Peter Bart: Summer Of Souls Harlem Cultural Festival, Like Woodstock, Was Stonewalled By The Media 50 Years Ago As Pop Culture Leaders Ran For Cover

The best reviewed (thus far) documentary of 2021, Summer of Soul tells the story of a 1969 Harlem music festival – one that got zero attention in the media. Its Black promoters, having drawn 300,000 exhilarated spectators to the event, were angry about the blatant snub before realizing they may have been lucky: Another festival, Woodstock, was about to open its doors 100 miles away, and its white promoters were destined to suffer the most savage coverage ever accorded any event of its kind.

The two festivals were, in fact, a historic study in contrasts. While Soul was happy in Harlem, Woodstock was hammered by the New York Times as “the nightmare in the Catskills.” The mayor of New York City personally pledged support and friendship to his Black festgoers, while the governor of New York State dispatched National Guard troops to cope with “hippie hell” in Woodstock.

The buoyant performers didn’t seem to notice these intrigues. New York City found itself celebrating performances by B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone and a youthful Stevie Wonder while, at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana were getting soaked and stoned in unrelenting rainstorms.

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Within a year, of course, Michael Wadleigh’s gritty and hilarious documentary Woodstock immortalized the brilliant performances and chaotic planning behind Woodstock. The Harlem Cultural Festival, which fostered the Questlove-directed Summer of Soul, had to wait 50 years before its story could be told. “History covered the wrong gig,” commented Anthony Lane in the New Yorker this week.

He was half right: From a current perspective it’s hard to understand the tone-deaf response of the media toward these remarkable adventures in counter culture. The charismatic Tony Lawrence, who orchestrated the Harlem Cultural Festival, subtitled his event: “The revolution that could not be televised.” In reality, Lawrence, who was Black, lacked the muscle or experience to drill for financial support from the TV power pyramid. The artists were eager to sign up, not the broadcasters.

Meanwhile, Woodstock’s promoters, an oddball collection that included Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, secured the initial capital but ran into roadblocks from the artists. Bob Dylan had major gigs on his schedule that were less chancy. So did the Beatles. Ultimately the promoters got their revenge on the Brits, persuading Joe Cocker to croak out three Beatles numbers.

Musical aficionados have argued about the artistry of the two programs. Sly praised Harlem for offering “different strokes for different folks and Scooby-dooby-doo.” Some feel the Soul artists relied too heavily on gospel, then doubled back to tunes from Hair. Mahalia Jackson was followed by the Fifth Dimension.

On the other hand, some critics viewing the Woodstock doc felt that the hunger for innovation prompted a sort of drugged-out confusion. The deliciously bizarre program veered from Joan Baez to Ravi Shankar, with the camera flashing to an audience that was having too much fun in the mud to notice.

So why wasn’t the media paying attention? The headlines of that moment had been dominated by news of Vietnam and political assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy). Thus, the role of the media was to search for signs of calm, not further discord.

Pop culture be damned.

The pop culture editors at the New York Times turned down advance stories about Woodstock and even news of its first day. The executive editor, James Reston, finally wilted before demands from his reporters and agreed to run a largely negative story. The Daily News also relented and ran its piece headlined “Hippies Mired in Sea of Mud,” as though it was a nature story, not about a music festival.

Wadleigh, the gifted filmmaker who directed the Woodstock doc, explained it this way: “The media was looking for a precious interval of release and relief, not a war zone, so the public was left to peek under the covers for inspiring moments.” Most liked what they saw.

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