Richie Havens: His Freedom and His Music-A Tribute
It was announced earlier today that folksinger Richie Havens died of a heart attack in New Jersey. He was 72. In 1969, when he sang out, “Freedom,” to a half-million people at the historic Woodstock Festival, it was more than just a moment of musical tribalism, as it has often been characterized. It was a collective voice calling out from the past and into the future to break the chains of conformity, injustice and the status quo that held humanity back. He was calling out from the voice of the oppressed for heaven on earth.
But, Havens’ music and his legacy was never about any given moment in history. It just happened that he was able, at that moment in time, to stand on a historical high-rise and be heard. Thanks to the soundtrack and the Academy Award winning film, Woodstock, this portion of history has been preserved and lives on. But, his career was much more. He was among the great individual song interpreters who could take a traditional, a standard or a modern song and raise it to a new level of inspiration. He had his feet planted firmly in the roots of the native south spiritual music with jazz, blues and rock leanings that gave him a sound that was his own and equal to the best of his generation.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, by the time he was 16 he was singing gospel and doo-wop music on the streets of his hometown. When he arrived in Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, as a folk singer, he was signed by Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. His classic debut album, Mixed Bag, became the template for his unusual style, with a percussive driven open D tuned 12-string guitar, that was all his own. His voice could call out the angels from the darkest skies. As Dylan has said, “There was Richie and there was everybody else.”
It was Havens’ live performances that transcended all he would ever do on record. When he opened the Woodstock festival in 1969 under storm-ladened skies; it was because of the weather, stage conditions and the late arrival of other artists on the bill that he was forced to play an extended set and hold his audience captivated for over three hours. After seven encores, in a state of near exhaustion, he improvised the classic spiritual, “Motherless Child,” and then seamlessly flowed into “Freedom,” dancing his way around the stage and still playing his guitar as he left. It was the kind of spontaneous moment that drove the audience to a near frenzy. It also became among the most memorable scenes in the film Woodstock.
His career would never eclipse the famous set he played that day over 40 years ago. But, the exposure would fuel his ability to continue to record and tour for many years to come. He also contributed his time and energy toward educating young people about ecology founding the Northwind Undersea Institute, a children’s museum in the Bronx. Related to this he founded the ‘Natural Guard,’ which gave inner-city children the chance to see how they could influence and positively effect the natural world around them.
In my own 14 year-old world, when I fist saw Richie Havens in the movie Woodstock, he was like a man who sang with thunder and lightening at his feet. The performance I saw and heard left such an indelible impression, I only have to close my eyes to hear his voice inside my own spirit right now. It’s that kind of musical legacy that burns into our hearts & minds and galvanizes history.
But, even more than the historical, Richie Haven’s entire career, symbolized in his most famous moment at Woodstock, a standard before our world-society and especially today, in American society, when we speak of freedom and justice. As these words become corroded his voice still sings across the ages. Is freedom found in the power of the few to withhold the rights of the many who are less powerful? Is freedom found in the right of a powerful minority to discard the stewardship of our environment in favor of profits, comfort and security? Is freedom found in the right of the few to relinquish the safety of those who are the weakest in our culture-children, the elderly, the disabled, so that the one percent, or even the ten percent, can feel more comfortable and secure with fire arms? What is freedom when it comes to the laws that govern those who love each other? Can we still hear Richie Havens singing, “Freedom,” from that festival stage so many years ago? And aren’t we all still like motherless children seeking our freedom? The most compelling fact of Richie Havens’ legacy is his embodiment of those ideals. He didn’t just sing about it, he acted on his ideals.
When Richie Havens sang on that rain-drenched day at Woodstock, his passionate voice came from the past and reached into the future, from those, and to those, who were and still are disenfranchised and denied their right to liberty and justice.
Today, with his passing, it’s important to close our eyes, remember him, and to hear that same raging voice that sang “Freedom,” then open those same eyes, and do as he did during his all-too-brief 72 years on the planet: Sing the change, act the change and be the change….sing freedom and let’s keep dancing for Richie and for each other, rain or shine.
Legendary singer-songwriter, Eric Andersen posted this tribute today on his Facebook site. No words are better suited to close this article:
“Our heads bow down low as the sweet chariots carry you away, our brother in arms. May those angels be singing and playing in your rich open tuning tonight as they lift you high on their wings, our dearest soul brother” –From Eric Andersen to Richie Havens-4/22/2013