By Leah S. Abrams
If you were to watch the recently released documentary, “Summer of Soul” and, the next day, watch the “Woodstock” footage, both shot in the summer of 1969, one seen by multiple generations and the other – the astounding other – having sat in a basement for over fifty years, I challenge you to come away not feeling like two entirely different countries are on display. Not surprisingly, I would choose to live in the country represented by the lost footage of Harlem.
I remember my reaction to seeing the “Woodstock” footage – I have a vague recollection of later watching some uncut version which I recall largely as an error in judgement. I was utterly disheartened. I’d been so enamored with the idea of it, I was a fan of many of the presenting artists, so taken with the idea of a music festival that stood for something – was a protest for peace and a bucking of “the system.”
But the stories of things like not taking the “bad acid” had not been exaggerated and I recall thinking, mostly, “oh, gods, I never would’ve gone there. Look at all that mud and how are they all so OK being utterly filthy and who in hell wants to be naked in that with those east coast summer bugs and who exactly brings a kid to this sort of thing?”
How is it that I – that most all of us unless we’d been there or heard from someone who had been – never knew that, over the same summer, down in the city, in the heart of Harlem which had, that previous year, experienced such unbearable grief and devastation, there was a free multi-concert series as part of the, not first, but third Harlem Cultural Festival – a Summer of Soul series? Here in Manhattan, massive crowds of every age assembled, a community-wide family picnic, to hear a line-up that made my jaw literally drop and prompted a text to my mother that I’d found the festival for her, the woman who never could comprehend my fascination with Woodstock and was rightly appalled by my various attempts at a “hippie” look over several decades.
Where Woodstock claimed to be a festival about peace and love, it comes across, frankly, as a college party you call “epic” and, if you see it played back, recognize as a mucky mess whose grandness was nothing more than a drug and alcohol induced momentary epiphany that fades with sobriety and where the performers are your basic train wreck. I wasn’t sure where there was any actual mission or missive on display.
Now, all these decades on, they release what is surprisingly high video and audio quality of what was going on, simultaneously and all summer long, in a neighborhood that has long held a most special place in my heart because it is home to so many of my favorite writers and musicians (not to mention eateries).
In Harlem that summer, they were walking the walk – here was a festival whose mission did not smack you over the head nor hide itself entirely – no, this was the real deal where you get swept up, overtaken by this spirit, this very clear vision of how things really are in both the pain and the incredibly hopeful strength of community with a calling to embrace that, to rise up and show the powers that be what neighbor-caring-for-neighborhood can look like.
That summer of 1969, in Marcus Garvey Park (then, and still also, Mount Morris Park), struck me as several weeks of experiencing “Passing Strange” for the first time, with a slightly new cast and script each week. I should explain – I have never before or since been taken to another world, one so clearly not based in the realm of the physical body but in the realm of souls, as when I saw an early preview performance of “Passing Strange” when they still had costume pieces and an extra 45 minutes of material. I have only come close to reliving the experience upon subsequent live performance viewings of that show and each time I introduce someone to the Spike Lee filming of it… until I watched this documentary – this transformative church-like experience.
As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist upon whom the similarities between Judaism and Islam have never been lost and who likes to imagine herself a Druid, I assure you I use that church term universally. It isn’t that it is a holy experience, it is a transformative call to get on our feet, to celebrate life – the act of living, and to take action.
The Reverend Stephen Kendrick, in a sermon at First Church Boston some weeks back, talked about the ongoing struggle and that we have to always be fighting for what we can do to make things in the world more just, more fair, but that it isn’t about peace – that we cannot fix a world in which we simply find ourselves, like any other living thing that has come to being here. We did not create the world and so why should we be so arrogant (that may be my phrasing) as to think we can “fix” it? What we can do is be in the present moment, take in the world and experiences of others in it, and then fully embody the joy while also working toward a shared betterment – not an absolute solution where there is none.
That sermon came to mind more than once while watching Questlove’s stunningly brilliant documentary, “Summer of Soul.” With each performance, not to mention each interview and filmed reaction for the documentary itself, the message was alive – it’s broken, but we’re working to fix it and we are rejoicing in what is beautiful in and around us, come on and do it with us.
I want to remind you that, in the preceding half decade, four of the most influential Civil Rights leaders were assassinated, with Malcolm X having been murdered here in NYC, just north of Harlem, during an era when the mainstream media largely portrayed this beloved neighborhood of resilience suffering from systemic neglect, this place that was home to some of our nation’s should-be-most-recognized legendary artists of every variety over multiple generations as violent, decrepit, a place to be avoided, pitied, feared. Adding insult to injury, a picture emerged of the Black Panthers – community members providing free meals to kids and families, offering security in a place under-protected both by a lack of police presence and a suspicious, violent response from the police who were there – as violent insurrectionists.
Here I’d like to note that the only actual destructive insurrectionists in our nation’s history have been white nationalists, like the people who successfully breached the Capitol on Jan. 6th, with the help of some active members of Congress, the military, and police officers, threatening death to members of the government, including raising a gallows to hang the V.P. And, so that you don’t forget, these people came waving Confederate flags, sporting swastikas.
But I digress. Or do I? As much as “Summer of Soul” was a transportive spiritual experience, I was continually struck by all the political and social messaging embodied by this festival, particularly as contrasted with Woodstock.
Think about it – at a time of extremely heightened racial tensions, there existed, among other lost footage no doubt, this account of what Harlem was really about, who the Black Panthers actually were and all the care they offered that could be a balanced model for those now railing against what I’ll call reimagining rather than defunding the police, and what preachers like Jesse Jackson were truly saying and how affecting that message should be universally, and it was ignored. On top of that, you had on display mind-blowing performances by the country’s greatest musicians – Stevie Wonder, an almost unbelievably young Gladys Knight and the Pips, B.B. King, Sly and The Family Stone, a positively glorious Nina Simone, and on and on and on. There is a moment with Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson that literally brought me to tears.
These aren’t just the best of the best in music because, to be completely fair, some of those folks were at Woodstock and a select few, including Richie Havens (a personal hero, thanks to my mother and children’s television), gave brilliant performances, but this Harlem festival footage showcases superb camera work, editing, and sound engineering, all lacking from Woodstock. And then there is the documentary that Questlove has put together to finally share this film with the world – the two can be hard to distinguish.
I guess what I’m getting at is that this is all suspicious, no? While being abundantly clear? If I were in charge of a U.S. promotional campaign, I would for damn sure be putting this doc and not Woodstock into the world. I think back to some of my high school and jr. high teachers who could have had access to this for their creative history teaching approaches and feel again the too frequent disappointment in my country.
But then I take myself where a glimpse of this great cultural festival took me – to a recognition that, no matter how hard people may try to wipe out history, it hangs on to eventually be exposed and, in this case, provide a cynical-leaning me with reason for pride and gratitude toward that same country that is home to such tremendous spirit and talent and community strength.
We must, as it has long been said, simply keep on fighting on, appreciating each small step forward even as we know they go too in reverse in what may be the best evidence we have that time is not at all a linear path toward a destination or ultimate resolution. We journey ‘round, momentarily grateful for this bit of inspiring history coming to light, this collection of material that, as Mavis Staples describes: ““All of it is good – all of it makes you feel good.”