Richie Havens headlines a concert Saturday at the Miller Center for
the Arts, part of RACC's "Celebration of Folk Music," which will also
feature Janis Ian.
By Susan L. Peña
It's been 40 years since Richie Havens opened the Woodstock Music
Festival, and he's been asked to tell about that life-changing
experience countless times. But he's gracious about relating it to
one more rapt listener.
"I can't believe it's been 40 years," he said in a recent telephone
interview. "I feel the leap, but not the time in between."
The folk legend, known for his intense performances of all kinds of
songs and his open-tuning guitar style, will perform as part of the
Miller Center for the Arts' "Celebration of Folk Music" this weekend.
Singer/songwriter Janis Ian will be onstage Friday at 8 p.m., and
Havens will perform Saturday at 8 p.m.
Continuing his Woodstock story, Havens said: "The biggest crowd they
expected was 80,000. The evening before, when I got there, there were
already 520,000 people. I was not only surprised but grateful."
The reason he had the opportunity to play first, he said, was "I had
the least instruments and the least people."
Because all the roads leading into the festival were completely
blocked with traffic, the presenters had to fly the band to the
performance site, and all they had at that point was a small helicopter.
Havens said he was terrified to go onstage in front of a crowd that
huge, but he finally went on for 40 minutes. He walked offstage, but
the crowd kept demanding more. He came back six more times; the last
time, he had run out of material.
"I'm back onstage not knowing what I'm going to sing, because I sang
every song I knew," he said, reliving the moment. "I'm sitting
onstage looking out over my generation and talking about how we won
this round. The word 'freedom' came out. The whole world is changing,
and it's amazing, all these people out there and happy . . ."
What emerged was his now-famous version of the gospel song,
"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," which he had not sung in
14 years. He said he remembered it from when his doo-wop group back
in Brooklyn, when he was a teenager, used to sing in church with the
family choir of one of the members.
"I had sung it but didn't play it," he said. "I figured it out in
about 10 minutes."
The song became a long improvisation on the word "freedom," and it
was the pivotal moment in his career, forever linking him to that
Havens left Brooklyn at age 20 to seek his fortune in Greenwich
Village. There he earned $300 a day drawing portraits for two years,
reading poetry and listening to folk music in the clubs. Soon he was
singing backup in a band.
He became friends with the singer/songwriter Fred Neil ("Everybody's
Talkin'" from the film "Midnight Cowboy"), who gave him his first
guitar. Havens quickly learned to play, using an open tuning to a D
major chord, which he still uses.
"It took away the problem of learning the guitar classically," he
said. "I was able to pick it up and play every song from day one."
Soon he was performing as a soloist in the Village and beyond, and
after securing a manager, the legendary Albert Grossman, he was
offered a record deal with the Verve label, which released his first
album, "Mixed Bag," in 1967.
Before landing the Woodstock gig, he appeared at the Newport Folk
Festival. After Woodstock, he became famous, and released many more
albums. He appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show."
He has continued touring throughout the world ever since.
Havens has also had a long involvement with environmental issues.
With Michael Sandlofer he founded the Northwind Undersea Institute,
an oceanographic children's museum on City Island in the Bronx, in 1976.
He has also created The Natural Guard, an organization that educates
children about the environment, based in New Haven, Conn.
Havens said one of the first projects the children took on was
starting three vegetable gardens in New Haven, which produced food to
feed 40 homeless people.
Since then, the program has been featured on Nickelodeon, and has won
the "Thousand Points of Light" Award during the Clinton administration.
E-mail Susan L. Peña: email@example.com.