Richie Havens has been on the forefront of folk music since his
groundbreaking performance at Woodstock, and he shows no signs of slowing down
by Ben Corbett
December 13-19, 2007
American cafe culture began with Greenwich Village and North Beach,
long before Haight-Ashbury hipified boho chic High Street, Pearl
Street, et alia art districts and later morphed into Starbucks
posturing. And if you burrow your eyes into some of those late '50s
early '60s vintage black-and-white photos of the Village captured by
prolific shutterbug Fred McDarrah and his peers, you'll see scene
after scene resembling some Moroccan street bazaar, the pavement a
hive of activity, windows studded with handmade posters of perpetual
happenings, neonized nightclubs, jazz and poetry and eyes gleaming
with a creative spirit that's still unmatched today.
Richie Havens was there for the whole thing, sporting that soul patch
before soul patch was cool. Some intrepid musicologist may even go
out on a limb and say that Havens was the Ben Harper of the 1960s and
'70s, and that would be a fairly accurate observation. The only
difference is that Havens was afoot, shouldering his way through the
crowd when the word "beat" transmogrified into "hip." Harper, on the
other hand, caught it on TV during a fit of nostalgia for things he
"When I went to the Village for the first time, it was because the
big guys in Brooklyn were calling us beatniks," says Havens. "We
didn't know what that was. A friend of mine came running over to my
house one day and said, 'Look, Richie, in the newspaper: Beatniks in
Manhattan.' And I said, 'Really? Let's go see who we are.' And they
turned out to be poets and musicians. The newspapers thought they
were being derogatory, but they actually sent us home. This was where
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Havens found his path to music during
his teens singing a capella street corner doo-wop with his friends.
At 19, he moved to the Village after discovering the vibrant scene
there, spending his first two years writing poetry and earning money
as a portrait artist while the American folk renaissance was
beginning to stir. By 1961, the momentum grew, and Havens began
hanging out in the clubs, singing along with his favorite songs.
"Fred Neil did two songs I used to sing along with," says Havens. "I
was sitting in the audience, and I wasn't trying to be loud, but he
could hear me. He came up to me one day and said, 'Richie, you've
been singing my damn songs. In harmony no less. Here, take this damn
guitar home and learn how to play them yourself.' I knew all the
lyrics so it took me like a day and a half to learn them. I was back
in two days and singing those songs on stage! And when he did that to
me, he forced me to find a way to play the guitar."
Havens' earliest approach was to use open tunings and barring chords
by laying his thumb across an entire fret much like a capo. What
began as a simple approach to learning the instrument soon became
Havens' trademark sound that gathered finesse as it matured into a
rhythmic, almost guitar-as-percussion-instrument style.
"I never thought I'd be on a stage as the up-front guy," Havens
reflects." I was the baritone in doo-wop. I wrote the songs, I did
the choreography that was it. I was happy to be that. We always had
a lead singer who was great. They were always three years younger
than we were and had an incredible sense of phrasing on their own. So
I never would have believed I'd be on stage with a guitar. Or even
drawing portraits. I mean I could do it, but I sort of talked my way
into the spot where I had to do it. And in having to do it, I got
better and better."
Better and better brought with it bigger and bigger audiences to the
point that after seven-plus years in the Village, Havens took the
Village on the road, doing club and college gigs, playing at the 1966
Newport Folk Festival, and by 1967 releasing his first vinyl, Mixed
Bag, followed by a performance at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival.
Although he was already quite popular, even appearing on television,
the event emblazoned in the minds of most Americans is Havens'
performance at the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in Bethel,
New York. Havens was actually billed as the fifth performer to appear
on the first day. Yet after a six-hour delay due to traffic jams and
technical problems, the show hadn't begun, and the crowd was getting
restless. Woodstock producer Michael Lange asked Havens to take the
stage first in what would result as one of the most memorable moments
in American music history. How did Havens take the stage?
"Reluctantly," he says. "I kind of ran from them when they came after
me. Not kind of, I actually did run from them. There were a half a
million people there already! If all the people who wanted to go had
made it, it would have been 20 million. So the next thing I know I
hear this knock on the door after I realize it was a helicopter that
I heard coming down in the Holiday Inn driveway. It was one of those
glass bubble things, and because I had the least instruments and the
least guys, they took us over. Really wild, my first helicopter ride,
and I looked through the floor. It was glass. And then we splashed
into that open field and saw all of the color!"
The 1970 Warner Brothers film (three days crammed into a four-hour
flick) immortalized both the sentiments of a generation and Havens'
performance with his songs "Handsome Johnny" and "Freedom," a winding
rhythmic tune improvised from the spiritual "Motherless Child."
"It was great," Havens continues. "I did my 40 minutes and walked
off. And they said 'Could you do four more songs?' I said, 'Sure, I
can do four more songs.' This happened six times! I sang every song I
knew, and I wasn't going to revert to doo-wop. I was up against that
fence. That long intro that you hear on the record and in the movie
is me stalling to figure out what the hell I'm gonna sing. I'm
already up here two hours and 45 minutes. And then it dawned on me,
'This is the freedom that we've been looking for as a generation.'
What people realized post-concert is that us kids in the '50s were
hoping that we could have had something like that in the '50s. Not
waiting 10 years until the end of the '60s to pull it off. So it was
expected by most of us that something big was going to happen. We
just didn't know how big."
Nothing but nothing will eclipse that three-day event, whether real
or hyped after the fact. It will always be looked back on as that
defining moment of pure possibility. For Havens, whether on stage or
during the songwriting process, the approach is the same as his
Woodstock performance taking songs that changed him and
reinterpreting them and passing the power along, letting the songs
write themselves, as much as letting a performance decide where it's
going to go. (Or as Havens puts it, "Getting out of my own way.")
"There's a mixture of stuff I play," says Havens, explaining a
typical concert. "If I don't play some of the oldies, they beat me up
outside. That's gotta happen. And it's good for me, too, because
there's songs that changed me, so they can never have a negative
vibe. I can never say I'm tired of singing this song, because I never
am. It's still working on me. So it's that and the cover stuff that I
do, the songs that changed my life. And so for me, I know only the
first and last song I'm going to sing when I go on the stage. Freddy
Neil said this to me, he said, 'The only thing you need to know is
how to get on the stage and how the hell to get off the stage.' And
to me that translated to 'I'll know the first and last song I'm going
to sing' and whatever happens in between just happens."
A lot has happened since the 1967 release of Mixed Bag. Lately comes
Havens cast as "Old Man Arvin" playing "Tombstone Blues" in the Todd
Haynes' fictional film about Bob Dylan, I'm Not There. More,
following the 2004 disc, Grace of the Sun, comes Havens' 31st album,
Nobody Left to Crown, to be released this coming January, featuring
collaborative efforts from Canadian instumentalist Harry Manx, and
also Derek Trucks on slide guitar.
"Harry Manx is a very interesting guy," says Havens. "He has this
instrument that he had made in India. He studied Indian music and had
a couple of instruments that he learned on. But then he created a
guitar that gives him the ability to play two instruments at a time.
He knows how to arrive on a note, which is what music is really all
about. It's not 'playing' a note, it's arriving there.
"But the important thing, to me," Havens adds, almost echoing that
day in Bethel when he was riffing, trying to figure out where to go
next, "is me still being an audience, too. Those songs coming through
me almost tell me something about where I am, in general. What is
this place? How do people feel? How do people think? And then how
they react tells me what the next song is going to be."
On the Bill
Richie Havens will perform with Gregory Alan Isakov at 8 p.m. on
Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder,