Black Woodstock and the Opposite of Woodstock

New York City Mayor John Lindsay, the “blue-eyed soul brother,” arriving at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) for a July 13, 1969 concert, escorted by Black Panthers.

As the media is flooded with reminiscences about Woodstock, the New York Times remembers “Black Woodstock,” 1969’s rolling Harlem block party.

The video for Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” alludes to that time and place.

And Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is in some ways an attempt to recreate it.

Do you believe that it’s possible to re-create a moment of unprecedented community engagement like Black Woodstock?

“White” Woodstock, in the meantime, was perhaps the last gasp of optimism of the 1960s counterculture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy had both been assassinated the previous year. Five hundred thousand U.S. troops were in Vietnam. Nixon was in the White House and had begun secretly bombing Cambodia.

Just a few months later, another massive music festival would try — and fail catastrophically — to carry on the spirit of Woodstock.

At the Altamont Speedway in northern California, the Hell’s Angels were contracted to provide security for $500 worth of beer (more than $3000 worth in today’s money). As the crowd got restless and the Angels got drunk, they began beating concertgoers with pool cues and motorcycle chains, and kicked and stabbed an eighteen-year-old black audience member, Meredith Hunter, to death during the Rolling Stones’ set.

As rock critic Greil Marcus, who was at the festival, succinctly put it:

A young black man [was] murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music.”

The murder was caught live on camera and included in the documentary Gimme Shelter as the Stones performed “Under My Thumb” (warning: this footage contains the actual murder of Meredith Hunter — watch at your own risk).

As gospel singer Merry Clayton famously sang on the studio version of “Gimme Shelter”: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”

Authenticity, part V: Tribute or Appropriation?

As John Lomax was the first to record Lead Belly, so Alan Lomax was the first to record Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters (1915-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield, the son of sharecroppers, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, also the homeplace of blues greats Son House and Robert Johnson. He moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration in 1943, where he became a highly-influential, internationally famous blues musician, one of the first to use electric guitar.

The first song Waters recorded with Lomax was “Country Blues.” Note the extreme rhythmic freedom of Waters’s style, which Alan Lomax called “patently African.”

Waters’s 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone” provided the name of the British band, who admired him greatly.

In fact, when the Stones were on tour in the 1981 they visited the legendary Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago, where Waters was playing a club date. Waters was gracious enough to invite them up onstage with him.

More from the same evening: Waters invites bluesmen Buddy Guy and Lefty Dizz up onstage. (Mick Jagger seems to silently acknowledge that he’s out of his depth.)

A few years later, Kurt Cobain paid a similar tribute to Lead Belly by performing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Do you think that the sound of the music changes when performed by a white artist?

What about the meaning of the music? Alan Lomax called the blues:

the only song form in English that allows the singer . . . to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response. Musically speaking, the first phase of the blues raises a question-it often ends on a high note, leaving the problem unresolved, the question unanswered. The clinching phrase usually descends to a low note roundly concluding the matter. There are [other] such improvisatory forms [in the folk music of other cultures] . . . but there was none in English till the muleskinners and blues singers of the Delta filled the poetic gap, which none of the great poets of the English tradition had done. The blues has the magical property of allowing you to improvise a comment on life.

Is this “magical property” retained when sung by white artists?