Function at the Junction: Notes on Summer of Soul
I’m getting ready for the function at the junction
And baby you’d better come on right now
Because everybody’s gonna be there
We got people comin’ from everywhere – “Function At The Junction,” Shorty Long, 1966
There’s a long, long legacy of Black folks gathering around food and funk, bbq sauce and song. Before we had recording technology, song and dance came directly through our bodies. We were its sole conduits and even in the midst of soul-killing forced labor, our voices sang spirituals to inspire, blues to release pain. We imprinted this legacy on the collective cultural fabric through phonographs and RCA Victor radios. As we moved from sharecropping to domestic paid labor, crisscrossing the nation as Pullman porters, we grew more connected. As our musical sound travelled through our diaspora, styles cohered.
Musical programming that rang out from the living room migrated to car radios, then to portable transistor radios after World War II. Our regional traditions called and responded to each other, informing and, at times, playfully challenging, transforming, and cross-pollinating our artforms. Drums in recording studios pounded harder. Live performances became more dazzling. Suits went from wool to satin to shark skin. Stage dresses slithered, layering silk atop of satin, adazzle with sequins. The fancy footwork of tap dancers was incorporated into the song and dance routines. Each 3-minute melody on the hit parade became a miniature stage play.
Meanwhile, changes in domestic arts mirrored this mounting sophistication. Pound cake recipes varied in their suggested amounts of dairy. We learned that there are an astonishing number of ways to fry chicken. Even today, I vary between brines. On some Sundays, I stick to mustard. Other Sundays, I switch to buttermilk. Some say I should forgo these two and brine in sweet tea. Existence in this world is hard enough without culinary pleasure. Given the opportunity, Black folks will prioritize their joy or rest first, not knowing when the next break will come.
As evening approached, our sunlit relationship to song changed. As the moon claimed its place in the sky, praise and sensuality lit up the night. Tent revivals blended the traditions of Afro-spirituality with forced conversion to Christianity. For heathens, juke joints in the boonies served bathtub wine that could blind even the most circumspect tippler. For many, such adventures were an exuberant risk worth taking.
As Black folks left the south, heading north or west, the tents became Baptist, Church of God in Christ (COGIC), and various Pentacostal sects in redlined neighborhoods. Choir practices stretched into the wee hours of the morning in order to perfect harmonies that would be displayed on Sunday morning. Juke joints grew into palaces that constituted stops along the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a network of safe performance venues for Black entertainers living under the tyranny of Jim Crow. From the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, one could zip up to The Howard in D.C. Next stop might be yet another Royal Theater in Baltimore, before passing through Philadelphia’s iteration of The Howard.
The crown jewel everyone knows, the one that still stands, is Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. The 125th Street venue can still make or break careers nearly 90 years after it started catering to Black audiences. It’s also a humble venue, with a seating capacity of slightly over 1,500 people. Nonetheless, its importance is indisputable. If you could pass muster with crowds composed of the harshest New York critics, you could damn well “make it” anywhere.
These entertainers cut their teeth at daytime picnics that often became night time parties. The church picnic provided a peaceful intermission before the gospel choirs battled at night. Those soulful and sanctified performances soundtracked the smoking of ribs and debates about who makes the best potato salad. The list of voices that went on to conquer stages from Tallahassee to Tokyo runs long. Once those souls slipped into the sparkle of night, rarely did they perform under the light of day.
Although they entertained, these performers were also employees who worked graveyard shifts. The creation of the classic soul food dish of chicken and waffles underscores this. Soon to be stale fried chicken from last night’s dinner run? Waffles to be ironed out for those catching breakfast on the way to work? Those spirits shedding sharkskin suits and stiletto heels got the best of both worlds before the sun rose. Vampires wish they could be so lucky.
Those enthralled and inspired by these artists weren’t always able to catch their late evening shows. Perhaps these fans worked the same graveyard shifts. That also meant missing performances by their favorite artists on the emerging medium of television. Maybe they couldn’t afford the admission price to the theaters on the circuit. Some were so prolific, you couldn’t keep up with their tangible output put in stores. Dinah Washington was called “Queen of the Jukebox” for a reason.
Enter daytime musical concerts, a countercultural staple of the mid-twentieth century.
The Newport Jazz Festival kicked off in the Summer of 1954. It arrived just as jazz was being edged out by newer genres. Jazz itself had been an “integrated” space where white musicians sanitized Black innovation for the better part of 30 years and Newport catered to a monied clientele of mostly white people. While the Queen of The Jukebox was beloved there, a number of her younger, rowdier peers, like Della Reese, Etta James and LaVern Baker, didn’t grace Newport’s stages. More often than not, those slots were reserved for white women covering their material.
The 1958 documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day presents Newport as a Brigadoon of sorts. You float away for just under an hour and a half, totally removed from the stifling segregation cemented by masochistic subservience to patriarchal masculinity. The outfits, at least, are truly stunning. If Douglas Sirk had been a documentarian, this cotton candy wonderland of song would be the nuclear dream he would have crafted.
While these hep cats sauntered under the New England sun listening to bebop, many performers slept during the day, still toiling mostly at night. Most, if not all of them, were ignored when pop copycats emerged during the latter half of the 1960’s. Dionne Warwick, the Fifth Dimension and Hugh Maskela (who was then working with the Byrds) performed at The Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County (1967). The following weekend, only Otis Redding shucked and jived for The Monterey International Pop Music Festival’s nearly all white audience.
By the summer of ‘67, Warwick had moved on from her complex soul ballads and pre-feminist anthems like “Don’t Make Me Over” and “Walk On By.” Her recording output featured pallid theme music from movies like Alfie and The Valley of The Dolls. This music charted increasingly higher on adult contemporary rankings than anywhere else. Redding was virtually unknown to white audiences until tragedy took him.
Redding gained his greatest renown and acclaim after a plane crash claimed his life. 3 months after he was buried in cold December soil, “Sitting On The Dock of The Bay” rocketed to the top of the charts. This feat was a milestone in music history, garnering Redding the first posthumous #1 hit. While his earlier musical output had existed largely out of earshot of white audiences, remaining on the R&B charts, Aretha Franklin had helped to spread his sound. She alchemized his “Respect,” revisiong the raucous bit of misogyny as a brazen and chart-topping ‘fuck you.’
The Harlem Cultural Festival, which also debuted in 1967, stood in stark contrast to the Newport Jazz Festival. Its origins have a complicated political history. As 1965 became 1966, New Yorkers elected John Lindsay, a so-called “Liberal Republican,” as their mayor. In the summer of 1964, Harlem residents had rioted in response to the police murder of 15 year old James Powell and Lindsay understood that similar conditions continued to provoke uprisings. From the Watts Riots in Los Angeles to resistance on the streets of San Francisco and Chicago, Black people were rising up against police violence.
Impacting both Harlem and the South Bronx were injustices that ranged from neighborhood landlords running grifts to crumbling infrastructure. Such conditions made these neighborhoods ideal sites of more resistance during the long, hot summer of 1967, New York becoming one of 159 U.S. cities to experience violence during that historic season.
Being a cynical pragmatist, Lindsay allocated a small amount of funding for diversions. To distract the populace, Lindsay and the New York Parks and Recreation Department employed a Pied Piper: Tony Lawrence. Originally hailing from St. Kitt’s, the singer and promoter saw two opportunities. One, he could develop musical programming that would enhance his standing as a New York entertainment influencer. Two, he could give back to the community that had nurtured him since his arrival in New York as a child.
Details about the inaugural 1967 edition of the Harlem Cultural Festival remain unclear. However, Lawrence succeeded in securing high profile, if slightly past their prime musicians, like Count Basie and Bobby “Blue”Bland. The event proved successful enough for a second iteration to be launched in 1968.
We don’t get to meet Lawrence until a good quarter of the new documentary, Summer of Soul, introduces him in a fanfare of eye-catching outfits. The outfits point to an alternate reality where Little Richard became the lead singer of the Temptations after David Ruffin left. Speaking of Ruffin, he glides into the footage of the 1969 festival at the heart of the documentary and dons a lavish fur- lined smoking jacket. He does not break a sweat in the sweltering heat. It’s a little less pity-provoking that he’s presented in the documentary as a washed up has-been singing a #1 hit from 5 years before, rather than giving the crowd his latest and greatest from 1969, the devastatingly dark “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me).”
As the budget for the festival expanded, the goal became to sow even greater good vibes. Festival producers intended to spread positivity so that Black and Brown folks might forget about police brutality that scorching summer.
During the era of the Black Panthers, Marilyn McCoo beautifully inspired an interest in astrology by bringing a Broadway tune, “Aquarius,” uptown. Mars in Sagittarius was actually well aspected by Jupiter in Libra most of the summer of 1969. Perhaps the timing was truly right. The documentary itself doesn’t follow a very straightforward track. Given the amounts of footage recorded, given the range of artists that performed on single days, nevermind the 6 weeks of summer, there’s no way to succinctly present such a bounty of art in a neatly tied bow.
The first day, June 29, 1969, featured the broadest scope of artforms, centering a melodic party salad of voices. The Bay Area interracial funk of Sly & The Family Stone arrives later in the documentary, not the opening act that segues into the Fifth Dimension on the festival schedule. The degrees of opposition could not be greater between those two California based acts. Sylvester Stone had long standing credibility as a former deejay for San Francisco soul station K-SOL. The Family Stone’s hits often scored as high, if not higher on the R&B charts.
The Fifth Dimension, as Marilyn McCoo breaks down and cries about in the documentary, often shocked people, audiences realizing that they were, indeed, a Black group. The late sixties was a time when Aretha Franklin usurped Diana Ross’s position as the most prominent icon of Black womanhood. McCoo had been rejected by Motown, sounding more like Mama Cass than Martha Reeves. The festival gave her a chance to reclaim Blackness. The experience of call and response, the communality and fellowship, still brings her delight 50 years later. It is clear that this concert meant more to her than any of those that brought white audiences and bigger booking fees.
McCoo’s tears of joy, of reliving the moment, makes all of the crass behind-the-scenes decision-making fade away. Mavis Staples steps in to tell about the mythical baton toss, the recognition that she had what it took to be the next heavyweight at the cross section of sanctified and secular. It’s electric to see a radiant, yet remarkably weary Mahalia Jackson ask her to take the burden of performing a song that brought all of them heartache. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” is a plea to share the burden, it’s a song of recognizing limits. Martin Luther King loved the hymn for very heart-wrenching reasons. Very few people gave King access to rest and he turned to spirit to find release. He turned to Jackson’s version of the gospel song for the intensity, the catharsis of the sacred wail, those tears he couldn’t cry in public.
To take King’s favorite hymn to audiences over and over, especially after his death, was a heavy weight to carry. King wasn’t the only activist sacrificed during the 60’s. Jackson herself lived through the rigors of touring, purchasing Cadillacs to tour in not because they were fancy, but because they were comfortable to sleep in. She had been on the road for decades, yet still couldn’t count on a hotel room. Even during the best of times, it’s bittersweet to recognize you can’t carry on forever. Who knows if Jackson knew her time was limited by the summer of 1969. The ordaining of voices to carry on the legacy of song is still a rite conducted in Black arenas.
At the end of the day, I wondered who the Summer of Soul was produced for.
For those that love Black music, “Black Woodstock” was less a rumor and more of a reality, hours of musty tapes that sometimes stream on YouTube. The moments that come alive are cut short with stories from participants explaining to a theoretically non-Black audience the ceremony of packing lunches before heading out for a good time. I know the community rituals surrounding Black music space. Summer of Soul provided Cliff Notes to those that have no clue that Essence Fest has been going on longer than Coachella.
Honestly, I would have rather simply had the full tapes released so I could revel in the performances themselves. There’s room for the Criterion Collection to provide the history between segments. Criterion rarely validates, or makes room in their vast budget, for Black art. While Black culture provides much of the backbone for Western popular art, Black film and documentary is virtually non-existent among their offerings. Instead of cultural exegesis for white audiences, it would have been more powerful to see the Black Panthers in the crowd providing security while dancing to Sly Stone’s Music. I don’t know how many times we have to give invitations to white people to so-called “cookouts” if they’ll never understand the purpose of the cookout in the first place.
The length of time given to Nina Simone’s oppression porn segment comes at the cost of short air time for B.B. King and the complete erasure of uptown soul pioneer Chuck Jackson. Where the actual festival embraced being young (and old), gifted and Black, Summer of Soul begs for acceptance from those unwilling to give it. Sometimes it’s worth taking corporate and civil funding to make things just for “us” by “us.” It gives our community an opportunity to heal from the oppression experienced in the outside world.
The documentary’s running commentary reminds us that while those were sweltering days, the festival’s attendees had never seen so many beautiful Black people. Hopefully that won’t be just a piece of history. Hopefully, we live that again.
Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at djlarsupreme.com and medium.com