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FORGET WOODSTOCK, PART ONE: “ARE YOU READY, BLACK PEOPLE?”—NINA SIMONE’s all-time knockout performance at the Harlem Festival, 1969

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Following this short rant are five YouTube clips which appear to form the whole of NINA SIMONE’s blazing knockout masterpiece set at HARLEM FESTIVAL ‘69.

Other performers at the Harlem Festival—six free weekend, outdoor concerts held at the Harlem end of Central Park in the summer of 1969—included Stevie Wonder, the Staples Singers, Sly and the Family Stone (click here to watch on YouTube), B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, The Chambers Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Max Roach…the list goes on and on. It’s a host of magnificent artists, many at the peak of their powers, playing to a predominately black audience at a super-charged, awful-yet-hopeful moment in American history.

Makes you wonder: Why do we all know about Woodstock, but not about Harlem, which took place the same year?

After all, all of the performances were filmed by a professional crew led by white director Hal Tulchin. But aside from four songs from Simone’s set, released in fall 2005 on a little-noticed dual-disk entitled The Soul of Nina Simone, which Arthur’s pseudonymous reviewers C & D went apeshit for way back in Arthur No. 20, none of this footage has ever been made commercially available in the United States.

This past week, I spoke by telephone with Hal Tulchin’s New York City attorney John Pelosi, who told me the Harlem Festival footage is currently optioned to somebody for at least another six months. He wouldn’t reveal who this somebody was. This is not the first time that Tulchin has optioned rights to this footage, and based on the previous would-be documentary filmmakers’ inability to bring the project to market (see article in Smithsonian [Feb 2007]), and Pelosi’s nonchalance, I’m guessing the current optionee isn’t going to get any further.

Which is awful. Shameful, actually. This footage has been kept from public view for long enough. Even in this recession, there are interested people around who have the money, competence, resources and profile to make this monumentally important footage commercially available, in the way that it deserves, for all to see. Why the 82-year-old Tulchin and his people won’t talk to them is beyond me. Whatever: this needs to end, now. White people in control of black treasures like this must behave much more responsibly than these two fools are. Gentlemen, please: do the right thing. Get it happening. Something as important as this shouldn’t be locked up from view for four decades.

Watch Simone’s remarkable, incendiary heart-soul-voice performance, especially the stunning “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and the closing “Are You Ready, Black People?” and you’ll see why…

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