The best commented documentary (so far) of 2021, Summer of the soul tells the story of a music festival in Harlem in 1969 – a festival that received no media attention. Its black promoters, having drawn 300,000 elated spectators to the event, were angry at the blatant snub before realizing that they might have been lucky: Another festival, Woodstock, was about to happen. ‘open 100 miles away, and its white promoters were destined to suffer the wildest cover ever given to an event like this.
The two festivals were, in fact, a historical study in contrasts. While Soul was happy in Harlem, Woodstock was hammered by the New York Times like “the nightmare of the Catskills”. The mayor of New York has personally pledged support and friendship to his black festival-goers, while the governor of New York state has sent National Guard troops to deal with “hippie hell” in Woodstock.
The dynamic performers didn’t seem to notice these plots. New York City found itself celebrating the performances of BB King, Sly and the Family Stone and a young Stevie Wonder while in Woodstock Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana were drenched and stoned in the relentless rains. .
In less than 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 promoted the project led by Questlove Summer of the soul, had to wait 50 years before his story could be told. “The story covered the bad gig,” commented Anthony Lane in the New Yorker this week.
He was half right: from a current point of view, it is difficult to understand the media’s muffled response to these remarkable counterculture adventures. The charismatic Tony Lawrence, who orchestrated the Harlem Cultural Festival, captioned his event: “The Revolution That Couldn’t Be Televised”. In reality, Lawrence, who was black, had neither the muscles nor the experience to break through for financial support from the television power pyramid. The artists were eager to register, not the presenters.
Meanwhile, the promoters of Woodstock, an eccentric collection that included Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, secured the initial capital but faced roadblocks from the artists. Bob Dylan had major gigs on his schedule that were less hit and miss. The Beatles too. Ultimately, the promoters took their revenge on the British, persuading Joe Cocker to croak three Beatles numbers.
Music aficionados argued over the art of the two programs. Sly praised Harlem for offering “different shots for different people and Scooby-dooby-doo”. Some feel the Soul the artists relied too much on gospel, then resumed airs of Hair. Mahalia Jackson was followed by the Fifth Dimension.
On the flip side, some critics viewing the Woodstock paper felt that the thirst for innovation caused some sort of drugged confusion. The deliciously bizarre program went from Joan Baez to Ravi Shankar, with the camera flashing towards 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 the news of Vietnam and the political assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy). So the role of the media was to look for signs of calm, not new discord.
To hell with pop culture.
Pop culture editors at New York Times turned down the anticipated Woodstock stories and even the news from its first day. Editor-in-chief James Reston ultimately collapsed at the demands of his reporters and agreed to publish a largely negative story. The Daily News also relented and released his play titled “Hippies Mired in Sea of Mud” as if it were a nature story, not a music festival.
Wadleigh, the gifted filmmaker who directed the Woodstock documentary, explained it this way: “The media were looking for a precious gap of liberation and relief, not a war zone, so the audience had to take a peek under the covers for inspiring moments. Most liked what they saw.