Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Summer of Soul

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson’s Summer of Soul documents the Black Cultural Festival held in Manhattan’s Mt. Morris, now Marcus Garvey Park over six Sundays in l969. It was erroneously termed the “Black Woodstock” due to the fact that it occurred while Woodstock was happening. With the exception of the fact that “Sly and the Family Stone” performed at both, the two events had little in common. Most significantly Woodstock would attain an almost mythic cultural status while the events documented in Summer of Soul would fall into the oblivion of cultural apartheid. Numerous attempts had been made to interest film companies in the footage which contains performances by Stevie Wonder, David Ruffin, Gladys Night and the Pips, The Fifth Dimension, the Staples Singers, Ray Barretto, Mahalia Jackson, together with an almost evangelical rendition of a tone poem performed by Nina Simone, deriving from the Off-Broadway theater work To Be Young, Gifted and Black, all to no avail. Whether deriving from Pentacostal or evangelical sources, almost all the performances exuded "spiritual music." There was a mission to Summer of Soul. No matter that the performances were expertly recorded with four cameras, one of which was trained on the audience and with a video technology that was far more advanced than the usual 16mm film used to shoot documentaries. Where Woodstock was devoted to free love and psychedelics, Summer of Soul describes a political event that was highly influenced by the assassinations of Martin Luther King,  Malcolm X, JFK and Robert Kennedy. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a young journalist at the Times winning a fight with her boss A.M. Rosenthal over using “black” instead of “negro” in a headline, all underscore the particularly political as opposed to hedonistic nature of an undertaking where security was provided by The Black Panthers. Summer of Soul is not simply a concert film like Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock; in fact, the testimony of those who participated and attended, then and now, and it's significance to Black Power is one of its most compelling aspects. And it isn't only black identity that the movie trumpets, but individuality. Performers like Stevie Wonder (19 at the time) and Sly were jumping out of their Zoot suits. "Just because you introduced Sly didn't mean he is there" was one of  the observations made about the singer's unique performance style.The other major historical event that Summer of Soul records is the landing on the moon, which is met with little enthusiasm by Harlem residents who wonder why the millions spent on Apollo 11 couldn’t have gone to feed the hungry. 

Read "The Seven Ages of One Man" by Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star

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