There was Woodstock. And then there was this music festival almost erased from history

“I want people to understand that all of this could’ve easily been discarded. Why was this not important? ... That’s to me the biggest question of all.”

Note: This story has been updated to include the official release of “Summer of Soul” in theaters and on Hulu.

For decades, the music sat in a basement. Rejected, neglected. 

The 40 hours of concert footage was a treasure trove of hidden gems: A 19-year-old Stevie Wonder pounding out an electrifying drum solo; an up-and-coming Gladys Knight and her perfectly synchronized Pips performing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; B.B. King in a bright blue suit wailing “Why I Sing the Blues”; David Ruffin, fresh out of The Temptations, showing off an astonishingly high vocal range with “My Girl”; a majestic Nina Simone crying out for social justice from the piano. 

The who’s who list could go on and on — and it was all free to the public. Over six weekends, during the hot summer of 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival brought jazz, blues, gospel, R&B and pop performances to life for 300,000 people.

But the event overlapped with the famed Woodstock that was happening 100 miles north. Aside from some local coverage, Harlem got overshadowed.

“I shot the festival, tried to sell it. … Woodstock got all of the publicity, so in selling it I started to call it the ‘Black Woodstock.’ It didn’t help,” said Hal Tulchin — who shot the concert series — in the documentary “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival. “Nobody was interested in the Black show. Nobody. Nobody cared about Harlem.” 

To put that into a modern context, it would be the equivalent of two free Coachellas happening in the middle of New York City and no one talking about it, “Summer of Soul” producer Joseph Patel said during a post-screening Q&A on Jan. 28. 

When “Summer of Soul” producers eventually got hold of the festival footage, they turned to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer/frontman of “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon’s house band The Roots, hoping he might be interested in offering his musical expertise and becoming a first-time director.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, director of “Summer Of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),” an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. | Michael Baca, Sundance Institute

“Instantly, I kind of scoffed,” Thompson said during the post-screening Q&A via Zoom. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. 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?’” 

In telling the story of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Thompson easily could’ve just let “Summer of Soul” run as a concert film. I don’t think anyone would’ve complained about that. The performances are truly stunning. The vibrant outfits are a delight, and the energy is palpable. 

But the Harlem Cultural Festival was about a lot more than music.

Against the backdrop of police brutality, the Vietnam War and political unrest — including the assassinations of Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy — the festival was a sanctuary for people from several backgrounds, a form of political and social expression. It was a chance to heal — the previous year had seen riots following King’s murder.

In fact, one interesting segment in “Summer of Soul” shows a Harlem concert taking place on the Sunday of the moon landing. When local media visits the festival to get reactions from attendees, it’s clear many care more about the concerts and what they represent to their community than they do the Apollo 11 mission — “Never mind the moon; let’s get some of that cash in Harlem,” one concertgoer says in an old clip featured in the documentary.

“We needed something to really reach out and touch us,” a festival attendee recalls in “Summer of Soul,” which hits theaters and Hulu on July 2. “We needed that music.” 

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‘It wasn’t just about the music’

On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was standing with King when he heard the shot. 

The minister and civil rights activist had been assassinated. In King’s final moments, the Rev. Jackson says he turned to Ben Branch and asked the bandleader to play his favorite hymn at a planned event that evening — “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” 

A year later, as shown in “Summer of Soul,” the Rev. Jackson recounts this tragic moment on the Harlem stage to an all-ages crowd of 50,000 people. Behind the reverend stands Branch and gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, who at the time was a young singer on the rise who idolized Jackson. As the crowd mourns the loss of King, Staples begins to belt “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

“I just wanted to shout, and  … standing there with Sister Mahalia Jackson, I got up and I started that song,” Staples recalls in the film. “It was just an unreal moment for me.” 

What follows is something that can only be described as otherworldly. Through sweat and tears, the two throw their bodies and souls into that hymn. The footage here is remarkable, providing up-close shots — visible emotion that seeps through their words. After they each sing a verse, Mahalia Jackson holds the mic out once again to Staples, asking the singer to join her for the final verse. 

“That was the time of my life,” Staples, now 81, recalls in the documentary, adding that sharing the mic with Mahalia Jackson is still her “biggest honor.” 

It’s one of the most powerful scenes in “Summer of Soul” — what Thompson called a “goosebump moment” during the post-screening Q&A. It illustrates the healing power of music, and how the festival created a way to confront social injustice, a way to instill hope and offer a statement of Black pride and unity. 

For two hours, Thompson interweaves the concert footage with its historical context, and includes new interviews from festival attendees and musicians, adding even more poignancy to the festival and what it represented.

It’s neat to hear these recent interviews, including Stevie Wonder recalling the energy of the festival, and Staples and Knight reflecting on their shock in stepping out on stage to a crowd much bigger than what they were expecting.

“I knew something very, very important was happening in Harlem,” Knight says. “It wasn’t just about the music. We wanted progress.”

A resurgence

But for all the energy the Harlem Cultural Festival created in the moment, any hope of it becoming immortalized like Woodstock completely diminished over time — “Even though the shows were recorded all summer, it feels like it happened, and then they threw it away,” an attendee says in the documentary.

Fifty years later, as the Black Lives Matter movement and cries for racial equality are at the forefront of our society, the Harlem Cultural Festival is finally reaching a wider audience. Following the world premiere at Sundance, Thompson said that for as long as it took, the timing of this documentary is “unfortunately perfect.”

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“It definitely was not lost on us that the very circumstances that caused that concert to be in the first place, the question of safety and civil unrest in the air ... that 50 years later, the same exact thing was happening,” he said.

I want people to understand that all of this could’ve easily been discarded. Why was this not important? ... That’s to me the biggest question of all. — Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

“I want people to understand that all of this could’ve easily been discarded,” he added. “Why was this not important? ... That’s to me the biggest question of all.”

Near the end of “Summer of Soul,” Musa Jackson, who was 5 when he attended the Harlem Cultural Festival, is emotional as he watches a clip of Sly and the Family Stone closing out its set with the hit song “I Want to Take You Higher” — footage from a pivotal event in his childhood that virtually disappeared overnight and remained buried for decades.

“You put memories away, sometimes you don’t even know if they’re real,” he says through tears. “This is just confirmation. ... How beautiful it was.” 

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