Back to the garden
Folk legend Richie Havens brings Woodstock spirit to Cedar Grove
If the photograph on the back of his latest CD, Grace of the Sun, is any indication, then Richie Havens is a warm, accessible and passionate man. The legendary folk singer/songwriter/guitarist confirmed the impression—several times over—as he chatted with me on a recent early morning by phone from his home “in Jersey … five minutes from Manhattan, above Hoboken.” This is a man who is very comfortable in his skin and who is very happy to talk about his unique life and life in general.
It was Havens whose memorable, ad-libbed performance of the song “Freedom” helped kick off Woodstock—the three-day celebration of peace, love and music that in the summer of 1969 attracted at least double the 240,000 people that were expected.
“It was more like 800,000, over three days and a half,” Havens told me during our 40-minute conversation. “And people still came there after it was over,” he added, with a hint of pride in his voice. More than 35 years later, this huge event that his generation staged is still seen by many as the culmination of the intense social change of the 1960s.
“They called us the Angry Generation. [but] In fact,” Havens clarified, “it wasn’t anger at all. It was hurt. Because we had actually believed what [the previous generation] said. My generation didn’t want to be their parents’ generation. …We learned that we had to become active. … Rock and roll was the first ‘generational primal scream.’ We were all trying to say something to our parents, and we thought if we could put it on a record, then they’d listen and say, ‘Hey, [they’re] not bums!'”
Havens continued his first-hand account matter-of-factly, yet passionately: “It was the ‘60s, and we wouldn’t go and hide. We saturated the entire country’s consciousness. …”
Asked if he felt opening Woodstock was destiny, Havens responded emphatically and without hesitation, “Oh yes! … For me, [being a folk singer] is what I was created to be, but I would have never, never gone on stage [to begin with] by myself.” Havens goes on to credit late influential singer-songwriter Fred Neil ("Everybody’s Talkin'") with getting him to be first on stages in Greenwich Village during the early ‘60s to perform.
“Freddie came up to me one night when I was sitting in the audience,” Havens recalled, “and said to me, ‘You’ve been singing along for about a year and a half now, and you sound pretty good. Why don’t you take this guitar home and learn how to play it?’ So I did, and for the next seven years I was up there on that stage singing and playing guitar. In that time, songs came to me. … Greenwich Village was my university.”
We get on the subject of the recording of his latest Grace of the Sun, on which Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” appears, and Havens tells of how in the studio he just started singing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s version of the song. “It was the first time I’d ever sung it,” he said, adding, “It means I gotta do it.”
“It’s time [for ‘Woodstock'] to be done again,” Havens continued, “A lot of people sort of look at it as an attachment to the past. It came out different for me. Hey, we’ve really got to get ourselves back to the garden. Get together and change our planet!”