Revisiting the 1969 Music Festival That Brought Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone to Harlem

The history and revival of the Harlem Cultural Festival

Poster for the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival
Gind2005/Creative Commons

In the summer of 1969, a concert series at Mount Morris Park in Harlem hosted a powerhouse array of artists, including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone and the Staple Singers. Filmmaker Hal Tulchin recorded the concerts for posterity, and popularized an alternative name for the Harlem Cultural Festival: “Black Woodstock.” 

But while the Woodstock that occurred in the Hudson River Valley has become a cultural icon, the concerts that occurred in New York City — despite an equally impressive array of artists — has largely faded from the public consciousness. 

A new article at Rolling Stone suggests that that may change, however. Last year saw the publication of Stuart Cosgrove’s Harlem 69, the third book in a trilogy which The Guardian hailed for its ability to “[bring] to life a moment, a place and its people through the events of a single, defining year chronicled month by month.” This month, Future x Sounds is hosting a series of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Harlem Cultural Festival. And next year, a documentary featuring Tulchin’s footage is set to be released.

The last of these has been a long time coming. A 2007 Smithsonian article on the festival mentioned that distributor Joe Lauro had included some of Tulchin’s footage on a2006 Nina Simone documentary. And in 2009, Creation Records co-founder Alan McGee made an impassioned case for the footage’s release.

I find this a massive loss for the music community. The Nina Simone set on YouTube is absolutely riveting and underlines the sheer importance of the event. Simone is at her best, and the performance is almost exhausting, as she provides a blistering call to arms for civil rights, empowerment and knowledge. She doesn’t sing the songs, she lives through them, and the audience are caught up in them.

The full story of the festival is a fascinating one. Hopefully, this renewed attention on it should return this event to its rightful place in American musical and cultural history.

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