By Jean Lowerison
Everybody knows about that wild 1969 hippie fest at Woodstock. But how many have heard of the Harlem Culture Festival, which took place 100 miles south of Woodstock and in part contemporaneously with that event?
The Harlem festival was taped, but the footage sat in a basement for 50 years, never seen publicly until the release of the film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which will be available for streaming on Hulu from July 2 and in theaters.
This festival was no hippie happening but a series of concerts attracting some 300,000 African Americans featuring the likes of Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Moms Mabley, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and bands like The 5th Dimension and Gladys Knight & the Pips. It took place in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) for six weeks between June 29 and August 24, 1969. Woodstock took place from August 15-19 of that year.
Director Amir “Questlove” Thompson took the footage and made a fascinating film that’s part music video, part history and still very relevant.
Backers were hard to find because they thought they might not be paid. Fortunately, Maxwell House Coffee and General Foods stepped up.
These concertgoers were not just looking for a party — they were there to celebrate Black culture and in search of something bigger than that: call it progress, even freedom.
One participant notes, “We want our freedom now.” It’s been a long struggle, starting in the 17th century, and is not over yet.
The film is a fascinating blast from the musical past, with performances and 20-some songs from many of the best-known singers of the time.
One of the most familiar groups is the 5th Dimension, with their crazy clothes and wild colors, singing their #1 hit combining “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” from the hippie musical “Hair.”
Enjoy the high falsetto notes of David Ruffin, lead singer of The Temptations, singing the Motown hit “My Girl.” And the music of Ray Barretto, percussionist and bandleader born in New York of Puerto Rican ancestry, who is said to have “put the Afro-Puerto Rican soul in pop music.”
There’s plenty of gospel music to be heard. Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault probably speaks for the group when she says, “Gospel is deep in my DNA. It helped us march on and confront the most violent acts.” The Edwin Hawkins Singers offer “Oh, Happy Day” and Mavis Staples is shown singing “Precious Lord” after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Watch Nina Simone, with huge double-hooped silver earrings, as she sits at the piano, singing and playing “Backlash Blues.”
Sly & the Family Stone offer “Everyday People,” the band’s first #1 hit.
Its history, its celebration, its music and its joy is a reminder that real freedom hasn’t been attained yet. “Summer of Soul” is a piece of history that is hidden no longer. Perhaps this cynical comment will not be true much longer either: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that Black history will be erased.”
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.