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.

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