At the 50th anniversary of the dominantly white Woodstock festival and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement diversity activists and the black community discover their own forgotte black Woodstock , the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 and are dedicating it a movie “Summer of Soul”.
The summer of 1969 was one of the historic events, especially for the USA: The world watched with fascination when the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the moon on July 20th. A month later, the public marveled at a major pop culture event on a meadow in Bethel, New York, to which around 400,000 hippies made a pilgrimage and cheered the rock heroes of the counterculture era. But it was the white counterculture. For the African-American and Hispanic communities in America, the biggest historical event of this hot summer was a different one: the Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held over six weekends between June and August in the middle of the Afro-American district of Manhattan – curated by the black singer and entrepreneur Tony Lawrence , supported by the liberal white Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, guarded by the Black Panther party militia because the police refused to provide security in the hotspot area. The situation in the city was tense: In the metropolitan areas of the USA, African Americans were fighting against poverty and drugs, crime and crumbling infrastructure at the end of the 1960s, and at the political level there was at times a militant argument about institutional racism and civil rights. The demonstrations against the war in Vietnam also heated the mood. Rioting and violence were the order of the day. Despite the explosive situation, the festival was a series of peaceful, family-friendly open-air concerts, at which soul and R&B superstars such as Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and Nina Simone performed in front of around 300,000 visitors – a respite: It was »like a huge barbecue festival „, as one of the visitors calls it, and at the same time a meaningful moment of awakening of a self-confident and proud black culture.
So how is it that everyone knows Woodstock, but hardly anyone has ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event of at least as great importance in pop culture? The live recordings of the festival, which the filmmaker Hal Tulchin made with a small crew on video material that was still unorthodox at the time, boxes full of tapes and cassettes, were stored in his basement for almost 50 years. Nobody was interested. While the festival was running, a local New York station showed summaries several times, but the recordings have not been used for films and documentaries since then, despite Tulchin’s many unsuccessful efforts.
Until now. Shortly before his death in 2017, Tulchin gave his treasure to the hip-hop musician and pop intellectual Amir Thompson, who plays the drums under the name Questlove for the rap group The Roots and the studio band of Late Night Talker Jimmy Fallon directs. Like a DJ, he curated a sensational and very disturbing concert film from the chaos of material, the „black“ counterpart to Michael Wadleigh’s famous Woodstock documentary, so to speak. He won the audience award and the jury’s grand prix at this year’s Sundance Festival. „Summer of Soul“ can be seen on the streaming service Disney +. „It wasn’t just about the music“ Stevie Wonder, the young, blind Motown star, who discovered his own musical voice and identity at the time, opens the series of unprecedented performances with a furious drum solo. Soul singer Mavis Staples sings together with gospel icon Mahalia Jackson the favorite song of Martin Luther King, who was murdered the year before, „My Precious Lord“. Nina Simone, the grande dame of R&B and jazz music, presents her touching ballad „To Be Young Gifted and Black“ to the public for the first time, sings her ghostly „Backlash Blues“ and recites an angry poem by David Nelson with bongo beats of the members of the radical soul group The Last Poets: „Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings, are you ready?“, She calls out to the crowd five years after the infamous, violent „Harlem Riots“.
However, the audience and musicans prefered to celebrate peacefully. “Are you ready to build black things?” Is a more constructive message from Simone’s sermon that is more popular. „We wanted progress,“ says R&B singer Gladys Knight in an interview clip. “Something important happened these days. It wasn’t just about the music ”. 1969 was the decisive year in which the word „Negro“ died and „Black“ was born, according to the Reverend and civil rights activist Al Sharpton. The audience celebrated this new self-image with colorful African dashiki robes, proud, unrestrained Afro hairstyles and gospel chants. The South African jazz star Hugh Masekela performed as well as the Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría. The festival in Harlem also symbolized the solidarity between the Afro-American and the Puerto Rican-Cuban population of New York, who felt marginalized, as it were, by the white majority society. „Forget the moon,“ says one of the festival goers mockingly in the film about the Apollo mission in space, „they should rather bring some of the money here.“ The world public took no notice of the events in Harlem, the cultural revolution was not televised nationwide, as New York musician Gil-Scott Heron summed up in one of his most famous songs a year after Harlem. “When the Revolution could not be televised” is also the subtitle that Questlove gave to his two-hour film.
The 50-year-old, an accomplished essayist and critic in the field of black pop culture history, is still stunned that even he knew nothing about the festival and its importance for a long time. „The fact that 40 hours of footage was withheld from the public is evidence that there is historical revisionism,“ Thompson said in the film’s press release. He wanted to ensure „that the extermination of blacks“ no longer took place during his lifetime. Questlove’s film appears at a time when the struggle of Afro-Americans for social recognition is hardly less bitter than it was 50 years ago: Despite high-profile protests against racist police violence in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the creation of the nationwide »Juneteenth« Conservative US Republicans are currently trying to level out educational achievements such as Black History Month in schools on public holidays: it is best not to talk about centuries of slavery and oppression in class. The only music act that appeared in both Harlem and Woodstock was the then revolutionary and successful soul band Sly and the Family Stone („Higher“), which rarely had white members at the time . Jimi Hendrix, one of the few African American artists in Woodstock, would have liked to perform in Harlem, but was not allowed to. Why, even Questlove couldn’t find out during his electrifying trip into the soul summer of ’69.
However, Andreas Borcholte in the German magazine SPIEGEL makes up his mind what Woodstock was, mainly a white middle class festival and how a modern day diversified Woodstock which combines all colours and sexual orientations could, should or would look like.
“Woodstock was a stroke of luck in history caused by chaos, coincidence and zeitgeist – and as such is unrepeatable. A comparable festival for our time would be radically different than 50 years ago.”
The 1969 Woodstock Festival had nothing to do with nostalgia. It was a moment of political and social present through and through. America waged war in Vietnam, and young men were confronted with being drafted into arms. The „Love & Peace“ movement of the hippies, which had started in the summer of 1967, had also become stale after the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Riots of angry and disappointed Afro Americans raged in the big cities. Counterculture morality suffered from the atrocities of the Manson family. The situation seemed hopeless, disillusioning. The promise of a three-day music festival in the country, not far from New York City, was nevertheless able to electrify the youth – all the more so when
„Woodstock“ turned out to be a free event at first unintentionally and then inevitably. But that didn’t have much to do with the last boom of the hippie spirit, which the event is often stylized as. It resulted from a multitude of unplanned twists and turns and events born of chaos on the meadow of the dairy farmer Max Yasgur in Bethel, New York, some 70 kilometers southwest of Woodstock. Previously, up to 200,000 people had purchased tickets that cost 18 dollars in advance, adjusted for inflation that would be around 120 dollars today, so not a bargain. The festival was supposed to make a profit – and above all to promote a new recording studio complex that the festival financiers Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts wanted to build in Woodstock.
Some of the most important musicians of the era, Bob Dylan and The Band, lived in the area at the time; ironically, Dylan of all people did not appear at the festival in the end. Creedence Clearwater Revival was one of the first bands to say the word – not exactly avant-garde or hippie, but one of the rock acts popular across all classes and classes of those days, a headliner suitable for the masses, one would say today. In the end, around half a million people came to Bethel and organizer Michael Lang, who had previously managed events with a maximum of 25,000 visitors, lost control – over the traffic chaos, the schedule, the food. It is thanks to the „Hog Farm“ community with its muesli kitchen and the courageous citizens from the surrounding area with their water and food donations that Woodstock is not considered a disaster today. The US army, of all things, also helped to supply the masses.
That it stayed peaceful? Pure random. Journalist Judy Berman recently speculated in „Time“ magazine that ultimately the lack of diversity among artists and audiences also benefited the festival’s success: African-Americans and Latinos were just as clearly underrepresented in Woodstock as gays and lesbians. In view of the race riots in cities like Detroit and the Stonewall riots in New York, what would the helpfulness of the troops and rural populations have been like if the Woodstock crowd hadn’t consisted mostly of middle-class, white straight people? Just four months later, the outbreak of violence at the festival in Altamont showed what a stroke of luck, what an exception Woodstock had been. Joni Mitchell, who had not performed at Bethel but made a decisive contribution to the festival’s Garden of Eden myth with her anthem „Woodstock“, came to tears on stage at the first Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 because of so much aggression gave in the audience.
The 1999 Woodstock remake, which resulted in violence, rape and uncontrolled fires on the premises, reminded him of scenes from the war phantasmagoria „Apocalypse Now,“ said Anthony Kiedis, singer with the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the time. It is important to bear all of this in mind if one should come up with the idea of regretting the cancellation of the „Woodstock 50“ anniversary concert. Another nostalgic infusion, as Michael Lang last wanted to organize in Maryland with appearances by current stars such as Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z or the pop rock band Imagine Dragons, would at best have become as irrelevant as the Woodstock festivals of 1989 and 1994 .
Therefore the SPIEGEL author drafts a blueprint, how a new rainbow diversified, politcal New Woodstockcould look like:
“Set a sign of hope against a reactionary zeitgeist / spirit of the age
But just because the original Woodstock cannot be repeated, a new Woodstock would not be fundamentally wrong. On the contrary: A culmination of modernized hippie ideals, progressive counterculture and peace movement to the soundtrack of significant contemporary pop music could even be eminently important today – to set a sign of hope against a reactionary zeitgeist that is as gloomy as in 1969: The US Society is more divided than ever under President Trump, racism and social injustice are omnipresent. The Iran crisis threatens a new war in the Middle East, global morality is desolate, and nationalistic instincts prevail. Add to that climate change, refugee dramas, acute water and resource shortages: it couldn’t be more hopeless or disillusioning.
Woodstock’s legacy, if there is one, is the politically charged pop festival per se. A direct line can be drawn from the „Three days of Peace and Music“ to the festivals founded a little later in Glastonbury, Reading and Roskilde, but also up to the anti-WAAhnsinns festivals of the eighties against nuclear power and benefit events like Live-Aid. The spirit of Woodstock was in the Berlin Love Parade as well as in today’s pop gatherings such as Lollapalooza, Coachella and Primavera. And when in Chemnitz, as again a few weeks ago, pop musicians come together for a festival against right-wing radicalism under the hashtag #wirsindmehr, then that goes back to the initial spark of August 1969. Apparently, even in a digitally revolutionized world, in which the solidarity of countercultures largely takes place in virtual space, there is still the need for real get-togethers in squares, meadows and fields, where pure hedonism and political awareness come together through the catalyst pop to create a meaningful communal experience.
A Woodstock that would have the potential to send out as strong a signal as the original would, however, have to be designed radically differently today than it was 50 years ago. Peace, love and music – but for everyone! It would have to free itself from the nostalgic background noise of past time conditions and ideals as well as from the fully commercialized standard of popular pop festivals. Major sponsors, whom Michael Lang had to fall back on recently, shouldn’t play a role. Even the artists, used to exorbitant fees, would have to limit themselves to a maximum of symbolic sums so that the entrance fees would not cost up to 450 dollars, as with „Woodstock 50“. Because a Woodstock that, then as now, is aimed solely at a socially homogeneous, financially well-endowed hipster audience, would have failed in the first place.
After all, it would be about a really utopian, cross-class dialogue in neoliberal times: Peace, Love and Music – but for everyone! Everyone, that doesn’t just mean the white, heteronormative mainstream, but also People of Color and the LGBT community. A truly contemporary festival line-up would not only need an established rap mogul and a few white rock and pop acts as headliners, but in the best case would also need African-American feminist symbolic figures like Beyoncé and her sister Solange, spiritual jazz hippies like Kamasi Washington, avant-garde, queer pop personalities like Charli XCX, Arca or Sophie, at least Latin stars like Rosalía and J Balvin. And of course popular hip-hop artists like Future, Drake, Cardi B or Migos, they represent, at least in the USA, the mainstream in the charts and on the radio.
There should also be workshops on climate change and ecological mindfulness in everyday life, maybe roundtables about racism, sexism, white privilege and toxic masculinity, but also about the pitfalls of identity politics, maybe even yoga against the Trump trauma. There would be experimental film and multimedia art and social media streams that transport the whole thing for free and free of advertising into the wide world. But there are also cell phone-free zones and time periods so that people can really talk to each other. Where’s the fun, the chaos, the freedom? Like back then in Woodstock, there is primarily vegetarian and vegan food from natural sources, but this time on purpose. There would be safe spaces for women and minorities, violence would be punished, sexual assault and hate-speech would be anyway. There would be no traffic chaos anyway, as traveling by traditional car would be forbidden. Festival visitors would have to use e-vehicles or local public transport.
Doesn’t that sound so utopian? But for a Coachella festival that could also take place in the near future? Or like the libertarian, ad-free Fusion Festival in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania? On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, a paradox reveals itself in this pointed, certainly also naive vision: Because none of this sounds like three days of joke and anarchic buzz. It sounds like discipline and grassroots commitment, like willingness to donate and volunteer work – and like a lot of respectful interaction with the most diverse social classes and ethnic groups. It doesn’t sound „groovy“ in the sense of the laissez-faire hippies. There would be rules, rules, rules and – presumably – less „free love“ and excessive drug use. Boring! Where’s the fun, the chaos, the freedom? Well But that, not the overpriced price for an access ticket to an elite nostalgia festival, would probably be the price for the „Freedom“ of which Richie Havens sang in his largely improvised anthem at the beginning of the Woodstock Festival in 1969. History shows that one cannot rely on luck and chance. „
However the question is if such a festival would attract any masses of people or not a very limited politically correct insider Hippster group or what Sarah Wagenknecht calls “ the life style Left”. And Yoga against Trump sounds rather unpolitical.