En español | Everyone knows about Woodstock, but that three-day jam session in upstate New York wasn't the only once-in-a-generation live music event of the summer of 1969. A new documentary, Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), by first-time director and hip-hop musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, 50, is pulling back the curtain on the widely forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival. Here's everything you need to know about the event — plus a joy-inducing playlist of songs that were played at the festival.
What was the Harlem Cultural Festival?
Also called Black Woodstock, this concert series took place in summer 1969 and was organized to celebrate African-American culture and promote Black pride. Even though some of the most famous musicians of the day performed, the festival has been all but ignored over the years and remained unknown even to some of the most in-the-know contemporary Black musicians of today.
Where and when did it take place?
In terms of cultural impact, the “Woodstock” comparison is apt, but the performances were totally different beasts. While the real Woodstock was a compact three-day event out in the country, the Harlem Cultural Festival was all about bringing music to the people. These free concerts took place every Sunday afternoon from June 29 to August 24, 1969, in what was then called Mount Morris Park and is now Marcus Garvey Park. While similar events had happened in 1967 and 1968, the festival really hit its stride in its third year, attracting some 300,000 concertgoers over the course of the summer.
Who was on the bill?
The Harlem Cultural Festival represented a true cross section of major African-American musical genres from America and around the world, including the blues (B.B. King), jazz (Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach), gospel (Mahalia Jackson, the Staple Singers), R&B (Gladys Knight & the Pips, Stevie Wonder), “Champagne soul” (the 5th Dimension), funk (Sly & the Family Stone), soul (David Ruffin of the Temptations), and the uncategorizable artistry of songstress Nina Simone. Rounding out the lineup were speeches from the Rev. Jesse Jackson (79), comedy from Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham, dance performances, and even a Miss Harlem Pageant on the closing weekend.
How come I haven't heard about the festival?
Hal Tulchin, who had been a television director and producer since the 1950s, recorded about 40 hours of concert footage on five videotape cameras. While New York's local WNEW station aired some of the clips throughout that summer, Tulchin had higher hopes for the project — especially following the cultural groundswell that emerged out of Woodstock. He pitched his “Black Woodstock” film to ABC, CBS and NBC, and they all rejected the idea. Frustrated, Tulchin ended up storing the tapes in his basement, with only brief moments from the Nina Simone set showing up in a 2005 CD-DVD and a 2015 documentary. “It was a peanuts operation, because nobody really cared about Black shows,” Tulchin told Smithsonian.com in 2007. “But I knew it was going to be like real estate, and sooner or later, someone would have interest in it."
How did the footage come to light?
Years after the tapes were relegated to Tulchin's basement, producer Robert Fyvolent bought the rights from him, and his team later approached Thompson about directing. At first, Thompson was shocked that he hadn't heard about the festival before. “I'm like, ‘Wait a minute,” he said in a post-screening Zoom Q&A. “I know everything that happened in music history. ... You're going to tell me that this gathering happened and no one knew about it?’ And sure enough, that was the case. Once they showed me rough footage, I just sat there with my jaw dropped, like, ‘How has this been forgotten?’ “
What should I know about the documentary and its director?
You might recognize Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson as the drummer and frontman of the hip-hop band the Roots, which has been the house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon since 2014. This film, his directorial debut, premiered this January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up both the Audience Award and the U.S. Grand Jury Prize.
Where can I watch it?
Summer of Soul will be released in theaters and will stream on Hulu on July 2. If you're vaccinated and comfortable being in a movie theater again, this is definitely the kind of film that benefits from an immersive sound system.
Stream these 10 songs from the original Summer of Soul setlist
"To Be Young, Gifted and Black" by Nina Simone
With her hair done up in a cone that made her look, in the words of one attendee, “like an African princess,” the legendary protest singer debuted this affecting classic, inspired by the late A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Listen here: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” on Spotify.
"Everyday People" by Sly & the Family Stone
Questlove is already hard at work on a new documentary about this seminal funk band, which has the distinction of being the only act to perform at both Woodstock and the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Listen here: “Everyday People,” on Spotify
"Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the 5th Dimension
In the documentary, band members Marilyn McCoo (77) and Billy Davis Jr. (83) remember feeling outside the world of Black music — until their performance of these Hair classics were so warmly received at the festival.
Listen here: “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” on Spotify
"Take My Hand, Precious Lord" by Mahalia Jackson
The gospel titan shared the mic with Mavis Staples (81) in a performance that New York Times writer Wesley Morris called “the single most astounding duet I've ever heard, seen or felt.” You can listen to Jackson tackle the song solo here, but you'll have to watch the film to see the alchemical pairing of two of the century's most transcendent vocalists.
Listen here: “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” on Spotify
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Gladys Knight & the Pips
The Empress of Soul (77) recalls being so nervous and excited before stepping onstage to perform this high-energy Motown single that she and the Pips joined hands and prayed before their set.
Listen here: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” on Spotify
"Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" by Stevie Wonder
Dressed in a brown suit and ruffled yellow shirt, the 19-year-old Motown star (now 71) tears the roof off the documentary with a rousing drum solo in the rain. His set also included a slowed-down cover of “It's Your Thing” and this groovy hit from his teen-star days.
Listen here: “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” on Spotify
"Why I Sing the Blues” by B.B. King
Befitting the politically empowering nature of the festival, King's masterful blues classic traces centuries of injustice against Black Americans, from the slave trade to urban poverty.
Listen here: “Why I Sing the Blues,” on Spotify
"Watermelon Man” by Mongo Santamaría
The Cuban percussionist and bandleader spiced up the Herbie Hancock standard with a cha-cha beat, and the fusion hit is often credited with starting boogaloo, a genre that paired Afro-Cuban rhythms with R&B.
Listen here: “Watermelon Man,” on Spotify
"Grazing in the Grass" by Hugh Masekala
Perhaps less well known to audiences today, this South African trumpeter (known as “the father of South African jazz") had an unexpected number one pop hit in America with this laid-back instrumental.
Listen here: “Grazing in the Grass,” on Spotify
"Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers
It's impossible not to get swept up in the emotions and roof-shaking vocals of this gospel hymn, and Hawkins’ arrangement is so definitive that it's been included on the Recording Industry Association of America's Songs of the Century list.
Listen here: “Oh Happy Day,” on Spotify
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.