A music festival dominates our perception of what American culture was like half a century ago. It’s Woodstock, of course. Correctly filmed and recorded, it is a touchstone that social historians, documentary filmmakers and fathers who have already dropped acid – but not brown acid !! – come back several times.
And now, after more than 50 years, we have found another one. Also properly filmed and recorded, the Harlem Cultural Festival got lost in a basement because no one wanted to put the money in to finish it like a real movie.
I saw “Summer of Soul (… Or, When The Revolution Couldn’t Be Televised)” last week on the Hulu streaming service. It’s amazing, the best thing I’ve sat down for this year. But he deserves a big screen. Rochester’s Little Theater will show it this weekend.
Scott wallace and Doug’s curry, whose shows explore black music on Friday nights on WRUR-FM (88.5), were at the Little Theater last week for one of the “Summer of Soul” screenings, chatting with the audience after the show. They are the experts. Like Tara Nelson, curator of Animated image collections at the Rochester Visual Studies Workshop. Wallace says that during a conversation with Nelson, he found out that she knew some of the people who brought the movie to the fore after all these years.
“She said when they opened the boxes,” Wallace said, “there was mold, right on the film, on the reels and things, so they had to clean it up.
Which brings us to “Summer of Soul” director Ahmir Thompson, known to the entertainment world as Questlove, the founder of the endlessly curious hip-hop group The Roots. He is also a DJ and record producer, and leads The Roots as a house group for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”. And when those Harlem Cultural Festival recordings emerged from that basement, he was now a film producer.
Questlove is a vocal spokesperson for “lost” music. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he spoke at length about his own record collection and his role as curator of sound that he didn’t want to see go to waste because no one realized that stuff like that. once existed.
Since then, his mission has not changed. In the current issue of the New YorkerQuestlove says that with an acceleration in acquisitions over the past six years, he now has about 200,000 vinyl records sorted and stacked on a farm he owns in upstate New York. He concedes that he will never be able to listen to them all. “It’s performative now,” he told The New Yorker. “If I can reach 5% in my lifetime …”
“Summer of Soul” makes it clear that 5% of its collection – funk, R&B, soul, rock, pop, country and maybe all the albums released by The Chipmunks – are beyond the reach of most humans. So it is a good guide for “Summer of Soul”.
Music is one of the best vehicles for preserving a moment in time. Over the weekend of July 4th, I heard a lot of music that was defined as “patriotic”. Much of it tells the story of what was being said at the time. Country music born on September 11 urged America to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into identical ash pits. But I was also listening to Steve Earle’s “Hardcore Troubadour” show on SiriusXM radio, and he sees patriotism from a different perspective. Patriotism is not “my country, good or bad”. Patriotism is a protest.
The very existence of “Summer of Soul” could be seen as a protest. Or challenge. Perhaps, properly funded, we would have known this “Black Woodstock” decades ago. Or maybe not. This country seems to have a place for black history, a back shelf where the Harlem Cultural Festival sits next to another anniversary noted just a few months ago – 100 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre.
And the darkest aspect of “Summer of Soul,” Wallace says, was to provide a distraction for black citizens of New York City.
“They said it was a way to keep the city from burning, to keep the city from burning,” he said.
And the “unspoken hope” that music would calm the fires of civil rights.
“Yeah, I don’t think there is any doubt about it,” Wallace said. “So no one probably will admit it, but yeah, that’s what they wanted.”
Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s Goin ‘On” is the Top 10 of all time not only for the music, but also for the story it tells. It’s a concept album, built around a Vietnamese veteran who returns to his neighborhood, questioning not only the war, but also drugs, poverty and the inequalities of society. Caring about the people in your neighborhood is patriotism.
There is a simmer similar to “Summer of Soul”. The camera moves away from the stage, stopping to listen to what people are saying in the crowd about another big event that summer. The United States had just sent men to the moon. And the opinions were fairly unanimous: this money would have been better spent on building neighborhoods.
“Watching this movie triggered a lot of memories for me, and where was my head,” Wallace says.
In 1969, he was 11 years old, a kid in the Navy whose family had just moved to Henrietta. His father was black, his mother Japanese. Her great-grandmother was Cherokee. “So I was always in between,” Wallace says.
“But I remember back then black people were going from being called ‘colored’ to ‘black.’ Which was a great thing.
Gil Scott-Heron is not in “Summer of Soul”. But perhaps you remember his spoken word “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, which seems to have crept into the film’s subtitle. Another of his pieces, released a year after the Harlem Cultural Festival, is ‘Whitey on the Moon’, and reflects the perspective of those who have questioned our priorities:
With all this money I made last year
For Whitey on the moon
How come I don’t have any money here?
Hmm, Whitey’s on the moon
So that was a reality at the time, 1969, at the Harlem Cultural Festival. It doesn’t take much in retrospect to agree that we could have done without the Vietnam War. But when it comes to expanding our view of the universe, what was said 50 years ago may not hold up today. The outlook is changing. Whitey hasn’t been to the moon for almost four decades.
There was a lot going on in the country in 1969. And as history records, it wasn’t a lot of good stuff.
“When I was watching the movie and all the social issues that were going on,” Wallace says, “I mean, the music and the social issues were completely, they’re connected. You really can’t separate them.
“At that time, the assassinations had taken place, there were a lot of injuries, there was impatience. And that’s how it became this attitude of “We want what we want, we want change, and we want it now.” “
This was not planned. But music and social issues worked hand in hand.
“In 1970, it seemed like, ‘Let’s just start going there,’” Wallace says. “And you started to see more aggressive things happening. Like Curtis Mayfield’s record. You started to see, like, different instruments, like what Funkadelic was doing with guitars. It was loud, it was brash, they weren’t really commercially viable at the time. But they were still there in the subway, and that was part of the scene.
“Hairstyles were changing, people started to wear dashikis. And because some of this stuff was selling really well, I think the record companies were less afraid to go.
The civil rights movement and “Summer of Soul” show us that it was worth going. “Summer of Soul” was actually six weekends of music, though Questlove almost seamlessly weaves them into what feels like an impossible afternoon of 600,000 people. They came to see Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, BB King and Nina Simone. Pop Staples and the Staples Singers. Drummer Max Roach arrives for the authenticity of jazz. Bell bottom pants, pastel colors, swirling fringes and a backdrop that seems inspired by the TV show “Laugh-In”. Gladys Knight & the Pips, with these swirling dance routines. There’s 5th Dimension and their new hit, “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In”, co-written by a guy who grew up in Rochester, James Rado.
It was lively music. For downtime.
Sorta like last year. The joy of “Summer of Soul” comes just at the right time. Relief.
Jeff Spevak is the WXXI Arts and Life Editor and Journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected].