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