Richie Havens: His Own Words
Folk rocker Richie Havens has witnessed some of Rock and Roll’s most memorable moments. Emerging from the Greenwich Village coffeehouse folk scene in the mid-Sixties, he came up with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. He played the infamous 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan “plugged in” for the first time — going electric, much to the crowd’s dismay. Havens was the first act to take the stage at Woodstock, playing a set that would last almost three hours. As you might imagine, he has a few stories to tell.
I recently spoke with Havens about some of these highlights of his 43-year career. I asked him about the Greenwich Village scene. “It was really incredible. Since we were passing the basket, we were allowed to sort of tramp through a little circle there; we had a little circle, we used to go to three coffeehouses a night — some of us more. Fourteen sets a night, 20-minute sets. That was reading poetry and/or hearing the guys on guitar. Fantastic times.”
On Newport: “I was sitting in row 6 with Albert Grossman [who managed Dylan and Havens], and the band came out and started playing. And they were SO loud! That’s when I thought there would be something to reckon with. They came onstage, and it wasn’t that they were not musically capable of doing what they were doing — they were more musical than expected. So I watched a little bit of panic go on there. I felt, because [the crowd was] booing, that there were really hard folk advocates there. And they sort of started booing, and I thought it was really especially because it was so loud at first. And I guess they, at a point, they just didn’t want to hear anything.
“But I felt as if we were losing a president. It was like, oh man, what a drop in feeling I felt for these guys onstage. It felt like something was being pushed overboard. To me, I saw it from two sides: I saw it expanding Bob with music he could have gotten to the radio sooner — and he hadn’t changed his writing, he was still a great writer. And he had to accomplish what he had to accomplish.”
For Woodstock, Havens was scheduled to be the fourth artist on the bill. However, when it came time to get the musicians from the hotel to the venue (where 520,000 fans were already waiting), the roads were completely blocked by parked cars. “I was anxious to be over where it was happening. Nothing was happening at the hotel. They were running around, trying to figure out how to get all the bands there. A farmer down the road came and offered them his helicopter, which was a glass bubble helicopter — almost not enough room to carry [an artist and the instruments]. Since I had the least instruments, that’s why they came to me first.”
“When they offered the role of going on first, it was a very tenuous line there. Anything could happen! We didn’t know what kind of eruption was gonna take place when the music hit the stage.”
It took some coaxing, but eventually the promoter lured Richie onstage.
“So I went out and I sang my 40-minute set, and walked off stage. And they said ‘Richie, could you sing four more?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’”
Seven encores later, Richie had sung every song he knew, and he was asked to get back up there and buy a little more time. For his last encore, he improvised “Freedom” — a riff on the old Negro spiritual “Motherless Child” — which would become one of his signature songs and a highlight of the Woodstock film.
We spoke at length about the Village, Newport, Woodstock, and his brilliant new CD, “Nobody Left to Crown,” a concept album that fits poetically into today’s political environment. He talks about learning “All Along the Watchtower” from Dylan, then teaching it to Jimi Hendrix. Hear it all at www.lcsun-news.com/pulse.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 09/25/08