The most popular music festival you've probably never heard of

Rescued footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival showcases artists from Nina Simone to Sly and the Family Stone.

Sly Stone was among the performers on stage during the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. The legendary event is the focus of the documentary "Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" now available on Hulu.
Photograph via Searchlight Pictures/Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

In August 1969 Dorinda Drake and some girlfriends had plans to go to the much-publicized Woodstock concert with some boys, but the boys ditched them so the girls stayed home to attend a summer concert in Harlem instead. 

Then 18, Drake remembers hanging out backstage with the performers and overlooking a sea of 50,000 Black people gathered at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park).

The Harlem Cultural Festival served as a pause from the racial and civil unrest sweeping across the United States during the late 1960s including riots, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and anti-war protests.

“I mean, it was exactly what we needed under the circumstances, because so many negative things were happening to Black folks, and the assassinations and all that kind of stuff,” Drake says. “To have a whole weekend of happy experiences for people to forget what we were dealing with, you know, just for a few moments, at least, that was spectacular because the timing was perfect.”

While Woodstock, which occurred at the same time 100 miles away in upstate New York, became one of the most celebrated music festivals in American culture, the history of the Harlem Cultural Festival was nearly erased. Most of the footage from the event was locked in a basement for 50 years, away from the public eye and consciousness

The story of this concert series, a key cultural moment in American history, now has been introduced in a new documentary, “Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”. The two-hour film, available on Hulu, is directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer for the Grammy Award-winning group the Roots and band leader on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

Attended by more than 300,000 people during six weeks from June 29 to August 24, 1969,  the Sunday concerts featured some of the world’s best entertainers and musicians—from Stevie Wonder to Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, and B.B. King. Not only were there musical guests but politicians such as New York Mayor John Lindsay, who designated the festival as a celebration of Black arts and culture, and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Marcus Garvey Jr. who also made appearances.

Activists and politicians believed the festival was the perfect setting to discuss issues Black Americans faced at that time. In one scene, Jackson talks about King’s assassination followed by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which was King’s favorite song.

The festival has been called the most popular music festival that you have never heard of. Even some who attended the festival believed they had no recollection of the event until seeing footage in the documentary.

Now 70, Drake, who is featured in the film, describes the festival as beautiful gathering of Black people joined together peacefully simply to enjoy the music.

“All the happy faces, the families, that’s what I remember most, and the crowds were just so happy,” Drake says. “And to see a bunch of happy Black faces like that…I know we don't see those images much these days, but even then it was a beautiful thing.”

Drake added, “We really, really needed something to boost our mood and our feelings, you know, and everybody left there happy. And then went another weekend and another weekend.”

Members of the Fifth Dimension, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., said they felt an instant connection with the community when they arrived at the park to perform.

“As soon as we got out of the car, we knew that we were in the place,” Davis told The Undefeated . “The only difference is the amphitheater wasn’t here then. It was just a park and the people were right there with you, which made it better.”

Questlove’s goal in making the film was to uncover Black history that risked being erased. It would take more than 50 years after the concerts for footage of the festival to be seen publicly .

"The fact that 40 hours of this footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history exists," Questlove said when “Summer of Soul” debuted this summer. "I want to make sure Black erasure doesn't happen during my lifetime ... and the film was an opportunity to work towards that cause."

Joseph Patel, a producer on the film, has worked closely with Questlove and known him since the 1990s. Though he wasn’t sure he would join the production crew, after a conversation with Questlove prior to the film being made he realized the importance of this festival being brought to light.

Patel recalled Questlove “was explaining to me and was like ‘had I known about this festival when I was younger, can you imagine the impact it would have made on me as a musician?’ And when he said that to me, I was really just touched by that, this was a story that needed to be told.”

A successful TV producer at the time named Hal Tulchin knew that these famous and talented artists were coming to Harlem to perform in the cultural festival and knew the concerts had to be filmed.

He purchased four cameras and a substantial amount of recording tape with the hope that the festival would get the same media attention and traction as Woodstock.

“He shoots it with the idea that he wants to turn it into five national TV specials and sort of create this cultural moment, and it’s very sort of prescient on his part, but he doesn't really find success. Like nobody will take these national specials,” Patel says. “He ends up selling one local special to a local CBS affiliate that airs like late night on a Saturday. And it was just of the first weekend.”

Tulchin even dubbed the footage “Black Woodstock” to try and draw attention to the transformative moment, but many of the media networks at the time were focused on Woodstock, and the film would sit in a basement for at least another decade. He attempted to sell the footage again 10 years after the festival and a potential buyer approached him again in the early 2000s but those deals fell through.  

Though there were earlier attempts made to make a documentary about the festival, none were successful.

Bryan Greene, who worked as a consulting producer on the film, published an article in 2017 highlighting the Harlem Cultural festival and suggested the making of a documentary. At the time the festival still had not been publicized and Greene’s reporting started to catch the eyes of filmmakers.

“Because it's the same year as Woodstock, the same year as Gimme Shelter, those two concerts or festivals are now imprinted in our consciousness because there was a movie,” Greene said. “And so I wrote about that anticipating that someone would realize this is the most amazing untold story in the history of music festivals.”

That lack of footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival led some people who were at the event to question whether it actually happened. Even Drake, who still lives two blocks from the festival location, hesitated about participating in the film. She wasn’t sure her memories would hold up. But they came flooding back once she saw the footage.

“When I was approached to do this, I was reluctant at first because I wasn't sure I had memories of it… until I had to actually sit down and watch myself and say, ‘oh wow, I do remember that!’”

 

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