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At ‘Black Woodstock,’ an All-Star Lineup Delivered Joy and Renewal to 300,000

Woodstock was big and messy, thrilling and stirring — and summed up finally by Jimi Hendrix, whose festival-closing set included his towering, take-a-knee reading of the national anthem. It was an admixture of disaffection and patriotism, bold as love and black as hell. But Hendrix was one of the few black musicians at an event that has become a cultural touchstone for white America.

A hundred miles to the south of that sprawling rural rock ’n’ roll assembly, black folks were building their own musical commons. The Harlem Cultural Festival of that year, which would come to be known as “Black Woodstock,” had, on its surface, little in common with the upstate hootenanny. Held in Harlem at Mount Morris (what is now Marcus Garvey) Park, it was a self-consciously urban affair, a concert series rather than a one-off, and already in its third year. Co-sponsored by the New York City Parks Department and Maxwell House, the General Foods subsidiary, that year’s festival consisted of six free Sunday afternoon concerts held between June 29 and August 24. The total attendance was some 300,000 people strong.

With the Caribbean singer Tony Lawrence at its helm, the festival was a sustained, communal activity and cultural interaction where enterprising street vendors got what The New York Times referred to as their “legitimate hustle” on. A vibrant cross-section of city folk — brothers in dashikis (like Jesse Jackson, who spoke at one of the concerts), young sisters in smart shifts and older ones in church hats, men in fedoras and well-pressed, button-up shirts — all listened with a combination of focus and ease.

“The scale and the diversity of the audience” was a thing to behold, says Neal Ludevig, the curator and co-producer of this year’s 50th anniversary “Black Woodstock” event.

Iterations of the Harlem Cultural Festival were held in 1967 and 1968, but the 1969 events were the apex. Atop the rocks and down in the grassy field, they were showing up to watch a roll call of black popular music luminaries move through tight sets covering beloved repertoires. This was Harlem’s sonic playground, and it featured the likes of the gospel crossover sensation Edwin Hawkins, the blues icon B.B. King, the avant-garde jazz activists Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the groovy black pop ambassadors The 5th Dimension, the Motown up-and-comers Gladys Knight and the Pips and the youthful Stevie Wonder. The comic vets Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham supplied the standup relief. And the crowds responded — looking on reverentially, dancing with one another around the edges of the park.

Photos from The Times’s archive capture the reverberations of an event that was a casual thing of beauty, where black folks moved en masse through the streets and into the park, improvisationally responding to one another, forming circles of joy and conviviality and reveling in outdoor leisure.

One shot from the 1967 festival stands out for its crispness and arresting power. It features a girl — donning high summertime attire, a sleeveless top and shorts, hair braided to the back — hugging the railing to the stage, leaning in — looking. She’s watching something before her. Someone is holding her attention, maybe dazzling her imagination.

Excerpts from the TV producer Hal Tulchin’s 40 hours of footage of the 1969 festival (which remain largely unseen) show a reverential crowd, keeping time with Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” as she opened her four-song set on Aug. 17 with a new single, “Revolution.” It was a country-meets-Tin Pan Alley protest jam informing white folks that “The only way that we can stand in fact/Is when you get your foot off our back” — bluntly capturing the sentiment of the moment. (Simone closed out her performance by reading the fiery poemAre You Ready, Black People?” The Last Poets’ David Nelson’s spoken-word call-to-action, asking of the crowd, “Are you ready to smash white things, to burn buildings?”)

Tensions had been running high in the city from spring into summer as the first anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination passed and 21 Black Panthers were indicted on charges of planning a bombing campaign across Manhattan to mark the occasion. The police even refused to provide security for the event, and the Panthers stepped in to fill the void.

The people showed up to a concert experience that thrived amid grief and persistent rage. Backed by a reform-minded Mayor John Lindsay, who’d built avenues of trust in Harlem by walking its streets on more than one occasion, the festival stood as a symbol of hope and everyday placemaking. Lindsay’s belief that “We can lick the problems of the ghetto, if we care,” morphed into the concert poster’s slogan, “Do you care?” Lindsay was introduced as “the blue-eyed soul brother, ” and the gospel great Mahalia Jackson — who would join the newly solo vocal powerhouse Mavis Staples for a duet — spoke confidently of his impending victory.

Those who turned out in Harlem bucked the malicious stereotype of “the black mob.” They gathered peacefully with no incident — conjuring an energy akin to that of their Bethel, N.Y., hippie brethren — open and ready to ride the wave of a local black sound utopia. They were the living embodiment of Sly and the Family Stone’s “everyday people.” From 1972’s Wattstax in Los Angeles to 1973’s Soul at the Center events at Lincoln Center, from Diana Ross’s heroic 1983 rain-soaked performance in Central Park to Dave Chappelle’s 2004 rousing neo-soul-fights-neoliberal-gentrification Block Party, the idea of the large-scale African-American pop concert as community revival, sustenance, triumph and renewal is a recurring phenomenon.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was arguably one of the first of its kind to promote black pop as transformative urban event, as a site to be inhabited as well as a sound to be experienced, and the key to new neighborhood connections and collaborations. Observes Ludevig, there remains the “irreplaceable notion that you cannot replace the live experience … there’s something about being in a space and experiencing it firsthand …” that is utterly singular and potentially restorative in the life of a community. For black folks, the added power and energy of coming together in a place where one could not only see, hear and feel blackness onstage but also participate in a marketplace of neighborhood business owners was its own form of sustainability.

Such a legacy lives on most notably in today’s venerable and beloved Afropunk festival. Now a global phenomenon in its 15th year, Afropunk’s Brooklyn extravaganza began as “a social experiment,” according to Matthew Morgan, one of the founders. To Morgan, the center of community “is a marketplace, a business, and a way for people to trade,” which is why his concerts, like the Harlem event half a century ago, place so much emphasis on not just music but black business and “socio-economic empowerment.”

It’s a spirit as old school as peace and love. But here it’s infused with Afrofuturist language and sensibilities of the now, a belief in the insurgent possibility of “the black hacker” who “disrupts the network,” “codes the culture” and “erodes the grid erected as a cage,” as Morgan puts it, all in the pursuit of vibrant new-world building.

Surely some of the seeds for such a movement were planted back in ’69, particularly when Simone chose as her final song a felt and pointed rendition of another new number, one she’d written in honor of her dear friend, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who had died some four years earlier. A love letter to the next generation and a book of instruction, “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was the kind of anthem meant to reach that little girl in the crowd who was hanging on her every word. “Open your heart to what I mean,” sang Simone. “We must begin to tell our young/There’s a world waiting for you/Yours is the quest that’s just begun.” Out on the field, as she emphatically reminded the masses that “your soul’s intact,” the universe was wide open.

Daphne A. Brooks is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of “Liner Notes for the Revolution: Black Feminist Sound Cultures,” forthcoming in 2020 from Harvard University Press.

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