Summer of Soul: rescuing a lost festival from Woodstock's unlovely shadow

Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 featured a line-up of hugely influential black artists

Stevie Wonder performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of  1969

Stevie Wonder performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969

 

Which would be your dream line-up for a summer music festival? You could have Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar and Sly and the Family Stone. Alternatively you you could choose Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips and, er, Sly and the Family Stone.

The first of these line-ups is taken from the best-known music festival of all time, held at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm 65km southwest of the town of Woodstock between August 15th and 18th, 1969. The second comes from the almost forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival, held 170km away from Woodstock over six Sundays between June and August 1969 in Harlem, New York City. To most 21st-century eyes, the more exciting line-up would be the Harlem one, a stellar list of innovative artists whose influence still reverberates through contemporary music (I haven’t heard many Country Joe and the Fish samples lately).

Summer of Soul, a new documentary released this week, performs a welcome and long-overdue act of resurrection on this remarkable event. The film’s director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of Philadelphia hip-hop group The Roots, told the Guardian recently that “what actually made Woodstock legendary wasn’t the festival itself but the subsequent movie, which carefully edited and presented the festival, and changed people’s lives”.

TV networks

Why have most people, including me, never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival? TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the whole thing, but his attempts to interest the TV networks in his footage failed and, apart from some local TV broadcasts at the time, nobody saw the fruits of his labours for decades. At the opening of Summer of Soul, we’re told the footage “sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen.” The resulting film is framed as an act of resistance to this sort of effacement of black American history, culminating with Simone reciting the black nationalist poem Are You Ready?

Over the course of the last 52 years, Woodstock has been remembered, memorialised, re-broadcast, revived and anniversaried, all with a view to representing it as some sort of sacral moment in 20th-century culture. But the truth is most of the music heard there has faded into irrelevance and most of the performers are long forgotten. In the US, The Grateful Dead may still command a small band of avid followers, but really, given the choice between their tie-dyed noodling and, say, Gladys Knight and the Pips, there’s no contest.

If you really wanted a sense of the turbulence and transformation that were gripping the US in the summer of 1969, you were more likely to find it in Harlem

And yet Woodstock still holds a grip on the public consciousness in what is a depressingly familiar pattern in the history of pop music. White artists, widely acclaimed for their genius , gradually disappear from view, while their less heralded black contemporaries create groundbreaking work which remains underappreciated or misunderstood for years. So progressive rock in the 1970s or indie guitar music in the 1980s are venerated in mainstream print and broadcast media while the real creative breakthroughs happening at the same time in Jamaican studios or Detroit clubs are ignored. At times, the unpleasant subtext of all this bursts to the surface, as in the “Disco Sucks” movement of the late 1970s or the pronouncements of Morrissey.

Black pioneers

Ultimately, though, the music created by these black pioneers wins out and has a profound impact on the generations that follow.

Some may protest that Woodstock was not really about the music at all; it was the culmination of the social, political and cultural movements of the Sixties, a decade of radical change made flesh (and hair and skin and bodily fluids, to judge by the pictures) by the 400,000 people who gathered at Max Yasgur’s farm.

But, as Summer of Soul makes clear, if you really wanted a sense of the turbulence and transformation that were gripping the US in the summer of 1969, you were more likely to find it in Harlem, a year after the killings of Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X, as the post-civil rights generation found its voice and its style. Tulchin’s footage, onstage and off, captures the generational shift that’s happening, as old-school besuited soul singers like David Ruffin appear alongside day-glo Afro-futurist Sly Stone.

The hoary old problem of sublimated racism in popular music may not have gone away yet, but now, as white rock music fades from the mainstream and traditional media gatekeepers in radio and print lose their influence, it does appear to have lost some of the pernicious power it clearly held, despite all the protestations of peace and love in 1969.

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is in cinemas now, and on Star on Disney+ from July 30th

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