Richie Havens: Folk singer and songwriter who became a hero of the counter-culture

 

The folk singer Richie Havens will forever be linked with Woodstock, the 3 Days of Peace & Music festival he opened in Bethel, New York state, on 15 August 1969. Scheduled to go on fifth, Havens was thrust on to the stage in front of 500,000 people – he maintained the figure was higher than the one reported by the media – along with his guitarist Paul Williams and his percussionist Daniel Ben Zebulon after the folk-rock band Sweetwater were caught in the traffic jams that already hinted at the magnitude of the event.

"It was 5 o'clock and nothing was happening. I had the least instruments and the least people. I was supposed to sing 40 minutes," Havens remembered of his set that was repeatedly extended as further delays affected the arrival of Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar and Melanie. "'Four more songs?' That kept happening until two hours and 45 minutes later I had sung every song I knew," he said.

Drenched with sweat, he was called back for a final encore and remarked: "Freedom is what we're all talking about getting. It's what we've been looking for." Enthused by the crowd's energy, Havens started strumming his guitar and called on his eight years of experience on the coffee house circuit. "The word freedom comes out of my mouth as FREE-dom, with a rhythm of its own," he recalled in The Road To Woodstock, the 2009 book by Michael Lang, the concert's co-organiser. "My foot takes over and drives my guitar into a faster, more powerful rhythm. I don't know where this is going, but it feels right and somehow I find myself blending it into an old song – 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child' – a spiritual my grandmother used to sing to me as a hymn."

Included in Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock documentary and on the soundtrack album (both 1970), "Freedom" became a counter-cultural anthem and made Havens famous. He had played the UK at the 1969 Isle Of Wight Festival, but in 1970 he closed the Festival. Appearing after Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen, he reprised "Freedom" and transformed "Here Comes The Sun", the George Harrison song he took into the US Top 20 in 1971, into "Here Comes The Dawn" as day broke.

A compelling performer with a gruff voice and a rhythmic approach to the acoustic guitar – often using open tunings – Havens was a supreme, soulful interpreter of other people's material, most famously of the Bob Dylan songbook. "I was so thankful for Bob. Getting to sing what was pure poetry really gave me a foundation," he said of his friend and contemporary in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s. Indeed, his repertoire included wonderful versions of "Maggie's Farm", "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "If Not For You", while his take on "Just Like A Woman" was a highlight of both Mixed Bag, his 1967 debut for the Verve label, and Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992.

Havens also put his stamp on songs by his Greenwich Village mentor Fred Neil, as well as the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Cohen and Donovan, and reinvented 10CC'S "I'm Not In Love" and the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Running" in 1976, along with "Going Back To My Roots", a club hit in 1980. These tended to overshadow his own songs, like the anti-war "Handsome Johnny", performed at Woodstock and another Mixed Bag gem, the protest song "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed", later covered by Yes, and "There's A Hole In The Future" on 1970's Stonehenge, showcasing his concern for the environment that remained a constant.

Born in New York in 1941, he was the eldest of nine children. His mother worked for a bookbinder while his father made Formica tables and played piano, "with a feel for jazz", as he remembered in his 2000 autobiography They Can't Hide Us Anymore. His maternal grandmother came from Barbados and introduced him to Caribbean music, as well as Jewish folk songs and Irish ballads. This wide-ranging, melting pot approach would remain a hallmark of the 20-plus studio albums he made between 1965 and 2008.

Like many teenagers of his generation, he sang doo-wop on street corners and in 1956 joined the McCrea Gospel Singers. He dropped out of high school and, as he wrote in one of his most memorable lyrics, "I Was Educated By Myself". In his late teens he began gravitating towards Greenwich Village, where he performed poetry and worked as a portrait artist. He would return to sculpture and painting, and exhibit later on. "It took a while before I thought of picking up a guitar," he reflected.

When he did, his unusually large hands necessitated the unorthodox tunings and percussive style he developed, which became another trademark. Dylan's then manager, Albert Grossman, was duly impressed and signed him up, helping pave the way for the deal with Verve, his breakthrough at Woodstock and TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1972 he guested on The Old Grey Whistle Test and played The Hawker on an orchestral recording and for a concert version of The Who's Tommy at London's Rainbow Theatre.

His distinctive voice and physique enabled him to move into acting. He was a commanding Othello in a musical adaptation retitled Catch My Soul, the only film directed by Patrick McGoohan, creator of The Prisoner, and in 1977 appeared alongside Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning. A decade later he had a role in Hearts Of Fire, the critically slated musical drama starring Dylan. In 2007 he contributed to yet another Dylan-related project, singing "Tombstone Blues" in I'm Not There, the bizarre biographical film directed by Todd Haynes.

In Britain the 1990s rare groove generation revived his funkier, jazzier material from the late '70s. In 2001 he began collaborating with the electronica duo Groove Armada, contributing to their Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub) and Lovebox albums and performing "Hands Of Time" with them on Later ... With Jools in 2002. He continued to visit the UK, selling out London's Jazz Café and radiating calm and wisdom on the Robert Elms show on BBC London. He released his last album, Nobody Left To Crown, in 2008 and retired from touring for health reasons last year. Quentin Tarantino used a version of "Freedom" in his slavery-era spaghetti western homage Django Unchained, introducing Havens to a new generation. He died of a heart attack at home.

Richard Pierce Havens, singer, guitarist and songwriter: born New York 21 January 1941; married (four daughters); died Jersey City 22 April 2013.

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + entsBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
people
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

SCO Supervisor Electrical

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client based in the Midlands is looki...

Ecommerce Executive

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Supply teaching - A great w...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices