At ‘Black Woodstock,’ an All-Star Lineup Delivered Joy and Renewal to 300,000


Woodstock was big and messy, thrilling and stirring — and summed up finally by Jimi Hendrix, whose festival-closing set included his towering, take-a-knee reading of the national anthem. It was an admixture of disaffection and patriotism, bold as love and black as hell. But Hendrix was one of the few black musicians at an event that has become a cultural touchstone for white America. A hundred miles to the south of that sprawling rural rock ’n’ roll assembly, black folks were building their own musical commons. The Harlem Cultural Festival of that year, which would come to be known as ‘Black Woodstock,’ had, on its surface, little in common with the upstate hootenanny. Held in Harlem at Mount Morris (what is now Marcus Garvey) Park, it was a self-consciously urban affair, a concert series rather than a one-off, and already in its third year. Co-sponsored by the New York City Parks Department and Maxwell House, the General Foods subsidiary, that year’s festival consisted of six free Sunday afternoon concerts held between June 29 and August 24. The total attendance was some 300,000 people strong. With the Caribbean singer Tony Lawrence at its helm, the festival was a sustained, communal activity and cultural interaction where enterprising street vendors got what The New York Times referred to as their ‘legitimate hustle’ on. A vibrant cross-section of city folk — brothers in dashikis (like Jesse Jackson, who spoke at one of the concerts), young sisters in smart shifts and older ones in church hats, men in fedoras and well-pressed, button-up shirts — all listened with a combination of focus and ease. ‘The scale and the diversity of the audience’ was a thing to behold, says Neal Ludevig, the curator and co-producer of this year’s 50th anniversary ‘Black Woodstock’ event. Iterations of the Harlem Cultural Festival were held in 1967 and 1968, but the 1969 events were the apex. Atop the rocks and down in the grassy field, they were showing up to watch a roll call of black popular music luminaries move through tight sets covering beloved repertoires. This was Harlem’s sonic playground, and it featured the likes of the gospel crossover sensation Edwin Hawkins, the blues icon B.B. King, the avant-garde jazz activists Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the groovy black pop ambassadors The 5th Dimension, the Motown up-and-comers Gladys Knight and the Pips and the youthful Stevie Wonder. The comic vets Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham supplied the standup relief. And the crowds responded — looking on reverentially, dancing with one another around the edges of the park. …”
NY Times
Rolling Stone: This 1969 Music Fest Has Been Called ‘Black Woodstock.’ Why Doesn’t Anyone Remember?
[PDF] NY Times – Finale in Harlem: 6 Concerts Drew 300,000
W – Harlem Cultural Festival
Smithsonian: Black Woodstock
dailymotion: Sly and the Family – Harlem Cultural Festival (Mount Morris Park)
YouTube: Nina Simone at Black Woodstock


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