The Arizona Republic
Nov. 4, 2007
Sixties folksinger Richie Havens, best known as the first performer
at Woodstock, has kept the spirit of the Summer of Love alive through
his passionate music and tireless activism.
But the iconic Havens, known for his fiery, percussive guitar
playing, didn't set out to be a folksinger.
"I was singing doo-wop on street corners in Brooklyn in the fifties,"
he says by phone. "The neighborhood guys called me a beatnik, they
were trying to be derogatory. So I decided to go see what a beatnik
was. That's when I discovered the Village and saw all these amazing
artists and poets hanging out there. That trip to the Village changed
Soon Havens was a fixture in Greenwich. He painted portraits for
visitors, attended poetry readings and began to frequent the folk
clubs and hootenannies that were blossoming in the Village, listening
to singers like Dino Valenti and Fred Neil, who wrote the classic
"I'd see these singers five or six nights a week. I knew all their
songs and would sing along from the audience," says Havens, who
performs at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday.
Those audience sing-alongs gave birth to Havens' career.
"One night Freddie Neil came up to me with his guitar and said,
'Richie, you've been singing my songs from the audience, why don't
you sing onstage? Take this guitar home and learn how to play it,' "
Havens recalls. "I didn't know how to play the guitar, so I just
tuned it to a chord like in doo-wop and taught myself to play."
Soon Havens was a staple himself on Greenwich Village stages, as well
as national folk festivals, a protest singer and activist covering
songs by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and others. After acclaimed albums
like his 1967debut, Mixed Bag, Havens was invited to perform at
Woodstock in upstate New York in August 1969. He wasn't supposed to
open the festival, however.
"I was supposed to be fifth on the bill, and they chased me around
for an hour to get me to go on first," Havens says. "No one wanted to
go first. There were half a million people in the field waiting for
the show to start. It was seven hours late starting, and I was sure I
was going to get killed.
"But it wasn't like that at all - the crowd had been there for days,
even weeks, and they had 10,000 guitars of their own. As we flew over
those people in the helicopter, I thought, 'They can't hide us anymore.' "
That phrase became the title of Havens' autobiography, which he
published in 1999.
"It's about shaking off the underground demeanor and bringing it
aboveground," he says. "That's what Woodstock was for me, the place
where that underground voice came into the open."
Since Woodstock, Havens has continued his musical and humanitarian
career. He hasn't had many major musical successes, although Freedom,
the protest anthem he immortalized at Woodstock, and his cover of the
Beatles' Here Comes the Sun are still staples of classic-rock radio.
He still makes some high-profile concert appearances, however,
including performing at President Clinton's inaugural ball and
playing for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1993. He also played at
the Woodstock reunion concert in 1999.
He is working on a children's literacy project called Action
Captions, using film and TV.
"It turns any video or film into a teaching tool," Havens says. "The
words spoken appear as a word bubble within the film. Kids can hear
it and see it and learn it very fast. Especially considering how much
children watch TV."
He's also finishing up a new album, which he hopes to have in stores
by the end of November.
"I'll be playing some stuff off it when I'm there, but if I don't do
all the classic songs, the fans will beat me up," he says. "I can't
get away from those old songs, not that I mind though. They are all
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8489.