Welcome to Soulsville, U.S.A., aka Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, scene of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka the Black Woodstock.
Finally out in the wake of the 2021 film that made it possible, Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is a trip back in time to a festival that was essentially lost to history until Questlove got his hands on the video archives and made his directorial debut.
Now, here comes the audio; 17 tracks and 80-plus minutes minutes of aural documentation replete with stage announcements, perhaps as a nod to the unofficial Black Woodstock moniker, and the Chambers Brothers setting the stage with “Uptown.”
The sound quality is a bit flat, to be expected from half-century-old tapes that moldered in storage all those decades. The sounds; however, are extraordinary, the crossroads of B.B. King’s blues (“Why I Sing the Blues”); the 5th Dimension’s pop (“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”); the gospel of Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers; the jazz of Mongo Santamaria‘s “Watermelon Man;” Sly & the Family Stone’s psychedelia; and a touch of Motown R&B and soul courtesy of David Ruffin’s “My Girl” and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”
The artists’ messages are as diverse as the artists themselves, from Ray Barretto’s plea that people come “Together” before it’s too goddam late to Nina Simone’s query “Are You Ready” to kill if necessary. Is your mind ready?
Incredibly, it all holds together via the sheer strength of music and community.