The musician who opened woodstock in 1969 is coming to bring a little
magic to the bama theatre stage
By Mark Hughes Cobb Tusk Editor
October 9, 2009
It wasn't hard rain but traffic that brought Richie Havens worldwide
Many performers trying to reach the site of the Woodstock Music and
Art Fair were late in arriving, due to the massive overflow of the
'60s generation trying to climb its metaphorical peak.
So Havens, a folk-pop poet who was the first musician on stage, kept
getting asked to stretch until what was supposed to be a 40-minute
set turned into nearly three hours of music. His electrifying
acoustic performance was caught on the 1970 "Woodstock" documentary,
which will show Tuesday and Wednesday at the Bama Theatre, as part of
a 40th anniversary celebration of the decade-defining festival.
"I got onstage, I was sort of knocked off my chair," said Havens, who
will perform Thursday at the Bama Theatre.
After his first set, "I go off stage. 'Richie, four more?' No
problem. That did that to me six times. At the end, 2 hours and 45
minutes later, I didn't have any more songs. I had done them all," he
Following a short rap to the crowd, while changing strings and
tuning, Havens began beating out a rhythm on his guitar. With his
already husky baritone made rougher by the duration of the show, he
began improvising over repetitions of the word "freedom."
"I don't know what I was saying; I just said what I felt. 'Motherless
Child' popped in my mind, 'freedom' popped in my mind," he said. "I
kept singing it until the words came.
"I hadn't sung 'Motherless Child' in 14 years; why it came to me, its
message was to me as much as it was to the audience, because I never
would have thought to sing that song on stage because of its
contents, it's religious. Well it's not all religious, but it was
about 'something's happening here and it's good for us.'
"Meanwhile, I'm thinking 'You gonna get me offa here or what? Come
on!'" he said, laughing.
A recording of the improvised song, titled "Freedom," became Havens'
first international hit.
But he'd landed on the Woodstock stage in the first place after years
as a Greenwich Village performer, in the burgeoning folk scene of the
late 1950s and '60s. He'd begun singing doo-wop in his native
Brooklyn, then eased into the folk world by hanging out, sketching,
reciting poetry and harmonizing along with people like Odetta and
Pete Seeger in the Cafe Why Not? and The Hootenanny.
Havens' mentor, Freddy Neal, shoved a guitar into his hand.
"He came up behind me one day, said 'Richie, you been singing my darn
songs for six months now from the audience, in harmony no less, take
this damn guitar home and learn how to play those songs and then come
back,'" Havens said.
While living in the Broadway Hotel, dorm-style with five or six beds
to a room, Havens developed his own idiosyncratic tuning
[D-A-D-Fsharp-A-D, if you're trying to play along] and
hard-strumming, rhythmic style, playing along with guys like his
buddy Gene Michaels. He worked long hours on one he thought Michaels
had written, which Havens dubbed "one of the most beautiful songs I'd
ever heard; it took me eight hours to learn it. If I heard a song on
the radio, I'd have it two-thirds learned by the time it was over.
This one took me eight hours."
The first time he played that song in public he was on stage in front
of a full house.
"I am like 'Holy smokes, I'm on the big stage. I've arrived!'" he
said, laughing. "OK, I'm talking a bit, say 'This song was written by
a friend of mine who writes incredible music, incredible songs'....I
started playing the guitar, I started singing the first verse. About
the middle of the first verse, you know that little thing that dogs
do where they turn their head sideways?" he said, laughing.
"The whole audience was doing it. I didn't know what I was doing
wrong. They sort of cheered as if what I had done might be a sort of
joke. I ran off stage. It scared me, I didn't expect that from them.
I headed for the restroom, and this guy stops me in the middle of the
room, says 'That was the most beautiful version of that song I've
ever heard.' That really scared me. He had a little tear in his eye.
"Dave van Ronk ran into me. 'Do you know who that was? He wrote that
song you just did.' I went, 'No, he didn't, Gene Michaels did!'"
Havens said, laughing. "Dave said, 'Tell you what, you oughta go over
and buy him a beer.' What a way to meet Bob Dylan."
The song was "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," and it marked the beginning
of a long stretch in which Havens was considered a, if not the,
premier interpreter of Dylan's music.
"Mixed Bag," his 1967 debut album, featured a riveting version of
Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," an unusually jaunty take on Lennon and
McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby," along with Dylan-like Havens
compositions such as "Follow" and "Handsome Johnny," co-written with
actor Louis Gossett Jr.
By the time he got to Woodstock, Havens had released a handful of
albums, including the 1968 "Something Else Again," his first to hit
Billboard charts. Following the "Woodstock" film success, Havens
created his own record label, Stormy Forest. His 1970 "Alarm Clock"
yielded his next hit, a cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the
Sun," and the album reached the Billboard Top 30.
His thrilling live performances continued on TV, especially on "The
Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." One
round of applause on "The Tonight Show" ran on so long it was still
going after the commercial break. Carson invited Havens back for the
next night, something that had only happened once before, with Barbra
With his charisma, it was no surprise when Havens began acting,
appearing in the original 1972 performance of The Who's rock opera
"Tommy," and starring in the 1974 film "Catch My Soul," based on
"Othello." Just as he's continued to write, perform and record music,
Havens still acts, occasionally, and writes or records for film,
including a new version of "Freedom" for this summer's Ang Lee film
Bringing it all back, home, in the 2007 Todd Haynes film about Dylan,
"I'm Not There," Havens portrays Old Man Arvin. He's singing Dylan's
"Tombstone Blues" in a front-porch jam scene, with Marcus Carl
Franklin and Tyrone Benskin.
You can find out for yourself what musical magic brought tears and
cheers to Bob Dylan, Johnny Carson and the Woodstock nation when
Havens performs Thursday at the Bama. With five decades of material
to draw from, Havens' set list will be anybody's guess.
"Basically I know the first and last songs I'm gonna play," he said,
"and I don't leave any place until he last person leaves. That's part
of it. If they want me to sign, I'll sign anything. You don't need a
record, you need a piece of paper, and I've got some right here," he
The show will start with Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," and end
with "of course, that song that I've had to sing every day until now" he said.
One show he forgot or failed to sing "Freedom," and someone reminded
him backstage. "He said, 'You didn't sing 'Freedom,' and I said, 'Oh
yes I did,' and pulled out my guitar and sang it," he said, laughing.
But he's not begrudging that song at all, and certainly not how it
helped his career.
"I can't complain. Maybe in 2084 I can," he said.