From Woodstock to Artown, Richie Havens is no stranger to opening a show
Forty years ago, a young man in a flowing robe unexpectedly walked onto a stage in Bethel, N.Y., and opened Woodstock. He was slated to go on fifth, but the other bands weren’t yet available, and the crowds were getting restless. Richie Havens entranced them for nearly three hours, injecting the old spiritual “Motherless Child” with new life as it became “Freedom”—at a time people were craving just such a thing. The performance, captured on the 1970 film Woodstock for repeat viewing by future generations, made Havens into a household name. With revisionings of songs like The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” he’s also arguably one of the best cover artists of our time, in addition to his own original works.
With his recent performance in the film I’m Not There, his 2008 album No One Left to Crown, and his numerous tour dates, Havens remains an active musical force.
Richie Havens will open Artown with a free performance on July 1 at 7:30 p.m. in Wingfield Park on the corner of First Street and Arlington Avenue.
You’ve done a lot since you “accidentally” opened Woodstock. Yet, people keep talking about that story whenever your name comes up. Tell me how that happened.
I think what’s happening to it is a real interesting part. You can make a movie and have people look at it and like it and do it once every four years or something. But this particular occasion had an audience on many different levels. Every year, the teenagers, they graduate, and they’ve seen the movie for the first time, and it starts all over again. It’s amazing.
I find that a lot of what my generation was looking for was a voice, and this was definitely the forum for that voice, at least—it turned out to be at most. It exists and continues to exist because there’s always someone who has seen it for the first time.
Did you have any idea at the time that you were becoming a main part of such an iconic, important festival?
Not really. My feelings about that—being some part of it and in it—my sense has always been that this crusade, we will win. This time, we’ll have a platform for a voice. So here I am [at Woodstock], I get taken into the field because I had the least instruments and the least band members. And of course he [the organizer]chased me around, because I was supposed to be fifth on the bill, and I said “I can’t do that.” But finally he convinced me, so I went on.
For a long time! [He originally was supposed to play for 40 minutes; he played for two hours and 45 minutes.]
Yeah, and that was the sense of the opportunity. That you could go on for an hour or so and really start to wake and shake the instrument technologically and personally, to make it accessible and keep it accessible.
We in the ’50s as a generation were trying to erect this platform. We protested, too, without really knowing we were. If you were a young kid listening to a rock station, you wouldn’t look at that as a protest, but it was to the singer-songwriters of the time. We had to sing songs like [singing] “No no no. I’m not a juvenile delinquent!”—and you say, “Holy smokes! They’re singing songs about juvenile delinquency!” And you have the older guys singing dip dip dip dip dip dip dip dip boom boom boom boom boom boom, get a job. Can you imagine singing stuff like that? “Get a job”—it’s so open and vital energy that it’s crossed over the line and built the rest of the support in the 1960s. I’m sure I could find 10 more songs that, in a sense, were complaining. What was that song about the war—I can’t think of it now, but oh let’s say my friends, la da di da …
In 2005, you told Modern Guitars magazine, “I imagine that every song that was written in the ’60s was written for now.” Could you explain that? And in 2009, is that still true?
Yes, it was. Everything that happened in the ’60s while we were there was related to protesting, whether it was soft or hard. There was a song by Fred Neil, who wrote [singing] Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’. That was the other side of the ’60s, the peaceniks. They stood behind their intent to make it a positive world, and they succeeded in a lot of it. They did those streets on the Lower East Side [of New York] and they had a free store, where you go in, you need a coat, it’s there! Take it! They had the great ideas, the great feelings. The ones you call the flower children. But it was the harder side of the flower children, a physical touch, and no one’s being greedy. We realized it was getting through.
Do you see parallels between then and now?
Yeah, I can. I think we have such a myriad of YouTubes, the whole world is becoming open. … Most of the songs I sing are covers because they hadn’t gone anywhere. What was on those CDs was living life. It was alive, and basically they made their own teachers. Just like now, I think the kids are making their own school on the web.
You’ve worked quite a bit with kids. Could you tell me about that?
I was really involved with it in the ’70s and ’80s—businesses run by children. Whatever they wanted to make a project on, they could say, “What do you think about this?” They could put it together and proceed to bring it to life. An 8-year-old, their first week, asking, “Can we grow a garden and feed the hungry people in the street?” That’s the kind of questions they were asking me in the ’80s. …
What was the name of that group?
The Natural Guard.
There’s another group you’re involved with, too.
The Northwind Undersea Institute and Museum. That was a hands-on place where parents and kids could go together, like a mini museum, and we have displays there as well as displays we took around in the New York section where we were working, the Long Island Sound. … We had a project called A Right to Live to preserve the whale. … We actually took it to Japan in the early ’80s and tried to see all the people involved in that on the land.
How did you become involved with the film I’m Not There?
The people who work with Bob [Dylan] actually called and asked if I’d be interested in doing that. Bob and I had the same management from 1963, so we knew each other very well, and it was a nice little part that didn’t make me come off the road or interrupt what I was doing.
It was such an incredible chance that it could be pulled off—that you could get five people to portray five transitions of a single person. So I was privileged to be part of that. I was with the little boy [Marcus Carl Franklin]. He was 12, and playing as Woody Guthrie. That was another brilliant idea to have Woody out there like everybody else, singing on the corners from town to town. He [Franklin] said do I know any Bob Dylan music? … They told him, “We need you to learn four Bob Dylan songs,” and he actually learned four songs, with lyrics that are so long, it’s unbelievable, and at the same time—it was him and [Richard] Gere, who sort of interplayed with each other. So he learned four songs and how to play them, and he was 12!
Do you know what Dylan thought of the movie?
Yeah, this was something he actually gave himself to if they needed any information about that. It was one of the few things he could get his fingers on. It was his life, and the way they portrayed it—it wasn’t so much the story but the transition he had to go through to get from one story to the next.
I love your cover of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” What made you want to cover it?
That song, I was singing it on stage about a year before he recorded it, maybe two years. And I was amazed at the poetry and the fact that I quite understood what he was getting at, and pretty much he was getting at what his song was about and what her song was about—“her” being woman. “Acts like a woman, aches like a woman.” And that was something never done before. They said, “I love you, and the sky is blue,” but this was really deeper. It was saying hold on, she breaks just like a woman, acts just like a woman, aches just like a woman, and all those things are the transitions in that song. To me woman was being defined at a much deeper level than the songs that were around during that period. In the woman’s movement, it’s still alive.
… So having grown up in the rock ’n’ roll world, I am a rock person myself, and it portrayed woman in several lights. I really appreciated the guy who wrote that song, because he was the guy who moved that stone. So I learned through him to really think about something like that when thinking of women, all women, the problem of dealing with a guy. This is not such a thing of being routine, but a heartbeat of a heart. Well Bob Dylan gave her that voice.
You have a very recognizable guitar style. How did it develop?
It developed out of wanting to sing six songs that changed my mind and my life. It was happening in Greenwich Village; I was there during the Beatniks. When I went there I was coming from doo-wop music, which is no instrument but I was learning to hold on to the chord. I tuned the guitar to an open chord. Then I found the other chords I needed to sing the next 10,000 songs. There are only three chords in all of rock ’n’ roll [laughs] … I was singing them anyway in the coffeehouses these guys played in, singing harmony from the audience. Freddie Neil comes up to me saying, “You’ve been singing my songs for six months now. Take this guitar and learn to play them yourself.” So I took this guitar. Didn’t know how to tune it, so I tuned it to the chord my doo-wop boys were doing. …
I heard you influenced Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower.” Is that true?
These were the days when if you wanted to sing a song, you can go after the guy who knows the song to learn the words of it, and I was the guy who did that for him. He said “Richie, man, I want to sing that song. Write the words down.” But I also became part of what made him Jimi Hendrix, which is something I really do cherish. A marriage of whatever mind is, soul or spirituality is, that’s the edge of what that song was riding on.
When he came to New York, he was a paratrooper, and he carried his guitar around. He came to New York in 1967, maybe, or ’68. I think it was right after I made my first album that I sort of ran into him. It was a dance hall that was taken over by two guys from France called The Cheetah because it had cheetah as the pattern all over the furniture there, but it was also a big difference—the discotheque would grow up right in the midst. … His last gig [before going on to be “Jimi Hendrix”] was with Little Richard. He was so good that Richard told him, “No, honey, you’re not going to stay in my band.”
My musical group had opened this place, there was live music, and the music was supposed to be continuous. We would play a song, and the next band would play the same thing so when we walked off, the music kept going, no silence for five sets apiece. So when we went to hang out, I was standing at a 200-foot bar—we were so early, we were too anxious to go dance. So we waited at the bar. I looked up next to me, and here’s one of the best basketball players—Wilt the Stilt [Chamberlain]—standing next to me. I said “Wow, this is Wilt the Stilt! Hey man how you doing?” “Oh, I’m doing OK.” “Are you playing a game in town?” “Yeah, we got a game.” So I just came out with “We early, ain’t we?”
Then I hear this music, and there’s this guy holding a guitar in the air, and he’s biting the string, and I think, “No, he’ll get electrocuted,” which he would. So I’m on my knees looking under his arms to see what he was doing—I couldn’t believe it. So when it was over I went to his dressing room, and he said he just left Little Richard and that he’d just gotten the gig that day, and he said, “I got the gig through the union.” Well, I’d been in the union for three weeks, and I didn’t know that. So I told him he was too good for the union and that he should get his own band and to talk to this man. [Soon after] a friend of mine who was a musician told me I should see this guy playing in this place, and it turned out to be Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, which was his first band, and it was him.
Thanks for being so generous with your time. Before I let you go, is there anything you’d like to add?
I just would say, when you come, we’ll have a good time. That’s the best way to say it. I haven’t had one bad time in all the times I’ve been onstage. The last 29 years I’ve been onstage every weekend all year round. And before that, six years in Greenwich Village. So I like the weekends, because I get done all I need to get done.