Richie Haven, the artist who froze the 60s’ youthful revolution in time for generations to come, passed away at age 72 on April 22nd of a heart attack. His three-hour opening set at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969 was an accident of fate, but it would not only define his life for 43 years after, it would also be emblazoned in the collective consciousness of the world’s psyche in the film of that epic event. That film captured his startling six-foot six image forever, along with performances by Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Singing the spiritual “Motherless Child” that he vamped into a rhythmic mantra of “Freedom,” Havens burned a defining image of the psychedelic era into the minds of the masses for decades to come in that one scene, but the whole experience was a lucky accident for an artist. The eldest of nine children who grew up in the raw reality of the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, by the time he was pushed on stage to open the Woodstock Festival he was already a nine-year veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene, first as a poet and portrait artist, then working his way into coffee house performer.
In a 2003 interview, Havens recalled that fateful day. “I feel that I was very fortunate to be chased for an hour and a half to go on first. I was supposed to be number five, and they chased me. I was the only one over there. I was with my whole band. They couldn’t get a soul there. They couldn’t even get us there until they found a farmer down the road with one of those glass bubble helicopters. We had the least instruments. That’s why they took me over first.
“It was like, ‘There’s nobody here yet. Would you go back?’ Six times they did that to me. So by the seventh time when they saw me, they knew. I came to the stage and said, ‘What am I going to sing? Are they crazy?’ I didn’t want to resort to doo-wops at this point. I mean I sang everything that I knew that I had ever sung in the (Greenwich) Village and that’s why “The Freedom Song” was basically made up on the stage. And when you hear me play that long intro, it’s me stalling. I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to sing?’
“What was very interesting about it to me was that I had actually known or thought about the fact that more than half the bands that were going to play we had never seen ourselves. As musicians, they were all from the West Coast. And we’d never seen them. So it was a wonderful discovery time of other songs that people wrote and other attitudes for the audience as well as the musicians.
“When I flew over the people, that’s when the whole thing hit me. You know, the first thing that I said, which is the title of my book, They Can’t Hide Us Anymore. We were finally above ground. What I was witnessing was the final charge of the people. There were so many more of us now than the world has ever produced. This is it, you know? It’s critical mass at this point.
“That influence that Woodstock had was phenomenal to me because I watched the word fly across the country. It was like we were supposed to be in Indiana the next day, and the guy that drove us up there at 5:30 in the morning the day before I went on said to me, ‘You know, they closed down the New York Thruway. There’s 30 miles of cars on the side coming through Woodstock that have been parked there overnight already.’
“So, I said, ‘Well, God, we’re not going to be able to get to the airport,’ and he said, ‘We’ll take a chance. We’ll ride down here. If it’s fenced off, we won’t go, but if it isn’t, we’ll go on.’ It wasn’t. And I got to ride all the way to the New Jersey airport with not one car on the New York Thruway. It was the most surreal thing in my entire life. It was phenomenal just to be on that road and not see another car all the way to New Jersey. It was wild.
“The most beautiful thing we did is that we knew more than anybody else because what people didn’t know and I still tell people to this day is that if it wasn’t for the Army, it would never have happened. There wouldn’t have been a Woodstock because it was the Army that brought the helicopters to bring the band back and forth.
“No one knew that. And then they were saying we were anti-soldier and we’re anti-war and all this stuff. No, we were pro-peace. The people who were in the war were our brothers and our cousins, uncles and aunts, you know.”
One of those people was yours truly. I was an information specialist stationed at Army Headquarters in Long Binh when Woodstock took place. The Woodstock generation was antithetical to the war effort, and yet the soldiers I was writing to in both the daily newspaper I edited, The World News Roundup, and in a music column, Sounds from the World, were underground music fans. Like Havens’ experience, I found the Army very open to my communicating to the grunts in the field and the generals running the war. The day Havens played Woodstock, my only dilemma was do I make Woodstock the number one story in the morning edition or number two after a Vietnam news release that was more immediate to my audience.
If you can say there was an artist that typified the Woodstock nation, Richie Havens certainly would not have been it. The oldest of nine children born on January 21, 1941, to a native American father and a Caribbean mom, he grew up in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, sang doo-wop on the street corners as a teenager and formed the McCrea Gospel Singers at the age of 16.
“My generation,” Havens told me, “was the first generation to have gone through two things: the first generational primal scream – it was called rock and roll – and the awakening of this generation to be able to be the first generation to actually be a phenomenon of between the lines.”
He moved to Greenwich Village at age 20 first writing poetry, making a living painting portraits and rubbing shoulders with beat poets like Kerouac and Ferlinghetti. Bob Dylan’s then manager Robert Grossman signed him to a contract in 1967 and got him signed to Verve Records. Before playing Woodstock, Havens released three records for Verve: Mixed Bag 1967) which included an original anti-war song co-written with actor Louis Gossett Jr. called “Handsome Johnny” and cover versions of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” In 1968 he released Something Else Again and in1969 Richard P. Havens 1983, an Orwellian view of the future.
He told me, “The music I was listening to in the Village while I was drawing portraits for two years and reading poetry was music that actually changed my life. They confirmed my thoughts, my mind, my wishes, hopes and in that sense now, because somebody else was also saying it.
“And so, I started out knowing about five or six songs word-wise, having heard them often enough, and decided that these songs are never going to be on the radio. These songs are never going to reach Brooklyn, and I’ve got to sing these songs. It was a good thing, because they changed my life. So I’ve been privileged enough to be there at a time when people in the Village, the eight of them, that they are saying something. It changed my life. It didn’t change my view.”
Eclipsed by the overwhelming spectacle that was Woodstock, Havens never again commanded as much attention in his life, but rather surfed on the success of that experience, touring constantly and refining his view of the world. He told me that his 1999 autobiography They Can’t Hide Us Anymore “is about how we are influenced by music and other things to correlate, to put everything into perspective. In those days our real goal lay under the heading of consciousness expansion. We were trying to expand our minds in understanding who or where or what or why we were in this place at that time and trying to explain to ourselves in a sense what was going on.”
He wasn’t ahead of his time. He invented his own time. In 1974 he played Othello in the film “Catch My Soul.” He was featured in the original stage presentation of The Who’s “Tommy” in 1972 and co-founded a children’s oceanographic museum in the Bronx. He was lauded for his re-interpretations of iconic songs like The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” and Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.” On his 2003 CD Wishing Well, he wrote a song called “Stardust and Passion.” “I actually heard Dylan sing the words to me. I wrote them down. So I hope to give his walkabout ghost the credit.”
“I’m lucky,” he told me. “I only sing the songs that change my life. A song either confirms my feelings or my mind, my thoughts, best hopes and wishes. And being no different than anyone else, I feel these songs could help everyone who can get something out of them.
Like the best folksingers, Richie Havens was true to an inner flame that reflected an honesty to his close fans that cut across the seemingly disconnected styles, labels, and ethnicities put upon him and helped build a young generation’s idealistic embrace of environmental concerns, and a reality that was above political correctness and media spins.
Havens appeared at both of Woodstock’s 30th and 40th anniversary celebrations. “Freedom” was included on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-era film “Django Unchained.”
In a press release, Havens’ press agent wrote, “Richie was cremated Tuesday (April 23) and his ashes were placed in a beautiful urn. Later in the summer they will be scattered across the field where the Woodstock festival took place in 1969 Max Yasgar’s farm, now Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.”