‘Wattstax’: The ‘Black Woodstock’ music festival

The Watts Riots are often referred to by lefties as “The Watts Rebellion.” While both are technically accurate descriptions, “rebellion” is considered the preferable word by sympathists, since “riot” has a negative connotation. For me, the word “riot” lacks any moralist stigma, since rioting has historically played a necessary role in the resistance of oppressed people. I also think “riots” paints a more identifiable picture.

In addition to less explicit economic discrimination, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles was plagued with racist attacks from both white gangs and and a militarized police force (sound familiar?). The 1965 events that incited the riots are convoluted, but (briefly) a black man was arrested for driving under the influence, his brother (who was was a passenger), left to inform the man’s mother, who showed up to the arrest. There was a physical altercation, all three black citizens were arrested, and onlookers from the neighborhood began throwing things at the cops.

Eight days later, 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 3,952 arrests. 600 businesses were destroyed and over $40 million was done in damages over a 46-square mile-area.

In 1972, Stax Records put on a concert featuring their artists to commemorate the riots. Tickets for the Wattstax music festival (held in the massive L.A. Coliseum) were sold for $1 each to keep the event affordable for working class Los Angeles residents. Mel Stuart, who had just directed Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (a box-office bomb, despite its classic status), documented the concert in Wattstax, the electric results of which you see below. Wattstax has been shorthanded as “The Black Woodstock,” but it’s so much more.

The film is something greater than a record of fantastic concert footage, though the performances from artists like The Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes and The Bar-Kays are mind-blowing. It’s the interviews with Watts residents, who reflect on their lives and politics and what has and hasn’t changed since the riots, that really make the film. Richard Pryor serves as a kind of Greek chorus, and his interactions with the crowd are hilarious and full of humanity. You’ll notice that nearly the entire audience defiantly stays seated during Kim Weston’s rendition of the national anthem.

If you want a good clip to sample, there’s a fantastic bit starting around the 38:30 mark where Richard Pryor riffs on black identity (and pork). It then cuts to The Bar-Kays (looking like a heavenly choir from outer space), who do a blistering version of “Son of Shaft.”

Via Open Culture

Posted by Amber Frost | Leave a comment
Black Woodstock 1969

While hippies enjoyed “three days of peace and love” in Woodstock, another equally important music festival was staged in Harlem. What’s become known as Black Woodstock was a series of concerts, held at 3pm on Sundays, at Mount Morris Park, between 29 June and the 24 August, 1969. The Festival was headlined by B.B. King, The Staples Singers, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone and attended by over 100,000 concert-goers.

The concerts came soon after the Watts Riots, and the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.  At the time, the local NAACP chairman likened Harlem at the time to the vigilante Old West. The NYPD refused to provide security for the Festival, which was provided instead by the Black Panthers, some of whom had been indicted of a bombing campaign across Manhattan.

Black Woodstock was a mix of religious gathering, rock concert and civil rights rally, as the black community was encouraged to take power into its own hands, most notably when Reverend Roebuck Staples, of the Staple Singers, injected a sermon into his performance:

“You’d go for a job and you wouldn’t get it. And you know the reason why. But now you’ve got an education. We can demand what we want. Isn’t that right? So go to school, children, and learn all you can. And who knows? There’s been a change and you may be President of the United States one day.”

The Harlem Festival was filmed by television producer, Hal Tulchin, who hoped to sell the footage to the networks. None of the networks were interested, which says much about the politics of the time, and the fifty hours of filmed material has since been kept under lock and key. The odd snippet has been sneaked on to You Tube, and Nina Simone licensed film of her performance for a DVD release, but why the whole concert has never been released or even shown on TV is a damning indictment on America’s media. As Alan McGee asked last year

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 forty years.



Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment