Summerthing

When looking at the history of New England music one cannot help but to understand that the venues are as important as the artists. But when it comes to venues, nothing compares to the Summer Music Arts and Crafts festivals that ran throughout the neighborhoods in the city of Boston from the late 1960s to late 1970s called Summerthing. Summerthing was unique because the neighborhoods of Boston were the venues.

In 1968 then newly elected Boston Mayor Kevin White took a look at America and the inner cities that were rife with civil unrest due to the magnitude of issues that permeated in the late 1960s. The mayor wanted to have something in place so the young people had something to do in the summer of 1968. Along with community activists the idea was to have flatbed trucks, pickup trucks, cars or anything that could carry entertainment via music, arts and crafts into the Boston neighborhoods. Once there stages were set up that evening that neighborhood would be entertained by Summerthing that day or evening.

As a native Bostonian, this writer remembers perfectly how a Summerthing flatbed truck would pull up in our neighborhood playground or neighborhood field, set up a stage and the word of mouth would run through the neighborhood. Hey! There’s going to be a Summerthing tonight! It was as if the entire neighborhood would go and watch whatever entertainment they offered and Summerthing did a great job of offering neighborhoods culture and entertainment they normally wouldn’t see. The first time we ever saw a ballet or  saw live classical music performed was when the Boston Ballet Company and the
Boston Pops came to perform at Summerthing in my Dorchester neighborhood.

Summerthing’s success in giving Boston neighborhood children and young adults something to do on hot summer nights soon garnered national attention. There was a Newsweek magazine article and lengthy New York Times article on the innovativeness and success of Summerthing. More importantly, as had been hoped, Boston became one of the few major inner cities not to have civil unrest and upheaval in the late sixties and early seventies on par with other major cities throughout the country.

 

National attention brought the attention of national acts.  There was pride in seeing your neighborhood represented by its music its culture right on stage for you and your family to enjoy. Whether it was opera singers who appeared in the North End, traditional Irish artists in South Boston, Kung Fu demonstrations in Chinatown to Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan had incredible rhythm and blues acts like The Delfonics, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, and Mandrill along with sensational local musicians Summerthing was as unique as the neighborhoods it served.

With a staff of nearly 2000 volunteers, teachers, coordinators and program directors Summerthing helped bring the entertainment and workshops to more than a half a million of Boston’s youth during its first Summer of operation alone. By its eighth season Summerthing had performed 1,000 performances in 500 workshops throughout the city that season alone.

Summerthing would run its course by the late seventies but for this writer who attended dozens of Summerthings as a youth in Dorchester, Summerthing is not to be forgotten and should be recognized for what it was. And what it was was the kind of success you do not measure with dollar signs. You measure in the peace it helped foster in the neighborhoods of Boston for close to 10 years.

(by Edwin Sumpter)

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