Har­lem 69, The Weavers

The con­clud­ing part of an award-win­ning tril­ogy span­ning three years of seis­mic trans­for­ma­tion in soul mu­sic, Stu­art Cos­grove’s Har­lem 69: The Fu­ture Of Soul is not only a grip­ping so­cio-cul­tural his­tory, it feels truly nov­el­is­tic. Re­cur­ring char­ac­ters and themes weave through the nar­ra­tive as the au­thor sets about de­cod­ing “the hi­ero­glyph­ics of har­lem’s dark sa­cred night”. As with his two pre­vi­ous in­stal­ments – Detroit 67 and Mem­phis 68 – mu­si­cal ad­vance­ment is mar­ried to the tu­mult of street-level so­cial change. But while those books fo­cused foren­si­cally on key years in the life of Mo­town and Stax re­spec­tively, Har­lem 69 has a looser re­mit. As the back­drop to the cre­ation of art as di­verse as Donny hath­away’s “The Ghetto”, The Voices Of east har­lem’s thun­der­ing Right On Be Free and The Last Poets, har­lem throbs thrillingly. It’s a scuffed, febrile, edgy ecosys­tem, and Cos­grove cap­tures it vividly: heroin, civic de­cay, gravedig­gers’ strikes, gen­der-fluid gang­sters, Viet­nam vets, Puerto Ri­can box­ers and all. The Black Pan­thers prowl, dis­rupt and scat­ter; the Apollo the­atre is a ven­er­a­ble but ail­ing lo­cus, fall­ing apart gig by gig. Lo­cal trends range from the Booga­loo craze to Afro-cen­tric an­i­mism.

Among it all, hath­away, Nina Si­mone, James Brown, Betty Davis, Cur­tis May­field, Gil Scott-heron et al push soul to­wards new fron­tiers, while shady back­room fig­ures such as heroin dealer/im­pre­sario Fat Jack Tay­lor and “polyun­sat­u­rated pimp” Fast ed­die pull the strings. David Frost makes an in­con­gru­ous cameo, while Leonard Bern­stein’s fundrais­ing soirée for the Black Pan­thers prompts Tom Wolfe to coin the with­er­ing phrase “radical chic”.

Along the way, Cos­grove dis­in­ters har­lem’s “hid­den mu­si­cal his­tory”. Si­mone’s in­cen­di­ary set at the near for­got­ten “Black Wood­stock”, a se­ries of con­certs held at Mount Mor­ris Park in sum­mer ’69, cli­maxes in an ex­tra­or­di­nary 16-minute ver­sion of “Young, Gifted And Black”, a “mo­ment un­prece­dented in its de­fi­ance” that syn­the­sised po­lit­i­cal, racial and class dis­con­tent in that tur­bu­lent year. Jimi hen­drix re­turns to his roots in Septem­ber for a blaz­ing late-night ben­e­fit con­cert in aid of Bi­afra.

Har­lem 69 makes star­tling con­nec­tions across time and place. Some feel ten­u­ous, but its over­ar­ch­ing the­sis is a per­sua­sive one: that in the melt­ing pot of 110th Street, sev­eral fu­ture soul forms took root. “har­lem’s story was one of rest­less innovation,” writes Cos­grove. “The fusion with jazz, the hard­en­ing of street funk, the rise of the DJ, the orches­tral ar­range­ments that led to disco and the seeds of hip-hop pointed to a more di­verse, and dis­lo­cat­ing, fu­ture for black mu­sic.” JESSE Jer­now’s Wasn’t That A Time is an­other epic Amer­i­can tale. The Weavers brought such ap­par­ently in­nocu­ous fare as “Good­night Irene”, “Wi­moweh” and “If I had A ham­mer” into the ’50s main­stream, but be­hind their rather staid folk façade lay a firm in­tent to shape “an al­ter­nate his­tory of the USA, a nar­ra­tive of melodies linked like a river sys­tem in a shared utopia”. Their so­cial­ist sum­mer camp doc­trine en­sured the group were for­ever swim­ming against the pre­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural currents dur­ing one of the US’s most fever­ish pe­ri­ods, buf­feted by es­tab­lish­ment forces in the age of the Red Scare and the Cold War.

Com­pris­ing Pete Seeger, Lee hays, Fred heller­man and Ron­nie Gil­bert, The Weavers were spied on by the FBI, in­ter­ro­gated by the house Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee, and dropped from Decca ow­ing to their po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances. “Do I have a right to sing th­ese songs?” Seeger asks at one point. “Do I have a right to sing them any­where?” It didn’t help that, de­spite their shared pur­pose, the band was a fo­ment of com­pet­ing egos and per­son­al­i­ties. They broke up in 1952 but re­united three years later, to be fur­ther har­ried. They limped into the ’60s with­out Seeger and were passé by the time Dy­lan be­came folk’s new princeling, but their in­flu­ence proved pro­found, in­spir­ing The Byrds, The Kingston Trio and the Grate­ful Dead, among many oth­ers.

You would ex­pect Jarnow (au­thor of the fine Heads: A Bi­og­ra­phy Of Psy­che­delic Amer­ica) to think bet­ter of de­scrib­ing Dh Lawrence as a “saucy British nov­el­ist”, but oth­er­wise he han­dles the ma­te­rial well, evok­ing the in­ten­sity and para­noia of the times while cap­tur­ing the po­tency of ide­al­ism sung out in uni­son. “When The Weavers opened their mouths and their voices com­bined,” he writes, “some­thing was added to the air for­ever.”

It’s at times earnest stuff, but not with­out colour. In 1962 Seeger is sen­tenced to jail for per­jury, and is hand­cuffed with his banjo still around his neck, hav­ing been re­fused per­mis­sion to play a song in the dock. Then there’s heller­man’s blunt as­sess­ment of the ris­ing Dy­lan: “he can’t sing, and he can barely play, and he doesn’t know much about mu­sic at all.” Some­thing is hap­pen­ing here, all right; by this point, alas, The Weavers no longer know what it is.

Pro­test­ers de­mand the re­lease of 21 Black Pan­ther mem­bers sus­pected of plot­ting bomb­ing in­ci­dents around New York, Novem­ber 17, 1969

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