Last night, via Hulu, my wife and I finished watching Summer of Soul, a hugely entertaining movie about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that featured outdoor concerts with musicians such as...
Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, and The Fifth Dimension.
It's been called the Black Woodstock.
However, a big difference is that Woodstock, which also happened in 1969, became a cultural phenomenon, with a movie about the festival coming out just a year later in 1970. By contrast, footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival sat untouched for fifty years.
Thankfully, we're now able to see many of the acts that thrilled a mostly Black crowd of 35,000 or so who crowded into Mount Morris Park for six concerts in the summer of 1969.
I found the movie deeply moving for several reasons.
The emotions conveyed by the musicians gripped me. The movie flips back and forth between video of the performances and footage of what was going on in the country around that time.
Murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Vietnam War. Hippies. Drugs. Hair, the musical. Black Panthers. It was a tumultuous time.
I was attending San Jose State College in 1969. Me and my hippie friends would go to San Francisco, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, tripping on marijuana, psychedelics, or both.
Once we saw Ike and Tina Turner, but I don't recall seeing any other Black musical groups in person. So it was a delight to watch them perform in Summer of Soul, since their TV appearances back then were a lot less soulful than the Harlem performances.
The movie talks about how music was used to both express the Black experience and to help Blacks deal with the many challenges they faced back then. Also today, of course.
Seeing the faces of the crowd as they watched the Harlem Cultural Festival performances made me realize much more deeply how soul, blues, and gospel music touched the Black community. This was a special event for Harlem. Attendees speaking today in the film would say that they'd never been with 30,000 fellow Blacks in one place before.
The highlight of Summer of Soul for me was Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing Take My Hand Precious Lord. A short clip someone put on You Tube doesn't do justice to their performance, but it gives a hint of the strong feelings expressed by Jackson and Staples.
What kept going through my mind as I watched Summer of Soul is that expressing how we really feel may not make a crappy situation better, or make a pleasant situation even more enjoyable, but it connects us more deeply to reality -- whatever that reality may consist of.
I saw hundreds of years of Black oppression and Black culture being expressed on the stage of the Harlem Cultural Festival. And I know that the people who attended the festival viewed those performances with much clearer inner eyes, since they were living the realities being sung about.
I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that when The Fifth Dimension came on stage and sang songs from Hair, I thought, "Well, damn, they're Black." I didn't know that.
A member of The Fifth Dimension said in a present-day interview that they were criticized for being Black and sounding white. Yet she noted that they couldn't help sounding however they did, correctly saying that it was ridiculous to expect them to sound Black -- as if that's an actual sound.
Here's a 1970 video of them performing The Age of Aquarius.
Sly and the Family Stone brought back memories, though I can't be sure if I ever saw this band in person. (OK, there's lots I can't remember from that psychedelic era; as the saying goes, if you can remember the 1960s, you weren't there.)
Sly singing Wanna Take You Higher to the Harlem audience had mixed messages. Sure, that what's marijuana and other drugs do. Sly also seemed to be speaking to the heights Blacks could reach if the forces keeping them down were lessened.
I think this video is from the Woodstock performance by Sly and the Family Stone.