Humble aged-in-the-wool folk artist, Richie Havens, continues to provide inspirational guidance for “Freedom”-bound post-hippies as well as a newer generation of earthy philanthropic college students and their forward-thinking progressive elders. Havens became legendary after performing a mammoth three-hour opening set at Woodstock, the historic three-day summer of ‘69 event in Bethel Woods that shook America’s foundation. Brought in by a local farmer’s helicopter and forced to extend his set by over a dozen numbers while other musicians were flown in, he came to represent the magical spirit of Woodstock, revitalizing its transformation from mere spectacle to universal phenomenon.
Havens may have existed under the radar for decades, but legions of fans keep him eager to entertain at small to midsize venues cross-country. Since his most earnest songs stand the test of time and the intensity of his improvised shows never wavers, this courteous native New Yorker has survived to thrive.
Before moving to Greenwich Village in ‘61 to become part of the burgeoning folk scene, Havens had been a ‘50s street corner doo-wop vocalist and gained minor recognition in the Mc Crea Gospel Singers. Though his self-titled ‘65 debut and better ’66 follow-up, Electric Havens, would garner local acclaim, it was ‘67’s Viet Nam-addled masterpiece, Mixed Bag, that propelled him. Written with activist actor, Louis Gosseett, Jr., its glowing highlight, “Handsome Johnny,” loomed as a timely anthemic war protest.
All of a sudden, underground denizens fell in love with his idiosyncratic charcoal-stained baritone rasp and virtuoso dulcimer-styled open-tuned acoustic guitar strumming. Extemporaneous Woodstock jam, “Freedom,” summed up an entire generations hopes and dreams. By ‘70’s Stonehenge, Havens’ entire back catalog had dented the all-important sales charts.
During the early ‘70s, Havens’ record company, MGM, offered him a boutique label, Stormy Forest Records, where the keen artist would go on to sign poetic DC pianist Bob Brown, Dylanesque Canadian folkie, Bruce Murdoch, and California singer Kathy Smith. Though these artists unfairly struggled to find aboveground footing as the small label went under, Havens maintained credibility, releasing such fan favorites as ‘71’s The Great Blind Degree, ‘87’s Simple Things, and ‘04’s Grace Of The Sun.
Besides being an established singer-songwriter, Havens’ sharp interpretive abilities are renowned. His distinctly modified versions of classic Beatles tunes rank high alongside British white Soul shouter Joe Cocker’s renditions. His ‘70 album, Alarm Clock, contained the lone hit single, an insouciant take on George Harrison’s “Here Comes The Sun,” recorded live at DC’s Cellar Door with rhythm guitar, bass, and bongos. At Woodstock, his tranquilized execution of Lennon-Mc Cartney’s LSD-inspired “Strawberry Fields Forever,” practically received canonization. Plus, an electric piano-assisted take on existential Fab Four liturgy, “Eleanor Rigby,” sufficed as Mixed Bag’s chilling closer.
His solid 31st long-player, Nobody Left To Crown, is proof positive that the enduring Brooklyn native has not only persevered, but continues to grow musically, taking on today’s societal ills the same way as always, with guitar and pen.
Havens’ latest endeavor seeks understanding, fairness, and refuge in the modern world through a lighter form of rebellious sociopolitical upheaval. And he still prospers when lending his husky melancholic timbre to other artist’s compositions.
Cello glissando counters the precise six-string shuttering guiding The Who’s defiant “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and subtle acoustic charm underscores portentous ballad “Say It Isn’t So.” Civic Jackson Browne-penned requiem, “Lives In The Balance,” renders similar ominous fare. Solemn Gospel organ drones through the otherwise playful strut, “(Can You Hear) Zeus’ Anger.” But there’s hopefulness coming ashore on gently melodic beat-ticking endearment “Hurricane Waters” and deliberating samba, “The Key.” The celebratory “Standing On The Water” places gypsy violin in a semi-Vaudeville setting to good effect.
“Rock and roll is, in and of itself, folk. My generation’s an important keeper of the noise,” Havens’ explains in a confidently jolly tone. “I don’t look back, but some songs I’ve played for 30, 40 years.”
Then, he half-jokingly advises, “But it’s only because my generation is the best looking generation. The wonderful thing is, I don’t have to explain it because I don’t know what I’m doing in the first place. You just gotta remember the songs.”
I had the privilege to spend an hour on the phone with the soft-spoken-ring-fingered white-bearded bald-headed 69-year-old legend during late January 2010.
Where does American society go from here? President Obama broke the color barrier but everyone still has doubts, concerns, and distrust about the government.
There’s gonna be a movement. Transparency is gonna wreck the hidden talents of most politicians. Constitutional changes are gonna be tried. When we think of voting, we think nationally. But the Democrats and Republicans only fight for their own constituencies. For profit people get government positions. Our information systems aren’t people voted in, but brought in by each party.
You take on The Who’s rebellious anthem, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ on Nobody Left To Crown. Yet our country still struggles with corporate and political corruption and greed. Instead of monopolies, we’ve secretly got equally rancid duopolies, such as dual cable providers, who only compete against each other and limit choice.
You’re right. But youth are learning that by putting Obama in power, their votes actually count and that’s captured some of the places that should’ve been carried forth before.
Going back to the Woodstock Generation, what permanent positive changes have you been most proud of?
The big one is voting. But you can’t put a finger on the youth because they’re now trying to work across nations instead of just state by state. When kids find out they’ve been duped, snooped, and slooped, they can impose change without waiting for grownups to say it’s ok.
However, many kids are lazy passive-aggressive types unwilling to be riled up by politics.
You have outlined what I call a ‘Huggie.’ Puppy dogs who can’t go out on their own, but that’s what a puppy does. He goes down under the wire and gets to go because he has hardened. Once his mind is into it, he won’t be refused.
Were you initially inspired by Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or the ‘60s folk movement?
Oh no. Dylan and I once shared a manager (the legendary Albert Grossman), but we were contrary. I started as a Brooklyn doo-wop singer and was brought into the Greenwich Village folk scene by that muscle. (laughter) Nina Simone in the ‘50s was very influential. I got to play with her later on. I was so happy I could’ve died and said, ‘Yippie!.’ I got something from her as a younger person. That was my uncle’s music beyond my mothers’ time.
We were on a Ford Motor hootenanny with Herbie Mann and Mongo Santamaria. That was the music playing in-between what we were doing. We spent 10 days at St. Johns College in D.C. This guy from Ford was wrangled and took this caravan cross-country. Then, we went off to different universities. We got to our seventh school, went down the road to make the next one, laughing like hell because everyone’s a great joke teller. All morning we’re making up funny stuff. We stopped at a gas station and in the background I hear a noise. ‘I think the president has been shot.’ Everyone started laughing over another joke. So I reached over and turned the radio knob and heard Kennedy was assassinated. That shut down our caravan. Not one club was open for 10 days after the death. The quietude and disbelief. Several clubs went broke. That’s also when this musical triad met. Miles Davis and John Coltrane and other Jazz artists broke out and rock and folk got big. You had folk music at Newport with Dylan. In Europe, Donovan was breaking out. So many things went on at the same cross line.
Tell me about Bethel’s Woodstock Museum.
It was opened in 2009. It’s incredible. I’ve never seen a place like that, including the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame —which looks Mickey Mouse in comparison. This magical place. They used it to show what rights people gained by the Woodstock Generation. They brought out a timeline from 1940. It actually showed how the constitution changed. They even built one of those Wolf Trap (educational arts program) places for this.
Nobody Left To Crown strikes a chord with its divergent stylistic oeuvre.
I’ve had albums I’ve made—I knew what I wanted to say and knew what I wanted to happen. I wrote them. Yet I only learned two of the songs. They are the glue to my time change. Everything I do is trailing me, for sure. That shows people and artists that this spirit is just beginning.
Havens will be performing Feb. 19 at Carnegie Hall.
John Fortunato’s work is archived at beermelodies.com.