“Summer of Soul”: Saving a Historic Harlem Music Festival


In the summer of 1969, Musa Jackson, four, and Darryl Lewis, 19, attended a music festival. “Even now, when I think about it, I’m a little emotional, because it’s something that I’ve had in my heart, in my head since I was four years old,” Jackson said.

“There were some who thought I had made it up!” Lewis laughed.

But he did not do it ; he and Jackson were part of the crowd that gathered at Mount Morris Park in Harlem. “It was really like a sea of ​​people,” Jackson said.

They weren’t there other music festival in upstate New York: “I haven’t seen Woodstock; my parents didn’t want to let me go! Lewis burst out laughing.

Woodstock is said to have defined a generation. But that summer’s Harlem Culture Festival, featuring stars like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Fifth Dimension, and attended by around 300,000 people, remained. outside history books.

The Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Mass media

“This mythical, magical festival launched in 1969, with all these big names, and I’ve never heard of it?” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson said. “When I was shown it, I was very quickly humiliated!”

For Thompson, frontman of house group “The Tonight Show” The Roots, this magical festival is now the basis of his documentary, “Summer of Soul”, which opens this week. “It’s not just for me to make my first directorial debut,” he said. “I was given the responsibility of correcting the story, which, who thought, you know?” “

The festival, hosted and hosted by singer Tony Lawrence, was filmed by TV producer Hal Tulchin, but the 40 hours of footage went largely invisible.

“Sunday Morning” contributor Hua Hsu asked, “What happened? Why haven’t we heard of this festival?”

Roots frontman Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, director of “Summer of Soul”.

CBS News

“The # 1 question I always got was like, ‘Wait a minute, are you trying to tell me that for 50 years no one was interested?’” Said Thompson. “I know Hal Tulchin went out of his way to find any one. No one would take it.”

Until Thompson, who couldn’t take his eyes off the pictures. “I pretty much kept this constant for five months in a row, no matter where I was in the world, like on the plane looking at my phone, in the bathroom, in the shower.”

“What were you looking for?” Hsu asked. “What were the times that would require you to sit down and take a note?” “

“If I could find something shocking and visually shocking for someone, that would be my debut,” he replied.

A 19 year old Stevie Wonder playing the drums is quite difficult to forget. “It really makes perfect sense,” Hsu said.

Thompson said, “Yeah, he’s not little Stevie Wonder anymore. And this performance here is that he’s realizing his powers.”

Stevie Wonder performed at the Harlem Culture Festival in 1969.

Mass distraction media

The singer Marilyn McCoo, of The Fifth Dimenson, hypnotized the young Musa Jackson: “I was in love!”

The festival, which ran all summer, shows a community in transition. “Dashikis and sideburns and sunglasses,” Jackson noted.

Sly and the Family Stone sang their counterculture anthem, “Everyday People,” and wore matching styles. “They are among the first groups to dress like hippies! Lewis said.

Thompson said, “The younger generation, the people under 23, are losing their collective spirit. Sly and Family Stone were performing with a kind of freedom you’ve never seen before.”

Others, like David Ruffin, who had just left the Temptations, stuck to Motown standards – and resisted the record label’s button-down look. “It’s mid-August, and David Ruffin is wearing a woolen tuxedo and a coat!” Thompson said. “You know, you could clearly see the Motown glamor school coming over to play. He could have had the same magic in his usual street clothes. But back then you had to cross your T’s and point your I’s so you didn’t get upset. or do, like, white people are afraid. “

That summer, Musa Jackson said, Harlem was a very close-knit neighborhood (“Everyone was your mother, everyone was your father. You felt really safe”), and in some ways he was excluded from it. the story that was being done elsewhere.

Thompson said: “We did a lot of research, and back when Stevie was performing, that’s when the moon landing happens, when Stevie is playing. And we were looking at the footage and I was like : “Wait: was that booing? Are they booing? ‘”

Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, but the people of Harlem had greater concerns here on Earth. A viewer told CBS News’s Bill Plante, “As far as I’m concerned, gas is wasted on the way to the moon. It could have been used to feed more black people in Harlem and all over the country. “

Thompson said: “Almost everyone just expressed their disdain for it, which I didn’t know was so universal.”

The year before, the civil rights law had been broadened, but it came in the wake of the unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hsu said, “It’s a movie about music, but it’s also a movie about history.”

“1969 was a paradigm shift, especially for black people, you know, at the end of the civil rights era,” Thompson said. “It was the first year that we called ourselves Black. It’s the first year that, you know, we recognize that Black is beautiful.”

At a time when there is, once again, an account of race in America, Thompson said this film is important for what it doesn’t contain. When asked what he hopes will resonate with audiences today, Thompson replied: It’s black joy. What worries me is that there is a generation that just thinks our history is being hit in the head with batons or sprayed with fire hoses. But there are also all the different facets of our lives that also need to be shown. “

For Musa Jackson and Darryl Lewis, it was about time.

“That’s what I remember,” Jackson said, “and to be validated, almost to the letter. Like, to the letter!”

“In my memory, Woodstock is actually the White Harlem Cultural Festival,” Lewis said.

Recently, Ahmir Questlove Thompson made a DJ at a celebration of his documentary with locals from Harlem, including some of the same people, in the same park where the Harlem Cultural Festival was held 50 years ago.

Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo perform at Questlove’s “Summer Of Soul” Screening and Live Concert at Marcus Garvey Park on June 19, 2021 in Harlem.

Roy Rochlin / Getty Images

Hsu asked, “What do you think it would have been like if [footage] actually received this life at the time? “

“This movie could also have defined a generation,” said Thompson. “We’ll never know the answer, what the effect would have been. But I believe that even 50 years later, it’s still as powerful and powerful as Woodstock was, and can still work its magic for another generation. . “

To watch a trailer for “Summer of Soul (… Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”, click on the video player below:

SUMMER OF THE SOUL | Official trailer through
SearchlightImages on Youtube

For more information:

Story produced by Mary Raffalli. Publisher: Carol Ross.


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