Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Richie Havens

“For some odd reason, I know everybody,” says Richie Havens. Whether it was destiny or a cosmic hiccup, the musical climax of the ’60s was an auspicious day for Havens when an unplanned three-hour set opening the Woodstock Festival opened his doorway to worldwide recognition. “We landed, they chased me, I went on,” he explains. And yet, even if things hadn’t gone down that way, Havens would still have made his mark on rock history as a graduate of the original Greenwich Village folk scene, as a writer and interpreter of substantive songs, and as the third point in the magic triangle that connects Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

“I gave him the words to that,” says Havens, speaking of Hendrix and “All Along the Watchtower”, the song Havens still uses to open all his shows. The first song Havens ever covered by Dylan was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; he’s since reworked “If Not For You”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Lay Lady Lay”, “Maggie’s Farm”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and, most recently, “Tombstone Blues” for the surreal biopic I’m Not There in which he also appeared. As for Hendrix, Havens first witnessed him in action in an uptown club and was so impressed, he hipped him to the Village scene. “I did share that with him—that he didn’t need to be a studio musician, at the whim of everyone else—that he could be in his own band… that’s how we started out knowing each other.”

The last time Havens saw Hendrix was at the second Isle of Wight Festival; the pair had planned to meet in London soon after but Hendrix never made it. “He was a very shy person, quiet person, until he got on stage; then he grew two feet tall,” Havens continues. “He created himself and this showed when he walked up on that stage, how powerful it was and how necessary it was… he loved Bob Dylan’s songs too.”


Beatnik Beginnings

With his ears that catch the rhythm of words and a heart that stays constantly tuned to the station of brotherly love, Havens is a fellow traveler for freethinking ’60s grads and a father figure to those who wish they could’ve been there. As someone who falls in the gap, I can be easily mesmerized by stories of Allen Ginsberg, Hendrix, Dylan, and Woodstock among other things, and so I was willing to take the leap into Havens’ world. Like a new age beatnik who broadcasts the subterranean news through his songs, poems, artwork, and stories that reach across generations (his latest album is No One Left to Crown), Havens fits Jack Kerouac’s description of Beats as “characters of a special spirituality.” A self-proclaimed “song singer” and “all-around expressionist,” he was not only present, but he participated in the cultural shift that began with the Beats and carried over into a mass movement in the ’60s. And yet for Havens, the decade was just the staging ground for the bigger change that’s going to come, the one he says is taking place right now: He calls this phenomenon humanity’s becoming. “I’m blessed to see that we’re really just beginning on what it was we were supposed to be working at, in order to bring about the connection of all of us to each other,” he says.

Back in 1958, when Richie Havens was a teenage doo-wop singer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the kids there called him a beatnik. Not knowing for sure what that meant, he took a train with a friend to Greenwich Village to see what he could find out.

“We found out these guys in the neighborhood were talking about poets, and what they might’ve thought was derogatory became a very positive thing to us,” says Havens. It wasn’t long before he was reading his own poems in Village coffeehouses. “We’d sit at a table with our little books and Ginsberg would say, ‘What’s in those books? Get up there and read them!’ That’s how it began for me.

“A lot of people say, ‘What did we do? We didn’t do much.’ Oh yes we did,” he says, in answer to the cynics. “That which was a part of us was connecting up with what we were becoming at that point. And so it was wonderful to see changes. We made an atmosphere. That’s what we’re doing now. Backgrounds and atmosphere. Oh, that’s a good title! Backgrounds and atmosphere.”

Finding work in the Village as a portrait artist, he also discovered folk music in the coffeehouses and began to spend more and more nights in them, arriving later and later to the painting gig, while moving further away from his Bed-Stuy roots. He might crash in the city with singing pals like Little Anthony and the Imperials, but doo wop was no longer compelling to him, nor was the Brooklyn he knew as he watched his neighborhood and old pals take directions he wasn’t going. And so he left doo wop and a potential life in “show biz,” and became a part of what he calls the “communication business,” joining up with the folk scene. “I gave up show biz when I found a different song to sing, like Freddie Neil’s song to ‘Tear Down the Walls.’ In 1959? I’m going, ‘wow.’”

“The music’s in the air, where every man is free,” sang Fred Neil on “Tear Down the Walls”, one of his early-period folk songs. “When I think about it, that’s a heck of a time, when almost nobody was asking those kinds of things or projecting them,” says Havens.

“And Dino Valenti, ‘Love is but a song we sing, and fear’s the way we die,’” he sings, quoting “Get Together.” “He wrote it in 1958! We were awakening by these songs… I couldn’t wait for them to write another song so I could sing it from the audience with them.” Havens took to singing-along, especially while Fred Neil performed, “in harmony no less,” while Neil, who had a reputation as friend-to-the-new-folkie, advised him to get a guitar and learn his own. Three days later, Havens returned to the Village and began to perform six nights a week for the next six years.

“I thought it was time for my friends to hear something more than what we were relegated to do,” he says, referring to the diminishing options for his street corner pals. Havens’ parents were working people; his paternal grandfather was a Blackfoot Indian who traveled east with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. His maternal grandmother was a Caribbean Islander from Great Britain, “born on Christmas Day,” who helped raise him while his parents worked. He recalls one day, as she hung laundry on the line in the backyard, she asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I said, ‘I want to meet everyone in the whole world.’ I was about five. I’d sit outside and look at the moon in daylight all the time… I’d make a circle with my hands, like a big open eye, and just cut out everything but the clouds going by… I was always fascinated to be a part of this becoming. I don’t think there was any negative feeling I could have.”


A Mixed Bag

He cut some songs in the early to mid-’60s, but it was his 1967 and 1968 albums, Mixed Bag and Something Else Again, that revealed his own growing consciousness, as well as the imprint of Fred Neil, whose strong strumming style and suspended notes echo through Havens’ own work. Tangling with war and the civil rights issues on “Handsome Johnny” (the lyrics were written by his friend, actor Lou Gossett, Jr., himself a onetime Village folkie), he also took on “The Klan.” He laid down his famous version of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, the song which he says personally illuminated the multi-dimensionality of womankind for him. Simone would go on to perform the Havens song “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed;” it was her commitment to dynamic, emotional song interpretation that also freed Havens to sing the songs of others in whatever mode moved him. And though Simone’s music defied boundaries, by virtue of his acoustic guitar strumming, Havens is most often put into the folk or folk-rock bag.

“All music is folk music,” says Havens. “There is a folk-music quality to my generation’s rock ‘n’ roll. We were singing about things without thinking of them as social commentary.” Then, as now, if Havens has an overriding message, it concerns freedom, something that he says “we are supposed to have already.”

“Freedom” is the name of Haven’s best-known song, the one that famously evolved out of an improvisation at the end of his accidental three-hour opening set at Woodstock. He and his two-man group were meant to be fourth on the bill, but they were thrown on stage as the first because, unlike some of the other acts, Havens and company were present and accounted for, easy to set up, and all importantly, had not ingested the infamous brown acid.

“I went and did my 40 minutes, I walked off and they said, ‘Richie, can you do about four more songs?’ No one was there to go on. I went back and sang the four songs. I walked off. ‘Richie… four more?’ They did that six times until I realized, I don’t have another song. I’m done. I’ve sung every song I know. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes later… and that’s when I start that long intro, that’s me trying to figure out what I’m going to play, and I yell out the thing about the guitar microphone… please, let me stall a little bit more!”

After about a minute of freelancing a percussive riff in his distinctive open-D tuning, accompanied by an Afro-Cuban conga beat, he cried the word “freedom,” and then repeated it eight more times. “I just went with that… all of a sudden, ‘Motherless Child’ came out. I hadn’t sung that song in 14 or 15 years. I used to sing it early on in the Village.” He also slipped in a couple of secularized verses from a song he calls “I Got a Telephone in My Bosom” (a variation on the song that became known as “Jesus is on the Mainline”), which he learned during a brief gospel education. And though he was in a state of improvisational ecstasy, Havens could still sense that by participating in Woodstock, he was taking part in history.

“They can’t hide us anymore” was the thought that went through his head upon seeing the masses at Max Yasgur’s Farm that day. At first observing the scene through the floorboards of the helicopter that was delivering him to the gig, and later from his vantage point on the stage, “I thought, ‘when the pictures come out in the newspaper, they’ll see we are now above ground. We’re no longer relegated to the underground.’”

The Here and Now

Part of Havens’ method for delivering his message remains through singing the work of others. OnNobody Left to Crown, he finally got around to recording Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance”, an urgent missive on the human cost of war that he’s been performing for some time now. He also pulls out a show-stopping version of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

“I wanted to do it right after it came out, I loved it so much, but I thought, ‘it doesn’t need to be said twice—the Who’s done it.’ I held that in a box—my hold it box. It took this long to come back around and it fit.”

He wrote and recorded the title song live years ago, but saved the studio recording of it until now. “What if they gave an election and nobody came? What would we be doing? There’s nobody left to crown but us, for all of the things we’ve been through because of politics… for example, we learned this year that every law that was passed was passed in the middle of the night and no one knew it.”

For all of his political awareness, Havens has never been one to exercise his right to vote—until now. He went to the polls for the first time for the 2008 presidential primaries. “I found that it was now necessary to do that.”

Soon after the Woodstock experience, people all over the world started to request he play his own creation, “Freedom.” “And I’d say, ‘Freedom? Which freedom?’ And they’d say, ‘You know, “Motherless Child.”’ Holy smokes! Then it turns out to be in the movie and this is a big time change for me.” Havens had never seen himself perform until the Woodstock film came out months later. “It scared me to death, it was just so large. It wasn’t me, you know. It was a song. I became a mechanism to get that song out.”

The Woodstock Festival and the Isle of Wight shortly thereafter introduced Richie Havens to audiences on a massive scale as a dynamic acoustic performer and ambassador of socially conscious song and thought. He never tires of his responsibility as a ’60s generational spokesperson, though he’s an even bigger supporter of youth and the environment; in 1990, he helped to found the Natural Guard in New Haven, Connecticut, an organization where kids began to “guard the natural” in their own surroundings. From a community garden that fed the homeless to a lead poisoning awareness campaign, kids spotted the problems and created solutions that had a lasting impact on their community as well as their own lives. “It really was based on children using their own community as the endangered environment. The most put-upon group is children.” Children from three different chapters were recognized by then-Senator Al Gore for their environmental justice efforts.

If Havens has learned anything through his years of becoming, it’s that his work here isn’t yet done. “Don’t expect everything that happens to finish itself at once. It’s still happening, and it’ll reveal itself to you.” As he travels (he works three nights a week, down from his Village-era six), he finds that the local talent who open his shows seek his counsel on how to proceed with their careers. Advocating the digital DIY approach, he tells them, “Make your record, get someone to help you put it out, and go to the world directly. Get your feedback from the whole planet. That’s where you connect.”

Of course, that’s easy to say if you’re Richie Havens, the boy who told his grandmother he intended to meet everyone in the world some day and a man who believes music can change the world. But can it, really? “Absolutely,” he says. “And it will soon.” —published on September 10, 2008 in Crawdaddy!


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