Soul music. The blues. Gospel. Jazz. All can be traced back to the same source, which is the experience of Black people in America, the oppression and triumph, the joy and ache, the struggle to make sense of it all. The international appeal of Black music is a testament to the humanity at its core, the celebration of life in all its bittersweetness.
“Bittersweet” may be the single best word to describe Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson’s documentary Summer of Soul, comprising footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival, a series of free outdoor concerts held in Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in the summer of 1969. The concerts, which drew around three hundred thousand people over six weekends, were organized by the energetic promoter and former lounge singer Tony Lawrence, “a hustler in the best sense” who “talked a big game and delivered,” as one person describes him. This spellbinding documentary includes commentary from attendees as well as famous figures, including journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and activist and media personality Al Sharpton. Despite early efforts to market the professionally filmed recordings of the concerts, the footage sat undiscovered in a basement, according to the filmmakers, for half a century; it is now being shown to audiences for the first time. The result is the best kind of time capsule, one that demonstrates how much American life has changed, how much remains stubbornly, depressingly the same, and how timeless the power of great music is.
The music! Stevie Wonder was there, all of nineteen years old, singing, playing drums and keyboards, and generally leading us to, well, wonder at the concentration of so much talent in one human body. Nina Simone was there, in all her otherworldly regality. Sly and the Family Stone—despite their reputation for showing up for concerts hours late or not at all—were there, right on time, as was their infectious soul-rock, with its message of inclusiveness. That preeminent bluesman B. B. King was there, and so were Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Fifth Dimension, and the Staple Singers, and Mahalia Jackson, and the drummer Max Roach and his wife, singer Abbey Lincoln, and many others. And the crowds were there, too, many thousands of mostly young African Americans, some of them children, taking part in what one attendee, a young boy at the time, called “the ultimate Black barbeque,” one that “smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken.” It was the “summer we became free...from our parents,” recalls one commentator, a college student in 1969.