Summer of Soul

 

“Beyond Black Woodstock”

Landon Palmer (University of Alabama)

In July 1969, while many American newspapers reported on the moon landing, the African American newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune wrote of a different piece of history in the making. A story by Art Peters opens with the following lede: “While the eyes of the rest of the world were on the moon landing, more than 75,000 persons in Harlem ignored the lunar spectacle Sunday afternoon and rocked and rolled in the rain to the soulful sounds of some of Motown’s biggest stars.” The event described here is the Harlem Cultural Festival, a showcase of Black music staged weekly throughout the late summer of 1969 that put on display a variety of genres including Motown rhythm and blues, contemporary jazz, psychedelic funk, gospel, blues, as well as Latin and African musics.

Questlove’s captivating archival documentary, Summer of Soul, chronicles the meanings and experiences of this event for its performers and attendees. The film includes a segment that illustrates the dichotomy observed by the Tribune story regarding the events of July 20, 1969 – that is, the distance between what a mainstream, white-dominated press considered newsworthy and the perspectives of the festival’s predominately Black attendees. In a sequence that juxtaposes The Staple Singers’ performance of “It’s Been a Change” with broadcast news footage, the film introduces on-the-street reactions from white interviewees expressing awe over the moon landing, one of whom asserts, “I felt the world got closer today. I felt we all got to know each other that much more.” Summer of Soul then pivots to interviews with Black attendees of the Harlem Cultural Festival who attest that the festival’s gathering of stage performers is just as (if not more) important of an event, and they critique the federal government’s investment in space travel as urban poverty goes ignored. The gap in “knowing each other more” is illuminated by Summer of Soul, illustrating that the events which have made up a certain canonized narrative of what “defined” the American 1960s are not universally meaningful, and in fact stand to obscure other histories important to marginalized Americans.

In line with this critique, Woodstock casts a notable shadow over Summer of Soul. The opening title cards introduce the Harlem Cultural Festival as having occurred “during the same summer as Woodstock,” which took place “100 miles” from Harlem. During Summer of Soul’s development and promotion, the documentary was described by media outlets as the “Black Woodstock” project, a moniker inherited from decades-long efforts by filmmakers to document the history of this festival in a feature film. Summer of Soul’s framing of the Harlem Cultural Festival as a counter-narrative to Woodstock makes sense as part of its mission as a corrective of white-dominant cultural memory of 1969, a strategy consistent with contemporary popular music documentaries that frame established histories as a means to recover lesser-known histories. Yet the comparison is notably limiting, as Summer of Soul makes its greatest contributions when appreciating the aspects of the Harlem Cultural Festival that rendered it incomparable to contemporaneous popular music festivals. Unlike Woodstock’s three-day setlist in rural New York, the Harlem Cultural Festival was held over six Sundays between late June and late August within a heavily populated city neighborhood. Thus, the festival was both part of and a momentous exception from the everyday lives of many Harlem residents. Summer of Soul provides witness to this unique experience of the exceptional within the everyday through interviews with several festival attendees: one, Dorinda Drake, describes the freedom she felt in walking to a festival only ten blocks away from her home, while another, Musa Jackson, coins the event as “the ultimate Black barbecue” made into “something bigger” with the live performers.

Summer of Soul benefits from Questlove’s prioritization of these voices over the celebrity and expert talking heads often employed in commercial documentaries about cultural history. (They are by no means absent but are neither given primacy nor were they foregrounded to sell the film. For example, when Lin-Manuel Miranda makes an appearance, his presence is justified by sharing the screen with his father, Luis Miranda, a political advocate who discusses connections between Latin American and African American music cultures in Harlem.) The film is organized around archival footage of individual performances, for which commentary is provided by the performers, attendees, or others who give insight into the legacy of songs, the cultural and political histories of genres, and how certain songs are indicative of Black political activism of the period. For example, in a section focusing on gospel, Summer of Soul juxtaposes the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ performance of “Oh Happy Day” with choir member Adrienne Kryor’s commentary about the social difficulties she experienced in a Pentecostal church community after having been part of a crossover hit that might encourage listeners to dance. And Mahalia Jackson’s performance of “Precious Lord” is contextualized in relation to the assassination Martin Luther King, Jr. the year before, who drew upon the song for inspiration and resilience. Yet Summer of Soul also trusts that these performances are meaningful without an overbearing degree of context, giving numerous acts space to breathe without commentary, such as Jackson’s impassioned performance of “Precious Lord” and Stevie Wonder’s entrancing keyboard solo. It is in these moments that Summer of Soul pauses in its mission as a recovery documentary and comes to resemble the kind of direct cinema-influenced concert documentaries that were popular at the time of the Harlem Cultural Festival, wherein documentary serves as a vicarious substitute for concert attendance.

The materiality of this archival performance footage is intrinsic not only to the aesthetic experience of Summer of Soul, but also to the film’s claims of importance.

Video footage shot by TV director Hal Tulchin (and, I assume, a small crew) stands out from the 16mm approach that predominated contemporaneous practices of filming concerts and festivals. Unlike the earthy palette of Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970), Tulchin’s (presumably restored) images allow the distinctive sartorial styles of the Harlem Cultural Festival’s eclectic variety of acts to stand out, such as the neon green dresses donned by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Questlove thankfully does not force the Academy ratio footage into his 16:9 frame, and the presence of soft edges on the horizontal sides of the frame gives it a raw quality, as if we are watching it through an analog editing monitor or seeing it projected onto a wall. This in-the-archive approach becomes part of the documentary itself, as Questlove cues up footage to trigger the memories of the attendees and presenters he interviews. The light of the images reflects onto the subjects’ faces, as if providing a visual illustration of the travel of their subjectivities back to this moment.

Eventually, Summer of Soul gives direct attention to the provenance of this footage, showing cartridges of recorded tape over audio of the late Tulchin discussing his failure to sell a “Black Woodstock” to distributors who did not see Black music as marketable as white countercultural rock. Summer of Soul’s claims – both in the film and its promotion – that such footage simply lay dormant for half a century have been overstated. Over decades, several filmmakers have sought to make a version of this documentary and, contrary to Summer of Soul’s second title, (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), Tulchin’s footage was distributed for television broadcasts across the country. Local broadcasts of footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival could thus be experienced similarly to the festival itself: as an ephemeral, one-time event that was part of audiences’ everyday lives. The impetus for Summer of Soul’s existence is the fact that Tulchin’s footage had not yet been turned into a feature film that could serve as an authoritative record of the event – and an experiential moving image text confirming its historical value.

The lack of such a film augmented the act of forgetting this festival, further marginalizing the event in the cultural memory of the 1960s. Summer of Soul ends with a moving illustration of the personal cost of living in a culture that exhaustively returns to only a small selection of white-dominant cultural events in recounting “the Sixties.” Tearing up, attendee Musa Jackson states that the footage provides “confirmation that what I knew is real,” as if waking up from being gaslit by canonized images of 1969 that do not include his lived experience. This final note serves as a testament that those for whom the festival meant more than the moon landing weren’t wrong – that the events which have made up African American cultural history are important, without comparison.

 

“The Black See”

Lauren McLeod Cramer (University of Toronto)

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul (Or… When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) (2021) is about the legacy of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series that brought the vanguard of black music and entertainment to Mount Morris Park in the summer of 1969. Unlike the other New York music festival held that summer—the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, commemorated only a year later in Michael Wadleigh’s acclaimed documentary Woodstock (1970)—the footage of the Harlem festival languished in a television producer’s basement for fifty years. During Summer of Soul’s opening credit sequence a voiceover explains, without access to the concert recording “nobody ever heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival; nobody would believe it happened.” Thus, the film relishes its place as an intermediary between its audience and its once buried film treasure and approaches the unearthed footage as a demand for documentation that is so urgent and profound that the film commits to revealing its own apparatus. Yet, a celebration of cinematic capture is hard to reconcile with the title’s reference to Gil Scott Heron. The poet was not lamenting a lack of airtime, Heron was describing an alternative way of being in the world; so, what is the nature of the revolution that could not but now is televised?

The first shot in Summer of Soul includes the film slate marking the still-untitled “Black Woodstock Doc” and the sound of crew members preparing for an interview with Musa Jackson, a Black man who attended the concert series as a child. Once the set is clear, Questlove asks from off-screen, “So, do you remember the Harlem Cultural Festival?” At that moment, archival footage begins to play on a monitor just beyond the frame, but the camera remains fixed on Jackson’s stunned expression, slightly illuminated by the light of the screen. In its conclusion, Summer of Soul returns to Jackson whose eyes are still reflecting the glowing screen as he nods, chokes back tears, and says, “Yeah.” Jackson then volunteers what could be a summary of the film’s significance: “You put memories away, and sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real […] I knew I wasn’t crazy!” At this point the film again shifts attention to itself when the filmmaker responds from behind the camera, “You’re not crazy […] Watching you watch this is making me overwhelmed […] I thought I was the only one.”

Of course, Questlove and Jackson are not the only ones because the Harlem Cultural Festival was not really forgotten, and the footage was not actually lost. The film includes interviews with artists, attendees, and festival staff, who remember that summer, and Hal Tuchin, the director who oversaw the concert filming, tried to make this film for years. In fact, Jackson’s recalls seeing “a sea of Black people” at the festival. It is a beautiful image of black social life that is echoed by other interviewees including performers on stage like Gladys Knight. This shared memory is important because it coincides with something Black people cannot forget: that there is danger in the act of black gathering—in celebration outside or in quiet congregation inside. On this occasion, however, it appears Black people were not burdened by the alienating and negating work of calculating the crowd—am I one too-many? Fortunately, over six weekends (with the help of security provided by the Black Panthers) Harlem festivalgoers were safe to enjoy the music and the company. Summer of Soul registers this rare pleasure by using the backdrop of the crowd to highlight and connect the individuals in attendance. The camera lingers on the two girls playing a hand-clapping game while sitting on a police barrier, the boy watching the concert from a tree, and the woman wearing a head wrap that is perfectly synchronized with a voiceover that compares Black women to royalty. These intimate moments visualize an open invitation to recall blackness in all of its shared multiplicity.

Summer of Soul’s attempt to render the irreducibility of that “sea” in cinematic form is clearest in its careful treatment of largely unedited performance sequences that are long enough to accommodate the stylistic expanse of the gospel, R&B, and psychedelic funk performed on stage. It is not surprising that a famous musician directing a concert film might resist trimming these moments, but, more importantly, the film’s looser rhythm offers a thoughtful exploration of the obvious differences and meaningful similarities between artists like Sly and the Family Stone and Mahalia Jackson, unencumbered by heavy-handed crosscutting or didactic voiceovers. Instead, the sound and image of these Black performers are paired with reflections from festival attendees who share their own sensorial experience. For instance, Jackson synaesthetically describes the concert as the color of Creamsicles and the smell of fried chicken and Afro-Sheen. The sonic (but also visual, haptic, and also gustatory and olfactory) convergence of the Black Diaspora in a park is a kind of crowd that cannot be reduced to a recording, but that excess is precisely the pleasure of a joining a crowd.

three men singing into a microphone dressed in yellow shirts, red ties, and orange fringed vests
A concert the color of Creamsicles

Initially, I consumed with understanding Jackson’s sense that he simply imagined the festival, specifically because I have a very similar relationship to the memory of my parents taking me to the Million Man March. However, I now realize the film’s cathartic conclusion is about two different people with different memories finding each other in shared wonder—not the verification of the event or its photographic evidence. In the organization of Summer of Soul there is no pretense to revealing or even clearing the space around the archival footage; instead, the original recording is doubly mediated by the film’s self-aware interview style and behind-the-scenes conversations. Similarly, the already recursive archival footage, in which the spectacle of the crowd is spectacularized on film, cannot render the full concert experience; instead, these images seem more interested in addressing the complexity of black visuality that is itself a condition of heightened visibility. Thus, in these layered representations, Summer of Soul prioritizes the opportunity for connection by offering both men refuge from the isolation they once felt and creating a space for Jackson, who attended the event, and Questlove, who first learned about it in 1997, to come together (albeit asynchronously) around the festival’s musical performances. As a crowd grows in and around Summer of Soul, the film presents the possibility that some revolutions (those that begin with Black people, black art, and black space being seen together) must be televised.

Still, Summer of Soul is subject to the same entanglement of race and aesthetics that buried the Harlem Cultural Festival footage for almost five decades; as a result, the images of a Black crowd that does not align with narrow set of expectations of black sociality or black cinema may still be lost on some. Thus, it is possible to discern some melancholic resignation in the impossibility of returning to this magical moment in summer of 1969 or even that park in Harlem, which was temporarily named Soulsville, USA for the concert series and is now Marcus Garvey Park. Yet, if the “rediscovered” footage is actually an excuse to get together, the film is the black “see.” Summer of Soul is a record of the festival, but it functions more powerfully as “proof” that we—those who know black joy, the genius of black music, and the power of black gathering exists (with, or particularly without, footage)—are not the only ones.

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