Jimi Hendrix didn’t play the Harlem Cultural Festival, the “Black Woodstock” featured in the exhilarating new musical documentary Summer of Soul.
But he wanted to.
Summer of Soul shares long-lost footage from the series of concerts held at Harlem’s Mount Morris Park in the summer of 1969 — the same summer that the far-more-famous Woodstock music festival took place 100 miles from Harlem, in Bethel, New York.
If you know nothing else about Woodstock, you probably know that the undisputed highlight was Hendrix’s blistering performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It roared from classic rock radio stations this past weekend, as it does every July 4th.
Hendrix performed it the morning after the Woodstock festival had been scheduled to end. Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix’s drummer, has said that the band didn’t rehearse “The Star Spangled Banner,” and that Hendrix broke into spontaneously at the close of their Woodstock set.
Hendrix was the rare Black performer at Woodstock, which became one of the defining events for many of the Baby Boomer generation. Summer of Soul makes the point that the Harlem Cultural Festival, in contrast, was until recently almost forgotten by history — despite including a who’s who of iconic Black artists, from Stevie Wonder to Nina Simone to B.B. King to Mahalia Jackson to the Temptations’ David Ruffin to the Staple Singers to the Fifth Dimension, among many more.
So why didn’t the iconic Hendrix take part? Especially when he was in the New York City area in the summer of 1969?
The short answer is: He tried.
Summer of Soul director — and Roots drummer — Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson told the New York Times: “Jimi Hendrix tried to get on the Harlem Cultural Festival, but was a little too radical for them. So he shadowed the festival. For its first three weeks, he did blues performances with [guitarist] Albert King in the after-shows at night.”
Questlove also told the New York Post that “Jimi Hendrix had requested to play at the festival … and he got turned down.” He told the Post that Hendrix’s after-party shows included “like, three blues bars in Harlem.”
Why exactly was Hendrix turned down? It’s hard, 50 years later, to say. The word “radical” is loaded, and is in the eye of the beholder.
As Questlove explained to the Times, New York City supported the festival in part because it was seen as keeping the peace. Summer of Soul explains that the Harlem Cultural Festival arrived on the heels of brutality that included the assassinations of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, as well as years of violence and murder in response to the Civil Rights Movement. Talk of revolution was in the air. (The film’s full title is Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a reference to the 1960s slogan “the revolution will not be televised” that became the title of one of Gil-Scott Heron’s most celebrated songs.)
“At the end of the day, the sole purpose of this festival was to protect property,” Questlove said. “There was a riot in ’68 in Harlem when King died. And there was fear in the city that it would happen again in 1969, so there was a sense that the festival would keep Black people calm all summer. And once it served its purpose, that was it.”
Nothing in Hendrix’s performances seems as potentially provocative as a question Nina Simone poses to the Harlem Cultural Festival audience at one point in Summer of Soul. Reading from a poem by The Last Poets’ David Nelson, she asks, “Are you ready to kill, if necessary?”
This is clearly an artistic and rhetorical question: The Harlem Cultural Festival was just as much about “peace and music” as Woodstock. It had no significant trouble or arrests, according to Rolling Stone.
So what was radical about Hendrix, aside from his guitar playing? That’s also open to interpretation.
The Vietnam War was also raging in 1969, and many saw Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” as a subversive critique of the United States. But it could also be taken as a celebration of freedom — or a complicated mix of celebration and critique. The meaning of Hendrix’s performance remains widely debated, and Hendrix largely left his intentions open to interpretation. He often dedicated songs to soldiers, and was himself a veteran of the Army’s 101st Airborne.
Asked about “the controversy” over the way he played the song, Hendrix told talk-show host Dick Cavett: “All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it. I used to have to sing it in school, they made me sing it in school, so… it was a flashback.”
He also said his playing wasn’t “unorthodox,” adding, “I thought it was beautiful,” to applause from Cavett’s audience.
Perhaps Hendrix was only too “radical” in a musical sense. He could play anything, yes, but was best known in 1969 for a heavy rock vibe that doesn’t obviously jibe with the gospel, soul and blues of many of the other Harlem Cultural Festival performers. We’d highly recommend watching the doc and judging for yourself.
We’d hazard a guess that no one who watches Summer of Soul will have any complaints.
Here is Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock:
Summer of Soul, directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is now in theaters and streaming on Hulu.
Main image: Jimi Hendrix in Woodstock.