“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”
As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.
This year’s release of the music documentary Summer of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.
Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders. Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized. Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest. “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”. A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart. In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.
Featuring a staggering assembly of musical styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day. Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up. That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.
An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar. With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.
Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable. Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler. It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen. Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.
As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton. Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.
Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent. That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965.
A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s. After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony. When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us. No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it. Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.
As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”. One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band. Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul. The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension. Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”. The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.
Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted
most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”. It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan.
“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”
Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:
“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”
The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.
It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.” You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.