“Hey, let’s go to Woodstock!” I was 18 and my friend Mike Spirito called me with this invitation around dinnertime and an hour later, we were on the New Jersey parkway entrance hitchhiking to the Festival. Got dropped off some 10 miles from the main site around midnight and starting walking the road, along with many other fellow hippies. It had the feel of some ancient pilgrimage and when we arrived within earshot of the music (though in the middle of the night, none was playing), I believe we just lay down and slept. We awoke late morning and though I hoped to get closer to the stage, Mike had to get back to work. And so we turned around to hitchhike back, never really having caught sight of nor heard the music of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, the Who or any other of the 30 plus bands who performed at this watershed event. These were the folks singing my emerging identity as a fledgling hippy, the soundtrack of the times, the bards announcing the new world. As the story tells, I wasn’t exactly wholly there, but yes, I was there. And can tell my grandchildren about it.
But there was another watershed event that same summer and I’m sad to say I wasn’t there. In fact, didn’t even know it happened until I recently saw the movie Summer of Soul. Hmm, mostly white folks performing and gathering at Woodstock and a media blitz that echoes down to this day. All black folks performing in Harlem’s Summer of Soul concerts and the media goes silent. Until this year. Gee, I wonder why that is.
But such a loss for me and the world (and thanks to the folks who took the footage and brought it out 50 years later!!). After you watch the movie, you can’t help but reflect on the beauty and power of that gathering. Young performers like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, David Ruffin (of the Temptations), Sly and the Family Stone (who also performed at Woodstock). Seasoned veterans like Nina Simone, B.B. King,, the Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson. Gospel music, blues, soul, jazz, Latin jazz, West African music, South African music, funk— the variety was astounding, but all styles unified by the unmistakable presence of the African soul in its many different voices. The mostly black performers (some white supporting musicians) looking out at a sea of mostly black audience members (I spotted about five white folks amongst thousands).
Comparing the two festivals, I couldn’t help but feel Woodstock as indulgent and wimpy compared to the Soul Force and power of the Harlem one. A few points to consider:
• I do think the music from the white bands of that time was authentic, necessary, prophetic and with its own quality of Soul and Spirit. But it all was drawn from the well of the African diaspora and white folks had only really been playing it for some 15 years, compared to the 75 plus year history of Blues and Gospel and Jazz.
• The ages of the people both attending and performing at Woodstock probably fit into a ten year span, say between 18 and 28. By contrast, Nina Simone was in her 30’s, B.B. King in his 40’s, Mahalia Jackson in her 50’s, the Staples Singers a father and daughters band and the audience included all generations.
• The music at Woodstock was helping to form a beginning identity, while the music in Harlem was affirming an ancient identity.
• The call for radical political change was present in both (as in Country Joe and the Fish anti-Vietnam protest song, the presence of the Black Panthers in the Harlem Festival and Reverend Jesse Jackson’s speech as part of it), but for the white kids, political activism was an optional item due to their privilege being raised in white suburbs while for the black people, it was a matter of survival. And it’s worth noting that the media frenzy around Woodstock and inattention to the Summer of Soul is yet another of 10,000 examples of how white privilege works in this country.
But the good news is that the movie is out and you can go see it. Do try to go beyond the entertainment value into the deeper levels of the lessons it teaches about the extraordinary beauty, power and durability of the African musical soul and use it to renew your own commitment to end white supremacy in this country. Stevie, Nina and Mahalia are all carrying the same message and generously offering it up to all of us. Let’s listen to it.