His beard is certainly grayer, but little else has changed about Richie Havens since he opened the most famous concert of them all some 40 years ago.
At 68, the legendary folk troubadour still has an electrifying voice, and his music continues to be laced with the idealism and activism that launched him into the spotlight at Woodstock.
Havens’ latest album, Nobody Left to Crown on Verve Records, is an indication that he has stayed true to his message — particularly as it finds renewed relevance in the turbulence of modern times.
“You know, there were too many people at Woodstock to sublimate where we all felt we made a difference, or a little difference,” Havens told The Listening Room. “It’s a wonderful thing, because all of the young people that come up to me want to know what it was about. And that’s gone on.”
Havens, who is due to take the stage at the Irvington Town Hall Theater later this month, said his music “is just as much about now as it was then. That arch is there.”
The title track on Nobody Left to Crown was in fact a song he first recorded in the early 1970s. And the album, Havens’ 30th, is replete with his trademark idealistic, even militant material. He warns of a power elite armed with mansions and yachts, and pleads, “don’t make us all feel like defendants.”
Most of the songs are his own, although they include Havens’ typical selection of covers — songs that he says “stop me dead in my tracks.”
He covers artists as varied as folksters Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Who, tapping songs he said speak to modern-day societal and political turmoil. He also has Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks sitting in for Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance.”
But Havens said he doesn’t so much pick covers as they pick him. It’s emblematic of his own playing and songwriting style, which he described as a transformative process by which his music “just happens.” He walks into a performance knowing only the first and last songs he will play.
“I close my eyes and I’m gone,” he said. “The singer is singing the song and playing the song, you know? People say, ‘I love the way you play guitar.’ I don’t even think about the way I play guitar.”
Havens said it’s a process that began in his early years, long after his music began to take shape on street-corners and in church choirs in his native Brooklyn.
“I don’t ever think about sitting down to write a song. Ever,” Havens said. “I stopped doing that in 1960 when I sang do-wop with my friends in Brooklyn.”
“I quit it because I had been to the Village and I’d seen the poets,” he said. “I heard the poets, I’d seen the singers, and I heard what they were singing about. It changed my whole life.”
The 1960s folk movement did indeed change Havens’ fate. He became a regular in the Greenwich Village music scene, recording his first album, Mixed Bag, in 1967. Two years later, he was asked to join the list of artists who would play in upstate New York, at a festival officially called the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair.
He was fifth in line to play.
“I ran like hell when they asked me to go on first,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh no. They want to get me killed.’ I mean, these people have been sitting here for a month camping out.”
“So, after finding me twice, I said, ‘Okay. No problem,’” Havens said. “‘Don’t allow me to have a problem, please.’”
Havens played his scheduled set, and the crowd loved it.
“After the 40 minutes I was supposed to do, everybody said four more songs. ‘Sing four more songs,’” Havens laughed. “And that went on for six times, and the next thing I know I’m back out, I got no songs. And that’s where that whole thing comes in.”
So he just started playing. He took in the crowd, and the word that came to his mind was “freedom.” So he started singing it. Then he pulled words from the old gospel song, “Motherless Child.”
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The song came to be known as “Freedom,” and it defined not only the Woodstock festival, but its generation and Havens’ legacy. He’s yet to tire of playing it, or of being asked about Woodstock.
And as long as there’s an audience, he’ll continue to add to his legacy.
“That’s going to continue as long as I feel it,” Havens said. “I’m sure I’m always going to feel it, which means I’m going to be here for a long, long time.”
He’ll be at the Irvington Town Hall Theater on March 20, with special guest Cliff Eberhardt. For more information call the box office at 914-591-6602.
To hear our entire interview with Richie Havens please click on the audio link below.