‘Summer of Soul’: The Rapturous ‘Black Woodstock’ Buried From History for 50 Years
In 1969, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, B.B. King, and more performed at a revolutionary musical festival in Harlem. New doc “Summer of Soul” asks: How come nobody knew about it?
Near the beginning of the documentary Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Wasn’t Televised), a 19-year-old Stevie Wonder starts ad-libbing some opening bars to “It’s Your Thing.”
He’s clad in a stylish suit on a stage erected at Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park on a humid, rainy day in the summer of 1969. Not that the damp, stagnant weather stood a chance against his crisp vocals, which lacerated through the mugginess to the delight of local revelers singing along under umbrellas and makeshift ponchos.
After finishing a chorus, Wonder, shielded from the precipitation by a red-and-yellow parasol carried by a handler, makes his way to the drum kit and just starts wailing away. The sticks become blurs at the speed of it all.
In the world of music and the industry’s greatest legacies, you might consider this moment a superhero origin story. But did you even know it happened?
Or that, in the same summer on the same stage at the same Harlem Cultural Festival, Gladys Knight, near the rocket-launch start of her career, performed “Heard It Through the Grapevine” with the Pips. Sly and the Family Stone and B.B. King stunned with their sets. Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues” was so electric that, even through the grainy documentary footage, you could sense the jolt reverberating from Harlem throughout New York City.
Then there’s Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson, trading calls to God on a duet of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it. Jackson whispers to Staples that she’s not feeling well, and that the younger protégée would have to take the lead, which Staples does with grit and grace. But when Jackson stands and joins in, it’s like Gabriel’s horn sending out a blast to the rest of us here on Earth. Any ailments she had been suffering were now fully exorcised.
The production clapperboard glimpsed at the beginning of the film even reads “Black Woodstock.” How could all this happen, and so few know?
Just 100 miles northwest that same summer, the actual Woodstock Festival took place, its own axis-shifting moment in music and culture, but one that has been documented, parsed, eulogized, and exalted in such detail and so many times that younger generations can probably detail a moment-by-moment sequence of events at this point.
But the Harlem Cultural Festival that same year? Largely, we don’t know about it. That dissonance—the festival’s exaltation of representation and joy with the event’s erasure from cultural memory—is at the crux of Summer of Soul.
The documentary, which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, is released nationwide and on Hulu on Friday. As the country starts to open up and a ray of sunshine breaks through the dark cloud, it might be beaming on this film and what it means. It may actually be the concert event of the summer, given its revelation after 50 years.
But as directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (the multi-hyphenate of The Roots fame and so much more), it’s also a historical record, one that is long overdue and, at this particular watershed moment in American culture now, which sends a lightning-bolt spark through our notions of when and why Black voices are heard and elevated—and when and why they are silenced.
As the story goes, when Thompson was approached by producers claiming to have a treasure trove of footage from a 1969 festival that boasted this constellation of Black music legends, he was incredulous and dismissive. A music historian bordering on walking encyclopedia, he couldn’t believe that if such a thing ever took place, he didn’t know about it.
As he told The Los Angeles Times, Thompson polled his high-profile friends—Spike Lee, Nile Rodgers, Nelson George—and they all returned the same, skeptical raised eyebrow. Never heard of it.
When Thompson finally sat down to watch the footage, there was more, passionate disbelief. This festival did happen. Those phenomenal performances did take place, over the course of six weekends in 1969. And it was all filmed by the late director Hal Tulchin, who after the event took place couldn’t sell it. For 50 years, footage of this moment of music, one so cosmic that the instinct is to assume its very existence was a lie, sat in a basement.
If Thompson felt like he was having his Indiana Jones-discovering-the-Ark of the Covenant moment, it translates to the film. The concert footage radiates, like a buried jewel reacting to exposure to air for the first time.
There were ostensibly different avenues Thompson could have taken when piecing together a documentary.
In the afterglow of Amazing Grace, Sydney Pollack’s capture of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 New Bethel Baptist Church performance, finally seeing the light of day after more than 45 years, an approach that let the footage of the performers and the crowd tell its own story, like Pollack’s film, would have been a fascinating capsule. A traditional talking-head-and-voiceover style would provide the necessary context highlighting why this festival at this time was so important to the community, and why its casting from history has been so appalling.
Summer of Soul is a shrewd marriage of the two. The 5th Dimension take the stage to perform their chart-topping “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” medley from Hair, and if you’re not out of your seat, humming along, or, at the very least, tapping your armrest—whatever is most appropriate for your viewing venue—something must have short-circuited within you. The sequence in which group members Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo watch and react to the footage now, 50 years later, is just as moving.
They discuss the backlash they received for being a pop-sounding act at the time, when, they say, music was racially segregated between pop and the blues. “We were in the middle,” Davis says. McCoo covers her face, she’s so overcome with emotion.
”We were constantly being attacked because we weren’t quote-unquote ‘black enough,’” McCoo says. “We were sometimes called the Black group with the white sound. We didn’t want that. We happened to be artists who were Black and sounded the way we sound. That used to be our question: How do you color a sound? That was why performing in Harlem was so important to us. We wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping that they would receive us.”
There’s an undeniable power in listening to the artists themselves recount their memories of the festival and what it meant to them, their careers, and their understanding of their music’s place in the community and, at the time, the movement.
Knight remembers how all the up-and-coming acts—the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations—lived around the corner from each other. Staples recounts being in awe at the diversity of the performers: “When you talk about music, this Black festival, it’s some of every kind. It’s some of every style. Jazz, blues, gospel. All of it is good. All of it makes you feel good.”
In the film, a slew of gospel acts treat Mt. Morris Park like a church. Then Motown star David Ruffin melts the congregants like fangirls with a rendition of “My Girl.”
Those who attended recall the event as a gathering of joy and culture that is largely ignored by the media in favor of violence, tragedy, and unrest. Musa Jackson, who was a child when it took place, remembers the distinct smell of “Afro Sheen and chicken.”
“It was the ultimate Black barbecue,” he says. “Then you begin to hear music, and someone speaking, and you knew it was something bigger.”
Every moment is such a pleasure to see and each person’s account is so illuminating that the questions never go away: Why am I only hearing about this now? Why was this footage buried? Why was this history erased?
Summer of Soul’s public service, beyond the gift of these performances, is in that interrogation. It lays out the circumstances of that concert, so that you have a better understanding why it mattered so much—both then in its existence and now in its disappearance.
In the years leading up to it, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. loomed large. Amplified by the dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War, the prevailing feeling was that the system was letting the people down. There was a divide between those preaching non-violence in protest and those supporting self-destructive behavior, “or,” as Al Sharpton says in the film, “worse.”
There was looting in Harlem in 1968. There was a fear of the anger and rage boiling over, and a repeat of those ’68 events. As one attendee says, the goal of the festival “may very well have been to keep Black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”
How do you square such an undeniable demonstration of Black culture with those circumstances behind it? How do you separate the rhapsody of such a discovery as this festival footage from the pain of American history’s white gaze that, for 50 years, ensured that we looked away from it? And why is that? Why hide instead of celebrate it? What would have happened if we did?
The intensity of those questions are met by the intensity of the performances, a combustion of profound entertainment that demands your attention. It’s the past, the present, and the future. And, damn, is it fun to watch.