Held on successive Sundays from June 29 to August 25, the series would host an audience of 300,000 and come to be known as “Black Woodstock”—after its more famous counterpart held the same year. Footage of the latter would transform an upstate New York dairy farm into holy ground for American folk and rock. Meanwhile, footage—and common knowledge—of the Harlem Cultural Festival languished in the basement of producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin. The festival is now the subject of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize–winning documentary Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021). The festival was the living, breathing, gyrating, and jiving intersection of Black American music, the Civil Rights era, and radical Black leftist movements. The film marks Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s feature-length directorial debut. It is a tour de force that reclaims a watershed moment in Black art and liberation featuring the likes of Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, B. B. King, the Staples Singers, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Hugh Masekela, the 5th Dimension, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and more.
Emerging miraculously after five decades, Summer of Soul liberates one of the most important but little-known moments in Black music that championed Black pride and has the chance—at yet another tipping point in the American struggle for racial equality—to do it all over again. Questlove explains.
Karas Lamb: I’d like to talk first about the genesis of Summer of Soul and why the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, or “Black Woodstock,” was so important for you to tell.
Questlove: It’s kind of weird the way the producers of the film, David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, contacted me in the summer of 2017 about this mythical festival that allegedly took place fifty years ago. I’m the kind of person, especially the kind of pop art collector, that often meets people that know about the amount of collecting I do—the auctions I go to and the things I acquire. There’s always that one guy that says, “Well, I have this particular Prince piano that you don’t know about in a warehouse stored over . . .” You know, that sort of thing. I thought it was an attempt to flex. Then I thought, Stevie Wonder, Sly, Nina Simone, BB King, and Max Roach? This concert took place and was filmed in Harlem fifty years ago and no one knows about it? There’s almost nothing about it on the internet. I thought it was some elaborate story. They said, “No, we have something that we think you’d be interested in seeing.” My whole thing was: pics or it didn’t happen. The next week they sent me clips, and my jaw dropped. Suddenly I went to the opposite extreme of wanting to know: What’s the catch here? Why do you guys want me to do this? If this document is important to the history of Black music, why wouldn’t you want to give this to a big director? But then there was another part of me that was just burning to see all of the footage.
I’m the kind of guy that watches musical documentaries and I’m always talking to the screen, because this particular instrument wasn’t invented in 1965, or that’s the wrong time period—the details are off. I also had the burning question: how was Black erasure so normalized that not one person or network saw fit to give it a blurb or even a mention?
So that’s where I entered. I spent one year just absorbing and learning. But you know, my production partner Joseph Patel basically said, “Look, you put records together, you write books—this is the same thing. You have to figure out what your story is. And once we map out what the story is, then we tell that story.” And, thank God, I think we nailed it.
How was Black erasure so normalized that not one person or network saw fit to give it a blurb or even a mention?
KL: The original Hal Tulchin footage of the 1969 concert series was feared lost for over fifty years. How did it surface?
Q: Well, this is not to say that footage hasn’t leaked out, but it was never put in the proper context. I was in Japan in 1996. They have immense love and respect for things that Americans throw away and discard. I happened to be in a soul club, and on the bar movie screen, I saw four minutes of Sly and the Family Stone in concert. I was under the impression that it was a European music festival because up until like 2010, huge festivals were not such a staple in the United States. Before then, there was a Lollapalooza here and a Coachella there. I had no reason to believe that this was something historically significant from the United States. So I saw that bit of footage before, but I knew nothing else.
The festival organizer, Tony Lawrence, and festival producer, Hal Tulchin, thought that “Black Woodstock” would be a no-brainer for TV when they captured it. Lawrence got Maxwell House to pay for it. It was low budget, but it was still enough to capture fifty hours of footage. When Tulchin tried to shop it, he was shocked at the pushback and network disinterest. All they got for their hard work was one local station in New York (WNEW) that decided to show segments of it on a Sunday, back in late 1969. Basically, nobody saw it. Tulchin tried to change the title of the film because he felt he could resell it as the “answer to Woodstock,” but buyers still weren’t interested. So it sat in his basement for forty-nine years.
Near Tulchin’s death, Dinerstein, who had been trying for ten to fifteen years to buy this footage off of him, finally convinced him to relent. After he passed away, his wife was going to gut the basement and get rid of everything—their mementos, the old clothes, the trunks, and everything. Something told us we should take one more visit to that basement to see if there’s anything else. Sure enough, everything was in there—the floor plans, the contracts. Who knew you could get Sly and the Family Stone to play a concert at the height of their powers for $4,500 in 1969? The fact that Mahalia Jackson was the highest-paid performer, even above Stevie Wonder, was amazing. All of the details were laid out and helped us find people who were there at the festival.
KL: Is it possible that the obscuring and eventual erasure of the Harlem Cultural Festival’s story was done to suppress a major event in Black arts and culture because of its proximity to Black activist movements?
Q: I genuinely believe that when you tell a story of the oppressed and you tell the story of the oppressor, that maybe four times out of five, the oppressor is completely unaware of any long-term damage or any altering of history that’s been going on with the oppressed. I think they honestly, in their hearts, don’t feel as though it’s happening because it’s always done under the guise of “good business.” It’s easier to sell a concert that has Joe Cocker and Joan Baez and other white names of the day.
Often people are thinking of Middle America. When they say Middle America, the person they are referencing doesn’t look like you or me, and we don’t represent the whole idea of what defines [this] America. So I believe that’s even more dangerous—the whole idiom of “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” If it weren’t for the pandemic and this heightened sense of awareness non–people of color have about the long-term damage that’s been going on for a lot of us, I think this movie would be seen differently.
Initially, when cutting it, the first thing we took note of was that the things happening in 1969 are still happening fifty years later. Then it was like: OK, well, do we spell this out for people? The one thing I don’t like about films is when they don’t trust the intelligence of the audience that’s watching it. There was maybe a cut or two where we were thinking of infusing the civil protest of what was happening between 2015 and 2020. At the last minute, it was clear to us that the parallels between the two were obvious, and it would hit home just the same without spelling it out. It’s an empty feeling in the last ten minutes of the film when you realize that what you just saw could have been erased.
As a musician and as a person who was born in 1971, you know that one concert [Woodstock] defined a generation. It was contextualized as a generation-defining moment in history, and all I kept thinking was, Wow, this could have been that for me. Imagine if I grew up watching the Harlem Cultural Festival and it was held in the same light and given the same glory that its counterpart was given three weeks later. How could that have affected me as a musician? How could that have affected me as an artist? Could this have helped to keep Black consciousness at the forefront of Black music? The burden shouldn’t be on us to always be the example, but I had those questions. Fortunately, it’s affecting my life now, and I’m glad I’m the one to help bring it forth.