The other day via the miracle of streaming media I attended two music festivals, one of which occurred two years before I was born. Questlove's brilliant documentary Summer of Soul tells the story of the six weekend-long Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place in Harlem, NY in 1969 (you know, the same summer as that other, widely known music festival in NY State). The other film was about Woodstock-- but 1999, not 1969. These two events could not have been more different: in tone, audience, and mission.
- One was free; the other was expensive
- One took place over a series of weekends; the other was a full weekend, Friday-Monday.
- One was peaceful and joyful; the other was, as multiple attendees described it, like Lord of the Flies.
I wasn't around in 1969, so what I know of the era has been handed down by textbooks and various media. Woodstock 1969 has a mythology around it: an event during the "summer of love" that personified the idealism of the 1960s. I was around for Woodstock 1994; I didn't attend, but I remember watching on MTV-- I was in the demographic: 23 years old, single, fresh out in the workforce, and the early 90s were a time of optimism for my generation. I was very plugged in to the music of the day: The Black Crowes, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, 10,000 Maniacs/Natalie Merchant, The Cranberries. Like I said, I didn't attend '94, but I watched on MTV; I don't remember much about it, except there was lots of rain and mud.
By 1999, however, things had changed. I didn't watch MTV anymore. I was married, a recent seminary graduate, and on my way to England for my first full-time appointment in ministry. Watching the '99 doc, they mentioned how rock music evolved during the 90s-- from the progressive/inclusive/Seattle grunge movement to so-called New Metal, which was misogynistic, angry, and aggressive. One turning point in this change was the death of Kurt Cobain. I remember talking to my youth group the following Sunday about the dangers of suicide. While watching the doc, I thought: his death was pretty much the stopping point of my interest in popular music. In fact, since '94 I pulled further back in time, loving the music of the 60s & 70s more than ever before.
All that is to say: even though I was a white guy, 28, pretty much the demographic Woodstock 99 wanted, I had no interest in Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit or Korn or that clown group (yeah right like that was ever going to happen). I wasn't into the scene of screaming, of wanting to punch people in the face to let out my inner rage. But lots of other young white males were. Woodstock 99 took place at an abandoned Air Force base, surrounded by fencing, in Texas summer like temps, with mostly asphalt under foot, with little access to water (but you could purchase a water for $4!). All of this ended up as a nightmare of chaos-- thousands and thousands of people absolutely losing it. One person died, many suffered heat related stress, and sexual assaults against women were rampant. The promoters blamed everyone else: the media, MTV, singers...
Who was responsible for the collective rage of the attendees? And what are we doing about that rage 20+ years later? Like how many late 90s white/young/male/rage addicts are now late 40s adults who stormed the Capitol in DC 1/6/2021 or will soon be allowed to carry guns without any required permits or training in my home state?
Then I watched Summer of Soul, and my faith in humanity was restored (yes, time went backward 30 years between festivals, but hang on). Summer of Soul contains archived footage, not seen in 50+ years, of Sly and the Family Stone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, and so many others. For most African Americans, the late 60s were pretty terrible: they disproportionately served on the front lines of Vietnam compared to other racial groups; Malcolm X and Dr King were assassinated; the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts helped move things forward, but not nearly far enough. Drugs, crime, under served communities, less opportunities for meaningful employment... all of which often led to rage, rightly so; but watch the faces in the crowds: smiles, dancing, laughing, joy. The music was a healing balm, a means to offer healing and encouragement, not throwing gas on fire.
And the music festival was not disconnected to the times; in fact, the artists and attendees often spoke directly to the issues of the day. Voting. Employment. Investment in communities. There was a moving memorial service for Dr King, who was assassinated a year before. They sang his favorite song, Precious Lord, Take My Hand. I cried. Artists spoke and sang against racism, demanding freedom for the community. Black pride swelled during the late 60s, and you could see it. The lunar landing happened July 20, 1969. White TV reporters walked through the crowds, asking Black attendees for their reactions. Over and over, they said something like, "Who cares? We should have invested that money here in our neighborhood; that would be something I care about. This [the festival vibe] is what we really need." Of course I thought of 21st century billionaires launching ego-driven space tourism when their exorbitant money could be used to address the climate crisis, disease and poverty, and lack of investment in struggling communities. The more things change...
Even the white, male, Republican mayor of NYC showed up to the festival, and the crowds received him enthusiastically. Attendees spoke of his regular visits to Harlem and conversations with community leaders. It made me think again of my own home state. What if the white, male, Republican governor spent more time in the community with constituents, listening to and acting on their needs-- sharing his agenda and seeking their support-- rather than seeking to limit more and more access to voting?
It's easy to romanticize places and events I didn't attend, and yes 2021 is different from 1969. Or is it? We're still facing many of the same obstacles today, aren't we? What are we doing to constructively address our issues and challenges in ways that bring healing and restoration, rather than more division? I keep going back to the faces-- the joy-- of the festival attendees in Harlem. Despite everything going on in society, no one set fire to anything, no property was destroyed, no one remembers those weekends with infamy or anger. It was all love. So different from the other festival 30 years later. So different from what we see online and in our society today.
Woodstock 1999 was good, not great; you can watch it on HBO Max. I highly, highly recommend Summer of Soul. It's on Hulu; you might still find it in cinemas too. It's the best film of 2021 so far. Check out the trailer: