There were two celebrations this weekend of the 50th anniversaries of American music festivals.
The one you’ve all probably read about, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock: a 1969 rock festival held in Bethel, New York and bringing together artists across genres, from Janis Joplin to Ravi Shankar and Bob Dylan to, perhaps most famously today, Jimi Hendrix. (It was named for Dylan’s then place of residence.) 400 000 people tried to attend – some couldn’t get in, although helpful anarchists eventually tore down a few fences – and by the afternoon of the first day, all roads for 20 miles around the muddy, bowl-shaped farm site were blocked by incoming cars. That festival has had commemorations in plenty, but no ‘official’ 50th birthday event. Co-founder and current owner of the Woodstock “brand”, Michael Lang, couldn’t reach a simultaneously satisfactory agreement with both venue and artists; he dropped the idea and threatened to sue anybody else who picked it up in that precise, branded form.
Woodstock is often described as the convergence and culmination of the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s: the protests against the Vietnam War; the push against rigid family and societal roles; the experimentation with mood- and mind-altering drugs; and the African-American civil rights movement.
Some of that, however, represents the rose-coloured spectacles of nostalgia, assisted by Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 movie https://archive.org/details/youtube-tEkVEnsEUWA, because that was the story the film told.
Woodstock, August 1969 – the summer of peace, love, dope and tie-dyed flares – certainly provided a home for many of those social impulses, in the sentiments of the crowd and the lyrics of many of the songs and in plenty of individual experiences. But it’s worth remembering that in the late 1960s “sexual liberation” still often advantaged cis men over anybody else, and – despite Hendrix’s magnificent anti-war shredding of The Star Spangled Banner – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKAwPA14Ni4 , the crowd was overwhelmingly white.
A far more interesting six-weekend concert series was happening in Harlem over July and August 1969, with a lineup including Sly and the Family Stone ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4dnk5b0wbI ), BB King, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3F8Cqp7smwM, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson and more. (Hendrix and Ritchie Havens were the only black Woodstock headliners; Havens also played Harlem.) It attracted more than 300 000 people. The Harlem Cultural Festival has sometimes been dubbed “Black Woodstock” – but it wasn’t a copy; it was entirely its own thing.
The Harlem Cultural Festival was barely mentioned by international media this week, while the Woodstock anniversary has been universally showcased. However, New York did remember the festival at 50, with a week of seminars and an anniversary concert on August 17th.
Harvard professor of race and public policy, Khalil Mumammad, points out the unease with which, in the still-segregated 60s, African-Americans would have contemplated visiting a white-owned farm in white-dominated rural upstate New York. “The late Sixties has been romanticized with regard to the cultural mixing of the anti-war activists and black freedom activists,” Muhammad told northjersey.com. (https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/columnists/mike-kelly/2019/08/15/woodstock-1969-tried-diverse-crowd-didnt-work-kelly-harlem-cultural-festival/2011323001/) “But the reality is you had pretty clear lines of segregation. The cultural spaces [for integration] were tiny,” whereas the Harlem event represented “ black people needing to celebrate on their own terms.”
That’s not the only difference. Although mismanagement (something herbal in the air?) meant Woodstock didn’t fully realise its potential profits, the festival was a straight commercial initiative. Its co-founders wanted to establish a recording studio and artist stable in the area; the concert was designed to market that idea. The branding disputes that sabotaged this year’s attempt to stage an official anniversary party had their roots right back at the start. Woodstock, you might say, also started the wokewashing of cultural commodities that infests today’s scene.
The Harlem series was organised from the grassroots up, by community groups, churches and black political formations. When the City refused, the Black Panthers provided security. There were two deaths even at that first peace-and-love Woodstock. Nobody died at the Harlem events.
Hindsight isn’t always 20:20 vision: sometimes you’ll find white blotches on the lenses. And at a time when 50s-style racism and sexism are on the rise again in America and the world, we need to be sure we read all the histories, not just the hegemonic one.