In Memory of Richie Havens

(January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013)

Just Like a Mensch:

By Ross Altman

[Editor: In 1963 I lived in Greenwich Village and was fortunate to have seen many of the singers who defined the times. Richie Havens played ‘pass the hat’ coffeehouses and he made a big splash. His voice was unique, but what everyone talked about was how he used his thumb for chording. Everything about Richie was one of a kind.– Leda Shapiro]

Richie HavensIconic American folk singer and musical activist Richie Havens, who turned an opening act into a star-making turn at Woodstock, passed away from a heart attack on Earth Day, last April 22. He was 72 years old. From his days in Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1960s to his book-ending Woodstock with Jimi Hendrix and forty years of music and environmental activism Richie Havens became a symbol of music and social change for children of all ages.

In addition, he put a guitar company on the map by choosing to play a Guild D-50 in preference to the Martin D-28 or Gibson J-200 that defined the folk era. His distinctive and highly refined rhythmic style of using open tunings rather than either flat-picking or finger-picking of his contemporaries made his performances immediately identifiable, even before his hypnotic and always passionate voice kicked in on such songs as Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman and George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun.

His classic and improvisatory performance at Woodstock was as inspired as Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech six years earlier. Having been asked at the last minute to fill in for the band Sweetwater who was supposed to open the festival but was stuck in the enormous traffic jam leading up to Max Yesgur’s pig farm in Bethel, New York, Havens cheerfully obliged and kept singing and vamping for more than two hours eventually running through all the songs he had rehearsed. The band still had not arrived and the promoters told him to just keep singing. Like King, who reached the end of his planned speech at the March on Washington and was not quite sure if he had said enough—only to go off-script and reach back to bits and pieces of sermons about a dream he had only presented in church, Richie Havens pulled a rabbit from his hat.

He found himself thinking out loud and looking out over the expanse of humanity in front of him, who had come there for three days of peace and music, and asking himself if there was one other word that could really sum up the inspiration for the festival. The word he chose was freedom—evoking the civil rights movement but other freedom movements as well that were already in the air—including the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and the counter-cultural revolution in full swing right there at Woodstock.

He started singing that one word over and over, like a mantra, and then built up to an old spiritual he had learned from his grandmother, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

Richie Haven - Vamping Freedom 1969 at Woodstock
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fA51wyl-9IE)

It was a miraculous melding of old and new, and it set the tone for the entire festival to come. He captured the moment as no one else could have, and lifted Woodstock right off the ground, just one man and a guitar who should have been dwarfed by all the rock bands who came after. Instead he bathed them in a light all his own.

He defined folk music once and for all as “the people’s newscast, especially for kids.” But he was not just a commentator—his music and his activism were of a piece. Havens started the Northwind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum on City Island in the Bronx. “The museum led to the creation of The Natural Guard,” (source: Wikipedia) an organization to educate children about the earth and environmental awareness, always with an emphasis on positive steps each of us could take to preserve the wonders of nature. Doom’s Day prophecies just weren’t in his nature and his optimistic spiritual foundation was as infectious as his music. No one within the sound of his singing voice could resist the feeling that the world could be a better place, and that we could make it so.

Richie Havens - Mixed BagNor was Haven’s a “lonesome traveler,” the solitary persona of so many modern folk and pop singers, from Lee Hayes (who wrote the song) Woody Guthrie to Rod McKuen to Neil Diamond. Richie Havens came from a large family—he was the eldest of nine brothers and sisters—and was a proud pater familias of three surviving daughters (one predeceased him), five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He saw his music always in terms of the human family—really an extension of his own—much like Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

I can’t say for sure that the fact his grandmother was Jewish (who knew?) had anything to do with that, but like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt. One sees his stature as elder statesman of folk music most resonantly in the 2007 movie I’m Not There by Todd Haynes, based on the music and protean life-stories of Bob Dylan. Havens appears as “Old Man Arvin” in the classic front porch jam scene of old blues-men, gathered to show their connection to a young Woody Guthrie (played by a child black actor) who was Dylan’s earliest folk influence. Havens sings Dylan’s Tombstone Blues as if it were an ancient blues song and pulls it off. It’s on the soundtrack.

But of course it’s Havens’ version of Just Like a Woman that remains his most memorable interpretation of a Dylan song. When I produced a Dylan “Forever Young 70th Birthday Concert” one of the highlights was Andy Manoff’s cover version of Havens’ cover version, done in his open tuning style pretty much note for note. It filled the Talking Stick coffeehouse with warmth and light.

I say “pretty much note for note” because with Havens’ guitar style you can never be sure—he got so many notes in a phrase they blended into what one can only call “a wall of sound.” It took Phil Spector a roomful of instruments—and an orchestra of stringed instruments at that—to achieve that effect. Havens did it with his own six-string orchestra—that Guild guitar. His distinctive style of rhythmic strumming was his most original creation—and no one seriously tried to copy it.

Richie Havens woodstockVirtually every other accomplished folk or blues guitarist played some version of either fingerstyle or flat-picking (think Merle Travis or Doc Watson or Mississippi John Hurt). Richie Havens played mostly in open tunings so he didn’t have to play chords in the traditional sense with his left hand, nor pick with his right. He used his right thumb to lay over the neck when he changed chords up and down the neck, and used his left thumb to strum in an inimitably rich blending of rhythm and sound. His playing was unique and utterly original. It wrapped around his soulful expressive voice in a perfect accompaniment of layered musical textures.

Havens performed in hundreds of charity benefit concerts, but here again he found unusual and unpredictable causes to champion—such as The Longest Walk, a Native American spiritual march from Alcatraz to Washington DC. The purpose of the march and concert was to restore American Indian treaty rights that had been abrogated by retrogressive legislation.

In 2003 The National Music Council recognized Havens’ lifelong humanitarian work with The American Eagle Award for providing “a rare and inspiring voice of eloquence, integrity and social responsibility.”

So the next time someone asks you to open the show remember Richie Havens. As W. H. Auden wrote of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, the same may be said of this folk singer, who passed away on Earth Day:
Earth receive an honored guest
Richie Havens is laid to rest…
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

On Sunday, May 19 Ross performs at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival; for info on tickets, contest registration and volunteer opportunities see www.topangabanjofiddle.org; and on Saturday, June 15 Ross returns to Claremont for the 30th Claremont Folk Festival; for info on tickets, a complete list of performers and volunteer opportunities go to www.claremontfolkfestival.org

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.