Black Woodstock - Why The Documentary Should Be Released

Written by Alan McGee
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Black Woodstock" (Wattstax in 1972 has also been labelled the "Black Woodstock", but this Harlem show came first) was a celebration of beliefs, art and people. Luminaries from the political and musical worlds participated, including Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Staple Singers, Nina Simone and more). The festival also provided a rallying point during the upsurge of the black power movement, attracting over 100,000 participants with the Black Panthers providing security.

Film-maker Hal Tulchin captured over 50 hours of footage with the hope of selling it to network television. He was turned down by all networks who told him there was absolutely no interest in showing a black power music festival (though some footage was sold internationally) and the film has been kept in a vault for more than 40 years. The Rhino label was the only successful rights purchaser, using the Nina Simone footage for their DVD extras on The Soul of Nina Simone. The only other public release has been leaked footage of Sly and the Family Stone (including the entire Nina Simone performance) on YouTube.

It's fascinating that comprehensive footage of the event exists; and frustrating that it's still unavailable. I am desperate to see it. My interest in "Black Woodstock" was perked again by Jay Babcock of Arthur Magazine who feels (rightfully) that the film should see the light of day. Babcock also considered the cultural ramifications if "Black Woodstock" had captured the public's imagination as much as the other festival. He contacted Tulchin's lawyer who informed him the footage was still under option (an option which will soon be expiring).

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.

Simone's breathless use of audience interaction starts with Mississippi Goddamn. She is masterful as she integrates her mainly white audience into the song's narrative by starting in a playful fashion, getting them happy and laughing before hitting at them with racist indictments. You can almost hear the stunned silence from the crowd.

Simone used her music to attack injustice. She demonstrated herself as a freedom fighter unafraid of alienating commercial concern. Her message of "black power, black women and unity" overwhelmed any careerism. At "Black Woodstock" she sang the poignant Backlash Blues ("You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, and send my son to Vietnam. Do you think that your coloured folks are second-class fools?") and her anthem of hope, Young, Gifted and Black, ("When you feel really low / Yeah, there's a great truth you should know / When you're young, gifted and black / Your soul is intact").

The energy in her performance is so intense, even when viewed on a computer screen. When she reads out the revolutionary and militant poem Are You Ready Black People?, she encapsulates the propulsive nature of the movement. She's preaching. She's informing. She's entertaining. She's a total star.

Why is Black Woodstock still sitting in the vaults? For me, this is not just a concert, but a valid historical document capturing the height of the black power movement, positivism and the tension within their community. I remember a poignant Simone quote from 1997 when asked why she left the US: "I left because I didn't feel that black people were going to get their due, and I still don't." It's hard to disagree with her when a cultural event as significant as "Black Woodstock" has been gathering dust in a vault for over 40 years

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Reproduced by Kind Permission of Alan McGee

Read 4167 times Last modified on Monday, 09 November 2020 18:03
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Alan McGee

Alan McGee

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ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


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