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In Celebration of the Harlem Cultural Festival

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Last month, the documentary Summer of Soul—the directorial debut of musician, songwriter and now director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson—premiered in the US. This documentary presents previously unpublished footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a free music festival that took place in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem in the summer of 1969, and which saw upwards of 300,000 attendees.

As you may have noticed, this festival took place the same summer as Woodstock (and with one of the same acts—Sly and the Family Stone), only about 100 miles away from Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY, and with nearly as many attendees. Even with those similarities, this predominately Black music festival was nearly lost to history for the past 50-plus years. Thankfully, Questlove’s documentary brings this festival to greater prominence by presenting previously unpublished footage, as well as interviews with performers, attendees, and those who worked behind the scenes.

This documentary unveils a rich and meaningful chronicle of Black culture and music during the rapidly changing time that was 1969. Popular, chart-topping acts such as The Fifth Dimension played alongside blues musicians like B.B. King, and gospel artists such as Mahalia Jackson and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. One of the more emotional parts of the documentary comes when Mahalia Jackson is joined by Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” which was one of Martin Luther King’s favorite hymns.

Inspired by this rediscovery of a pivotal and sadly too-long overlooked moment in Black culture, here are some selections from the NLS Music and general collection that relate to the music heard in 1969 at the Harlem Cultural Festival.

Stevie Wonder and Other Popular Acts
One of the first acts shown in the documentary is a young, 19-year-old Stevie Wonder. Not only does he sing and play the keys, but he also takes over the drum set for a blistering solo (among many other extraordinary talents, Stevie Wonder is also a prodigious drummer), and then leads a jam on the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.”  In addition to Stevie Wonder, popular Motown artists and other top acts such as The Fifth Dimension, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, and David Ruffin of The Temptations performed at the festival. The NLS Music Section contains a number of materials related to these artists and genres:

Brown, Bill. For Once in My Life in the style of Stevie Wonder. Piano by Ear (DBM03719)
My Cherie Amour in the Style of Stevie Wonder. Piano by Ear (DBM03319)
My Girl as performed by The Temptations. Piano by ear (DBM03939)
Ribbon in the Sky in the style of Stevie Wonder. Piano by Ear (DBM03378)
MacDermot, Galt. Aquarius: from the American tribal love-rock musical “Hair.” For voice and piano (BRM27029)
Motown: 50th Anniversary Songbook. With voice parts, melody, and chords (BRM36141)
Stevie Wonder: Sketches of a Life. Concert and Interview (DBM04282)
Wonder, Stevie. Songs in the Key of Life. Line by line and bar over bar formats (BRM26034)

Mural depicting renowned blues singer B.B. King in his adopted hometown of Indianola, Mississippi, where he moved as a teenager.

Gospel and Blues Artists
The festival also featured a number of gospel and blues artists including B.B. King, The Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Here are some selections from the NLS Music Section that feature those genres and artists:

50 Popular Songs for Piano, Book 4. (BRM27125) – contains the Edwin Hawkins Singers song “Oh Happy Day.”
A Listener’s Guide to the Blues (hosted by B.B. King)
Son Seals (DBM01230)
Koko Taylor (DBM01231)
Johnny Copeland (DBM01232)
Lowell Fulson (DBM01233)
Brown, Bill. Acoustic Delta Blues for guitar: Part 1 (DBM02230), Part 2 (DBM02928), Part 3 (DBM02938), Part 4 (DBM02930)
Classic African American Gospel (DBM03632)
Gospel’s Best: Words and Music (LPM00759)
Lidel, Paul. Beginning Blues Guitar (DBM01729)
Mahalia Jackson: I Sing Because I’m Happy: Interview with Songs (DBM03638)
Traditional Gospel for Piano. Bar over bar format (BRM34704)
Wade in the Water: African American Gospel
Vol. 1: African American Spirituals (DBM03768)
Vol. 2: African American Congregational Singing (DBM03769)
Vol. 3: African American Gospel: The Pioneering Composers (DBM03770)
Vol. 4: African American Community Gospel (DBM03771)

Jazz, Latin, and Afro-Caribbean Artists
Lastly, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Afro-Caribbean artists, such as Mongo Santamaria, Ray Baretto, and the Harlem Festival Calypso Band, also performed at the festival. Here are some NLS Music Section items that feature styles of music from those cultures:

Almeida, Laurindo. Latin Percussion Instruments and Rhythms for Jazz and Rock. (BRM24558)
Calypso Jamaica (DBM03684)
Celebration of Machito: Mario Grillo (DBM04283)
Cross, Felix. Islands in the Sun: The Story of Reggae and Calypso (DBM01465)
Gabriel Muñoz & Melodias Borinqueñas–Puerto Rican Folk Music from New Jersey (DBM04310)
Grupo Rebolú–Afro-Colombian Music from New York (Concert & Interview) (DBM04323) – This interview in partly conducted in English and partly conducted in Spanish.
Interview with Chucho Valdes (DBM04284) – This interview is conducted in Spanish
Sounds & Rhythms of Contemporary Cuban Music in the American Diaspora (DBM04285)

In addition to the above items from the Music Section, you may be interested in the following books from the general NLS Talking Book Collection:

Feldstein, Ruth. How it Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (DB 79497)
Werner, Craig Hansen. Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul (DB 59603)
Light, Alan. What Happened, Miss Simone? (DB 83699)
Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (DB 68628)
Kot, Greg. I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and The March Up Freedom’s Highway (DBC03421)

You can download the above items from BARD or ask for hard copy scores and audio-cartridges from the NLS Music Section. Contact us to find out about more music materials you may like to borrow by calling 800-424-8567, extension 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

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