In late August of 1969, on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, nearly 400,000 people from far-reaching ends of the country gathered for “3 Days of Peace & Music.” Infamous Woodstock performances like Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” and Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” thought to have defined a generation, still circulate half a century later.
But 100 miles southwest of Bethel, another festival unfolded for a different group of gatherers that same summer—estimated at up to 300,000 attendees. However, that event was not chronicled in the history books as the defining cultural moment that the re-surfaced footage proved it to be.
In 1967, Tony Lawrence was recruited by New York City’s Parks Department to organize outdoor events in his Harlem neighborhood. As a mover and shaker in his community, Lawrence played an integral role turning a series of free concert events on Sundays in Mount Morris Park to the Harlem Cultural Festival.
Lawrence served as the M.C. of the festival and by the third year, he was welcoming acts on stage like a 19-year-old drummer-phenom named Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, who took her angst out on the piano on “Backlash Blues.”
Over six days in the park, pivotal music acts wielded the Harlem Cultural Festival as a platform. Sly and the Family Stone sang their counterculture anthem, “Everyday People.” The Staple Singers—Pops and his daughters Cleotha, Yvonne and Mavis—made “Help Me Jesus” their own. The Edwin Hawkins Singers kicked it off with their hit rendition of “Oh Happy Day,” and B.B. King, Ray Barretto, and Gladys Knight & the Pips all followed suit, dressed to the Motown-standard nines in the swelling summer heat.
Tales of the legendary lineups were passed down in an informal oral history fashion, piquing the curiosity of several music community members. One of those people was Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson—drummer and joint frontman of the Grammy Award-winning group and The Tonight Show house band, The Roots.
“This mythical, magical festival thrown in 1969, with all these great names, and I never heard about it?” Thompson told CBS Sunday Morning in an interview. “When it was shown to me, I got humbled real quick!”
While Woodstock is still propped up as a cultural beacon over 50 years later, another side of that summer has emerged with the help of Thompson’s initiatives. In the depths of a dusty basement in residential Harlem, television producer Hal Tulchin hosted nearly 40 hours of unseen footage. For years, Tulchin claims he tried to share the reels with anyone who will watch. The aging film sat largely untouched until Thompson finally got his hands on them.
On July 2, Summer of Soul will premiere in theaters and become available for streaming on Hulu. The documentary on the uncovered history of a once-in-a-lifetime lineup marks Thompson’s directorial debut. “I’ve been given the responsibility to correct history, which, who’d a thought?,” he said in the interview.
Controversially referred to as “Black Woodstock,” the transformative event took place while the United States was at war in Vietnam. In an ironic overlapping of uncharted history, Neil Armstrong actually landed on the moon the same day Stevie Wonder performed in Harlem. The documentary touches on why the moon landing was less impactful to Harlem residents that day than the 19-year-old icon-to-be’s drum solo.
“1969 was a paradigm shift, especially for Black people, you know, coming off the tail end of the civil rights period,” Thompson told CBS. “That was the first year that we referred to ourselves as Black. That’s the first year that, you know, we acknowledged that Black is beautiful.”
The Sundance-winning film unveils a hidden history. Thompson played the reels on a 24-hour loop while crafting the documentary. With the help of his editor Joshua L. Pearson, and key players and Harlem community members who were there, Thompson finally transformed 40 hours of footage into two impactful hours about music, but also the history of race relations and how stories are shaped and passed to proceeding generations. Summer of Soul sheds light on a community that amidst unrelenting oppression found joy through transcendent music traditions.
“This film could have defined a generation as well,” Thompson said. “We’ll never get to know the answer, what the effect would have been. But I do believe that, even 50 years later, this is still as potent and powerful as Woodstock was, and can still work its magic for another generation.”
Watch the official teaser for Summer of Soul from Searchlight Pictures below.
Headline Photo: The Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 [Search Light Pictures]