‘I only know the first and last song I am going to sing when I go onstage. That’s the way I have always done it. I was moved to do this and sing these songs. My whole thing was that I was sharing something with everyone else that was give to me.’ (Richie Havens)
Richie Havens didn’t spend too much time, ‘strategising’ his career. He didn’t worry about developing his, ‘Brand’ or murmur in the night about the magnitude of his digital reach.
No! What Richie did is what great musicians have always done – he searched for true songs to sing and sang them with all the passion at his command to make a powerful physical, spiritual and emotional connection with his audience be they numbered in the dozens or the hundreds of thousands.
It seems to me that Richie Havens triumph as an artist was to make the whole world a tribal campfire through his musicality and the generosity and intensity with which he shared his gifts. Performing music was for him a freely chosen vocation and a sacramental act.
It seems appropriate then that the opening performer for the epochal 1969 Woodstock Festival which would rightly come to be regarded as an historic event in popular culture and American history was Richie Havens.
At 5pm he took the stage before an audience of some 400,000 souls and launched into a legendary set well captured in Michael Wardleigh’s documentary film of the event. Due to the mother and father of all traffic jams on the roads leading to Yasgur’s Farm other acts on the bill struggled to arrive on time. So Richie played and played and played until his fingers were raw and his shirt was drenched in sweat.
And, finally, when he was told he was about to be relieved he came back for a final encore with the inspired idea to take the tried and tested spiritual, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ and meld it into a shamanistic celebratory chant of, ‘Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’ summing up, in a single word, the underlying hope and theme of the Festival and the generation which gave it birth.
Whatever happened later to that hope; on that day, on that stage, Richie Havens made it a shining reality.
Richie Havens was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn in 1941, the eldest of 9 children. His mother’s family had West Indian heritage and his father was a Native American from the Blackfoot tribe (his grandfather had landed in New York through joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show!).
Richie, naturally musical, absorbed the gospel and DooWop sounds that echoed all around the stoops and avenues of 1950s Brooklyn.
Though no academic scholar, he was also intensely curious and inquisitive and these qualities led him to venture into and become a habitual visitor to the crucible of the late 50s/early 60s beatnik universe, Greenwich Village.
There, in the wild ferment of painters, poets, songwriters and social revolutionaries, inspired by charismatic folk maestro Fred Neil, he took up the guitar and swiftly developed his own mesmerising style on the instrument featuring open tunings and a tremendous rhythmic drive. Adding to this his gravelly, ‘You can’t doubt I believe every word I’m singing’ vocal style and you have a formidable performer who audiences couldn’t help but surrender to.
Richie’s catalogue is distinguished by his constant ability to find songs with emotional resonance and then to arrange and perform them with visionary force. Listen to his definitive take on a song about freedom and loss, ‘High Flying Bird’ from his major label debut album, ‘Mixed Bag’. Richie will have learned the song, written by Billy Ed Wheeler, from the recording by an under appreciated figure from the era, Judy Henske.
Playing the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, in the early 60s, Richie Havens was bound to run into the tousled kid who had just blown in from the windswept Iron Range – Bob Dylan. Richie, presciently, recognised that the kid was a genius and that the songs he was writing so furiously had a unique beauty of imagery and an imaginative depth which were manna from heaven for an interpretative singer who was willing and able to live them in performance.
Richie Havens would build a wonderful treasure hoard of Dylan recordings most notably, ‘Just Like A Woman’ which in concert he often segued with Van Morrison’s luminous, ‘Tupelo Honey’ (head on over to YouTube as soon as you’ve finished reading this post!).
I have chosen to feature here his deeply moving, elegiac, elegantly patinated, version of one of the key songs of the 1960s, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.
From this performance it is obvious that Richie knows that in the present time, in time past and time future, there is, was, and always will be, as an inescapable part of the human condition, ‘tears in things’ as Virgil wrote as well as hope for a brave new world.
Richie brings out the truth that the burdens of mortality leave none of our hearts and minds unscarred. Yet, we continue, must continue, to hope for, believe in, and work for a better tomorrow for us all.
Hope may seem to hide for years – yet it always returns. As has our Sun rising from the East every blessed morning for the last 4.5 billion years or so. And that hope, attached to the returning sun, has never been better captured than by George Harrison in his exquisitely beautiful, ‘Here Comes The Sun’.
Richie Havens knew in his bones that The Beatles were, along with Dylan, the supreme artists of the age gifting their contemporaries with songs vividly illuminating what it felt like to be alive, in all its joy and puzzled pain, in their times.
Listen to the way, in live performance, that Richie prayerfully rings out the song; sunbursts of hope goldenly showering upon us from his flying fingers and the gospel truth of his voice.
Don’t you feel lifted up!
Richie Havens, who died in April 2013, never stopped looking out for songs that could reach out and make a connection. I’m going to conclude this tribute with, what might have seemed a surprising choice to many, his gloriously exhilarating recording of Lamont Dozier’s, ‘Going Back To My Roots’. Don’t think you can sit in your chair once this one starts!
In truth Richie Havens never strayed from his roots as a troubadour. A musician earning his living and living his life to the full through playing his music. Famously, he said that he had never had a bad day on stage. Listening to him who can disbelieve him?
Richie Havens was a big man in every respect. What distinguished him most, of course, was not his height of six foot six or his striking full beard and huge hands. Rather, it was the largeness of heart and spirit he shared so unceasingly throughout a half century of recorded and live performance.
Richie Havens lent a might hand and heart to changing his times for the better: leaving all of us in his debt.
Thankfully Richie Havens has a large recorded legacy.
The records of his I play most are:
‘Mixed Bag’ from 1967 featuring, ‘Handsome Johnny’, ‘Just Like A Woman’ and, ‘Eleanor Rigby’
‘Richard P Havens 1983’ from 1969 featuring, ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘The Parable of Ramon’ and, ‘Run, Shaker Life’
‘Stonehenge’ from 1970 featuring, ‘Minstrel from Gault’, ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and ‘I Started A Joke’
Alarm Clock’ from 1971 featuring, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and, ‘Younger Men Grow Older’
‘Nobody Left to Crown’ from 2008 was his recorded swan song. It features a brilliant take on, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and the incandescently reflective title track.
Many superb in concert performances can be tracked down on YouTube.