed box-office revenue of $50 million. The Harlem festival was all but forgotten. The footage was shot on a shoestring budget, and, according to the late Tuchin, the absence of equipment and lights forced him to adopt innovative measures, such as ensuring that the stage faced westwards.  

Luckily, it was a daylight festival and the footage Questlove got to work with is of a high quality. Tightly edited and interspersed with interviews and comments from some of the performing artists who are still around (Mavis Staples, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, etc.), the film documents one of the most important eras in black history and is essential viewing for music historians and music lovers.

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The film works on many levels. First, of course, is the music itself. The cathartic, therapeutic gospel singing by Mahalia Jackson, then nearly 60, and her duet with Staples; the young (and already successful) Wonder, who was then at the crossroads, experimenting with styles; the peppy R&B of Gladys Knight and the Pips as they perform I Heard It Through The Grapevine; and the Fifth Dimension, comprising black musicians, with music that was like a bridge between white pop and black soul. For them, performing at Harlem was like being accepted by their own people. Not to forget the game-changing set by Sly and the Family Stone, who appeared in psychedelic outfits, featured (unusual for a gig in Harlem) a woman trumpeter and white musicians on drums and sax, and ended their set with an exuberant rendition of I Want to Take You Higher.

Then there is the whiff of self-assertion and radicalisation of the black community—palpable throughout the film, including Nina Simone’s feisty reading of a poem by David Nelson that went: Are you ready, black people?/ Are you ready to do what is necessary?/ Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready?/ Are you ready to build black things?

Unlike Woodstock, which also hit the headlines for drug abuse, rainstorms, chaos and food shortages, the Harlem festival went off smoothly. The politically radical Black Panthers were in charge of security; the crowds were peaceful, the music uplifting. It marked a cultural watershed that might have remained unknown if it wasn’t for the film we can now see.

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