After I watched the documentary Summer of Soul that was put together by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, I discovered a book he wrote called Music Is History. Both set me thinking about how music figures into our collective history but also how it chronicles our personal history.
You might know Questlove as the bandleader of The Roots which is the house band for The Tonight Show with Ju=imy Fallon. He is also a passionate collector of records and an encyclopedia of music.
I saw Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) at home (it is currently streaming on Hulu and Disney+) but it would have been even better on a big screen with an audience.
It is definitely a music film, but it is also a historical record about an event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. It was 1969 and another music festival north of Harlem called Woodstock overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival.
The footage was forgotten and when Questlove found it he realized that it was more than just a good concert film (though it is that) but a document about that important year in cultural history. It is hard to imagine why the footage didn’t emerge earlier because it has performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and other major artists.
Watching the documentary got me digging and I found Questlove’s book Music Is History. He covers 1971 (the year he was born; the year I started college) to the present. This is his personal history of 50 years of music and cultural history.
His musical choices are understandably around Black identity and we don’t overlap much in our musical histories. But that’s fine because pivotal songs are pivotal even if you didn’t buy the album or turn it up on your stereo or cr radion when it was played. I knew about a lot of this music from the more obscure Sun Ra (though not his opus “Nuclear War”) to the more familiar Police and Tears for Fears tracks.
All of us should be able to write a kind of personal music history that probably also tells some larger history. My own from around that early time would include things like my memories of listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (who I knew from their earlier bands – The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies) and hearing their quickly produced and released “Ohio.” That song came out of a day in 1970 when Neil Young was inspired by the horror of the Kent State shootings.
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio…
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
As a kid entering his senior year in high school and being in the draft that might send him and his friends to Vietnam, the song was a lot more than a good song. I immediately bought the 45 rpm single (it wasn’t on an album for quite a while) The B side was “Find the Cost of Freedom” whose lyrics were also something that were on the minds of myself and my classmates and some of our parents that year.
Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground,
Mother Earth will swallow you,
Lay your body down.
On the good times’ side of the record, I strongly remember driving to the Jersey Shore with my girlfriend, who would be my wife in two years, to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It seemed that everyone owned that album and it was all over the radio. The songs “Go Your Own Way”, “Dreams”, “Don’t Stop”, and “You Make Loving Fun” were all top 10 singles.