The Forgotten Music Festival: Reclaiming the Harlem Cultural Festival

The Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969

The Harlem Cultural Festival, dubbed by Questlove as Black Woodstock, gathered an impressive constellation of stars to perform over six weekends in 1969 at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). From the sisterly harmonies of The Staple Singers to B.B. King and the Temptations’ David Ruffin, the concerts covered a wide range of genres.

The concept

At the time, thirtysomething Harlemite singer Tony Lawrence had been hired by the city’s Parks Department to organize summer programming in the neighborhood. Over the next three years, his Harlem Cultural Festival would grow into an essential, if short-lived, crossroads where Black music and culture met. White politicians with national aspirations, like RFK and New York City Mayor John Lindsay, and Black community organizers and civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson and Marcus Garvey, all felt compelled to appear.

A filmmaker named Hal Tulchin filmed the 1969 event, which earned it the nickname “The Black Woodstock.” But the reels sat in his basement for decades as Tulchin couldn’t interest TV networks in turning them into a documentary.

Questlove’s Summer of Soul reclaims this lost footage and brings it back to life, so that future generations can see what a transformative moment in American history it really was. The film’s gyrating, jubilant energy is the perfect soundtrack to an era that was rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and by riots across the country.

The location

A new documentary by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson chronicles the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, the first free music event to attract hundreds of thousands of Black people in the city’s historic neighborhood. The 2021 film Summer of Soul—which premiered last month in the United States—features professional footage of the festival filmed as it occurred along with stock news footage and interviews with current and former attendees.

The 1969 festival was organized by nightclub singer Tony Lawrence, who worked on community initiatives for local churches and eventually became a Parks Department employee under the leadership of Mayor John Lindsay and Commissioner August Heckscher. Lawrence envisioned the events as a way to attract tourists and keep residents of Harlem in the area.

The festival proved popular, but Lawrence wanted to expand the concept and make it national. He had TV producer Hal Tulchin capture 50 hours of the concert, but the reels sat in a basement for decades as Tulchin couldn’t find anyone willing to produce a larger movie about them.

The artists

This is a compelling documentary about a little-known music event that took place around the same time as Woodstock. It was organized by Tony Lawrence, a 30-something local entertainer who worked for the city parks department and wanted to bring live music to Harlem residents over the summer. Lawrence was able to get great artists like Count Basie, Bobby “Blue Bland,” and Tito Puente to perform for thousands of fans. The festival also attracted black community organizers and civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Marcus Garvey Jr.

But despite the concert series’ popularity and the fact that it was held before (and not after) its better-known namesake, the events have been overlooked by history. The film uses archival footage, modern-day interviews with attendees and musicians, and commentary from critics to put this historic event in context. It shows how the nexus of music and politics played out at a moment that was both tumultuous and transformative.

The audience

This film showcases the music that reverberated off the walls of Mount Morris Park, a series of concerts attended by upwards of 300,000 people that drew on Black culture and gospel for inspiration. But, unlike the festival that rocked upstate New York in 1970 and came to be known as Woodstock, this summer celebration of Black music was largely overlooked.

This is partly due to the fact that it was overshadowed by a political event of the same period: the assassination of Martin Luther King. In addition, many of the performers at the festival were activists who made an effort to speak out about issues affecting the Black community.

Founder Tony Lawrence, who had achieved some minor success as a singer, was hired by the Parks Department to organize the shows, hoping that they could calm the city’s restive African-American residents after riots and looting in 1968 and 1969. He hoped that the combination of Black music and the setting of a Harlem reeling from King’s murder would give his summer series the status of generation-defining cultural milestone.

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