when pictures fail me…
Bert Sommer ended his set with a huge smile. Not just on his face, but also in a song:
His first live performance unfurled organically in this peaceful, beautiful setting, with 300,000 (and counting) in attendance. Any jitters were quelled when he took the stage, open-tuned his guitar, and closed his eyes. Bert was in his zone.
He had plenty to smile about. A crew was filming the event for a documentary, a soundtrack would follow, and logic dictated that at least some of his 10-song set would be captured. Artie Kornfeld, the co-creator of Woodstock, was also his record producer. His first album had just come out and a second was in the works. On top of all of this, Bert was a lead in the Broadway hit musical Hair. Things were definitely going his way. He was twenty years old.
The phenomenon that we now know as Woodstock, in hindsight, shows another trajectory—one that is still being pondered today. It started almost immediately after Bert left the stage. No one saw this in real-time, but he slipped between the cracks. His absence in recorded and remembered Woodstock history began that very weekend.
“Who’s on?” asks Joan Baez, wandering backstage and captured in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, released in 1970 to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. “A guy named Bert Sommers [sic]” a stagehand replies. “I think Timmy Hardin’s goin’ on next.” Neither knew who Bert was. And that was all of Bert on record as having performed (until 1994, when a clip of his opening song was uncovered and included in D.A. Pennebaker’s Woodstock Diaries). Bert’s film footage went straight to the vaults. Reasons, rumors, and rationalizations would surface over the years, even as steadfast Woodstock historians and archival detectives picked through the Sixties’ most complex and fascinating cultural archaeological site.
The most widely-circulated reason for Bert’s disappearance was that he was a Capitol recording artist, and the film rights and soundtrack were sold to a rival, Warner Brothers (the deal orchestrated, ironically, by Bert’s producer and friend Artie Kornfeld).
Another surfaced in the 2012 book Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation by Dale Bell:
“Some of the performers at Woodstock never made it into the cut: Burt Sommers [sic], Melanie and the Butterfield Blues Band, which did a lovely number. We edited them, but there was so much other good material and we couldn’t fit groups like that into the movie.”—Thelma Schoonmaker.
Other editors whose memories were called into action amidst the fiftieth anniversary hoopla concur that there was no conspiracy—the film was dark, and there was too much other acoustic stuff to feature from that first night. They had folk royalty Joan and Arlo (for the soundtrack, Arlo’s “Coming Into Los Angeles” was spliced in from a totally different concert in LA).
A perfect storm of non-accountability formed for future questions that would arise about Bert Sommers [sic], Burt Sommers [sic], Bert Somers [sic]. Twenty years later Bert had a saying that summed up his attitude: “That’s showbiz, babe.” And he would smile.
Fast forward to today. Angie Pope is a Chicago area music teacher who stumbled upon Bert Sommer nearly fifty years after he first sang “Smile.” That’s how Bert is discovered and then embraced, it seems. Thanks to serendipity or fate, he connects with people today through his music. Bert died in 1990 at age 41, never knowing that something called the internet would help to keep him alive. Angie teaches toddlers and young kids Bert’s simple, wise, timeless message in her fun and interactive music classes: “It only takes a song to understand.” I think, somewhere, Bert Sommer is smiling.
copyright Sharon Watts
videos courtesy YouTube and Angie Pope