It is tragic whenever culturally significant events are forgotten. During the Summer of 1969, literally 100 miles away from the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (which was taking place around the same time) was the Harlem Cultural Festival. Through six weeks, Black history, culture and fashion were celebrated at Mt. Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park), where more than 300,000 people attended for free. Many of the performances were recorded, although they were eventually unseen. So, it remained…
After sitting in a basement for 50 years gathering dust, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson unearthed a real found-footage film featuring lost history and music during a rapidly changing era for a radicalized audience. Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is part documentary, part concert film and all-party atmosphere that crosses musical genres, bringing people of different backgrounds together.
“It was the ultimate Black barbeque.”
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of politics going on. During this time of unrest, the Black consciousness revolution is in full effect. Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson play major roles in the event’s gospel day to spread the spirit, while Mayor John V. Lindsay (a liberal Republican and advocate of anti-poverty programs) makes an appearance, all the while Black Panther members stand in as security guards.
Seeing a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder play the drums was inspiring, as well as the living legend B.B. King (whom I had the pleasure to witness perform not long ago). The music was just as important during those turbulent times as it is now. At this concert in the park, jazz, blues, R&B and religious songs were performed, along with Motown, soul and Cuban music. The festival was a political statement for black and brown communities.
I couldn’t help but dance along with the music while watching the archive footage. Gospel day gets a lot of screen time, highlighting a lot of feel-good music, which was great. But I started tearing up as goosebumps lined my arms when Nina Simone took the stage. She was the biggest highlight for me. Other performers included Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, The 5th Dimension and Sly & the Family Stone (the only two white guys at the fest appeared in this band).
“It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken…”
After the festival producers discussed the slim pickings for funds, but I was hoping to learn a little more about its background. Organized by a hustling promoter, the show must go on, somehow, even without an influx of cash. New York City paid a portion of its bills, as well as sponsor Maxwell House instant coffee. The main stage had to face West in order to use natural sunlight because, “There was no budget, no money, no lights…”
Almost 40,000 people were in the park at any single moment, so there was a lot of excitement and indescribable energy during each set. The attendees were a reflection of the time, as they were far less concerned about man landing on the moon (which happened during the fest), than seeing the show’s headliners.
I wish I could have witnessed this concert series in person. Watching this film is almost just as good. Hopefully, people won’t remember Woodstock as the ONLY concert series taking place in 1969 New York.