The Story of Richie Havens and Woodstock

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Dad loved Richie Havens. So much so that he named his longtime show after one of his records. And they were friends. Richie gave us a cool blurb for our Woodstock book. Today’s post is an excerpt, written by my father, from our book, BACK TO THE GARDEN. Please contact me via the comments if you’d like a copy, I’ll make you a good deal 😉. .

It is 5:07 p.m. on Friday, August 15, 1969. You are standing on the stage in the far end of the cow pasture’s natural amphitheater. The stage is set, and you can smell the fresh lumber used for its recent construction. As you look out in front of you, a sea of bobbing heads stretches for miles. It is a wave of humanity unlike any in the annals of recorded history. Certainly, the crowd is unusual for its size and more so for the ostensible reason all these people are here—for a unique type of American music barely fourteen years old called rock ’n’ roll. If you accept the crowd estimate of five hundred thousand, that makes it the second-largest city in New York.

Richie Havens: We were back at the hotel. I was supposed to go on fifth and there was no way to get anyone there. There wasn’t gonna be a Woodstock, to tell you the truth. It was gonna be the world’s largest riot, because seven miles away were all the musicians in two hotels, and they couldn’t get to the site at all—no road to get there. And no one could carry tons of amps and equipment down to the stage from seven miles away.

Michael Lang: It was a question of who we could get on the quickest, who was ready, and who needed the least preparation and the least gear. Tim Hardin was an idea. He wasn’t ready. Tim, I think, was a little blitzed, a little too blitzed. He was a friend, and I was hoping that playing at Woodstock would bring him back, because he had been blitzed for a while. And I thought it would be a good opportunity for him to get his shit together, and straighten up long enough at least to get some public recognition. But he wasn’t ready.

Richie Havens: Tim Hardin was there, but he decidedly refused to go on first. He was not coming out from under the stage.

Chip Monck: Tim was absolutely unable to fathom or to deal with the fact of opening the show. He couldn’t be presented without some help. So he politely declined.

Richie Havens: All of a sudden, they said, “Richie! We’ve got a guy with a helicopter who’s gonna come over. You’ve got the least number of instruments, so you’ll go over first.” I said, “Okay, fine.” Then he came back and said, “No, he’s not coming,” then “Yes! He is coming!” Now the concert is three hours late already and in the Holiday Inn driveway comes this little helicopter right outside my window and I hear this noise, so we run out with our two conga drums, two guitars, and the three of us, and we hunch into this bubble helicopter and they took us over.

Michael Lang: Well, Richie was scared, frankly, as I recall. But I think that was a kind of natural reaction to looking at a crowd of that size. But he didn’t make it a problem.

Richie Havens: I actually was afraid to go on first. I knew the concert was late and that maybe it would be a little nuts. I didn’t want to be trampled by a billion people. So I said, “Don’t do this to me, Michael. I’m only one guy. My bass player isn’t even here.”

Richie’s bass player, Eric Oxendine, got caught in the traffic jam leading to the site, and decided to walk the fifteen or twenty miles from where the traffic was stopped dead to the stage. He would have made it in time for Richie’s set if the order hadn’t changed, but that was not meant to be. Lang continued to beg, plead, and cajole. Richie relented and walked out on stage.

Chip Monck: And suddenly, it was show time. I said, “Sit down, stand up, do whatever you wish to do, but we’re ready to start now and I bet you’re pleased with that. And, ladies and gentlemen—please—Mr. Richie Havens.”

He was twenty-eight years old, dressed magnificently in white trousers and a long, flowing orange caftan. Richie Havens was born on January 21, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a product of that borough’s rough and tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood who somehow escaped the dead-end fate of many of his peers and schoolmates in part because of his devotion to music and the arts. He moved to Greenwich Village at the dawn of the ’60s and made his living as a portrait artist and poet. For a while, he lived down the hall from Noel Paul Stookey who was performing as a solo musician-comedian at clubs in the Village before joining forces with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers and rewriting American music history as the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. Stookey befriended Richie and encouraged him to flex his musical muscles. They’ve remained lifelong friends.

Richie took the advice and began transforming his poems into songs, which he performed to great acclaim and growing audiences throughout the rest of the decade. One major factor that helped Richie gain an audience was the change happening on FM radio. When FM radio came into being, every AM station simply used FM to simulcast its programming. But in 1966, the FCC mandated that the FM signal must broadcast something different. This led to more creative, progressive stations playing the hipper music of the day and gearing their freeform programming to a decidedly younger crowd. One of the early favorites on these so-called “Freak-quency Modulation” stations was Richie Havens. His invitation to perform at Woodstock was a no-brainer.

Josh White: Richie Havens was quite popular at that time. He was a folksinger in the tradition of Leadbelly and Josh White—the other Josh White. He was a favorite on freeform radio stations. He was a very good and impassioned singer, and he was one of the earliest black folksingers who developed credibility with this white audience. The audience loved him.

Mike Jahn: One of the reasons I decided to go to Woodstock was that Richie Havens was going to be there. Richie and I were friends, and I figured if he was going to be there, I could be there. I knew him back in 1966. Somebody gave me a copy of Mixed Bag and I loved it. I got in touch with him and met him in his apartment in the East Village. He took me to Slug’s, a legendary jazz club, and I was probably the only white man in the place. There was some animosity with the guy at the door. He didn’t want to let me in, but Richie said, “He’s cool,” so he let me in. So we went in together to see Sun Ra. Richie was such a sweetheart.

Stan Schnier: When Richie was doing shows at the Fillmore, he didn’t have a road crew. There was a guy named Dino who played backup guitar, and Dino used to come over to our apartment all the time and jam with us. It was a very small world then. Funny enough, most of the time when he and Richie were on stage, you couldn’t even hear Dino, because Richie sang and played so full and loud and Dino was kind of in the back, twiddling. It wasn’t a defined rhythm-lead relationship. It was just something that they had between them that kept Richie locked in. I never saw anybody like Richie before, and I haven’t seen anybody since. He was totally unique.

Tom Law: I met him through Albert Grossman. I’d see him when I was working for Peter, Paul and Mary. I think he’s one of the most soulful people on the planet; I put him at the top of the list.

Billy Altman: I saw Richie Havens open for Cream in the fall of 1967. He was somebody I was familiar with. A great performer. His energy was impressive. He used a tuning where his guitar was tuned to a chord and it allowed him to do all these great rhythmic things. And that made him the perfect act for that point at Woodstock. He was able to get people into the music physically, because of how rhythmic it was, and that’s not something a lot of people could have done.

Mike Jahn: As a performer, Richie was magnetic and charismatic. He had an amazing rich sound, and he used that open E tuning on his guitar and it just sounded amazing. He had huge hands. Piano player hands. You can’t bring your thumb around over the bass strings and bar the strings unless you have immense hands. His voice is very expressive. Here’s a comparison that most rockers will hate, but hearing Richie play “San Francisco Bay Blues” was on the level of hearing Streisand’s rendering of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Taking an old jolly-time tune and making it into something entirely different. It blew me away. He is a wonderful talent.

You can’t talk about Richie Havens without discussing his ability to perform covers—to interpret other artist’s material. At a time when most of his contemporaries were dismantling the notion of being handed other people’s songs to record and perform by the A&R (artists and repertoire) man at the record company, Richie clearly had it going both ways.

Billy Altman: He was a great singer and a great interpreter also. There aren’t many people who can do Bob Dylan as good as Bob Dylan, or even half as good as Bob Dylan, and he’s one of the few people who’s always been able to do a great job with Dylan’s material. And I say that with the utmost respect. The same is true with the Beatles. Even with songs that you wouldn’t necessarily think would be open to that kind of interpretation like “Here Comes the Sun.” He is able to find things in songs and make them his own. That’s what Richie Havens does.

He wasn’t the opening act; he was the opening “act-cident.” The good luck charm. The omen that in some way everyone at the festival backstage, on stage, and in front of the stage hoped could make you believe that everything was going to be all right. He did his job and he did it magnificently. He was the perfect candidate to spark the flame to light the fire that would burn brightly and tangibly for almost four straight days. His peace-love demeanor and childlike jargon definitely set the tone for the entire weekend of hippie chic:

Richie Havens from the stage on August 15, 1969: A hundred million songs are gonna be sung tonight. All of them are gonna be singing about the same thing, which I hope everybody who came, came to hear, really. And it’s all about you—actually—and me and everybody around the stage and everybody that hasn’t gotten here, and the people who are gonna read about you tomorrow. Yes! And how really groovy you were—all over the world, if you can dig where that’s at—that’s really where it’s really at!

The lightness of his spoken message was in direct contrast to the unrelenting power of his music and his message. He did “High Flying Bird,” the lead-off track from his stunning Verve-Forecast debut album Mixed Bag. He did Gordon Lightfoot’s “I Can’t Make It Anymore.” He performed a trilogy of classic Beatles songs, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Hey Jude.”

Richie was well past the twenty minutes he was expecting to play, but even after double that amount of time, then triple that amount of time, there was still no sign that anyone wanted him to come off the stage. Nobody frantically giving him the “cut” sign, so he surmised, correctly, that his follow-up wasn’t ready yet. He soldiered on. Literally.

His searing performance of the antiwar song “Handsome Johnny,” cowritten with the then-folksinger, now Academy Award–winning actor Lou Gossett Jr., once again brought the crowd to its feet. Having accrued enough show business savvy to leave them clamoring for more, Richie attempted, once and for all, to leave the stage. It was not to be. Pushed back out once again to face the roaring crowd, Richie looked squarely into the eyes of a moment of truth that few performers in any of the arts ever face. And then it just came to him—an instance of otherworldly creativity that simply defies expectation, but not imagination.

Richie Havens: Two and a half hours—two hours and forty-five minutes later, as I walked off the eighth time, they said, “No, no one’s here yet, go back.” [Laughs.] For the seventh time. I decided I didn’t know what else to sing, you know, it’s like everything I could think of, you know? So, I really had an inspiration. I looked out over the audience, which I could not see the end of because what most people don’t see in the movie is, as far as you could see people in the picture that they show, when I’m on stage, there was the other side of that hill that was equally as large. And the people on that side of the hill never even saw the stage; they just lied down in the field and listened, and that was probably the best sound. It could be heard fifteen miles away actually. Best sound I ever played outdoors, in that sense. But the thing was that I was on stage and I didn’t know what to sing, so I—I looked out and I said, you know, “Freedom isn’t what they’ve made us even think it is. We already have it. All we have to do is exercise it. And that’s what we’re doing right here.” So I just started playing, you know, notes—trying to decide what am I gonna sing and the word came out, “Freedom,” you know. I started singing “Freedom.” And then, of course, “Motherless Child,” which I hadn’t sung in probably seven years—six or seven years, came out. And then there was another part of a hymn that I used to sing back when I was about fifteen that came out in the middle of it. “There’s a telephone in my bosom and I can call him from my heart.” And—that’s how it came together.

Arthur Levy: He used to perform with his eyes closed. I didn’t know if he did that because the amount of sweat he generated stung his eyes or if he just had to block out the audience. It was certainly the largest crowd he’d ever played to. It could have been very daunting and intimidating to perform to that number of people. “Freedom” is one of the great transcendental moments in rock history.

Bob Santelli: Havens saved the day. The manner in which Richie plays, hard strums, open tunings that would allow him to play the guitar as if it were some kind of weapon, as if the notes and the chords that would come flowing out of his guitar were meant to disable any doubters. This is the kind of acoustic music that was ideal for an outdoor setting, especially to kick off the festival. He rose to the occasion. Look at the intensity in Richie Havens’s face and match that with the intensity of his guitar playing and then the rhythms of his conga player. This was a powerful and driving rock band, and he was creating it with a guitar that seemed to have vengeance in mind in some way, shape, or form. It was a powerful performance and it was very lucky that it occurred because there wasn’t a whole lot else that was as compelling or as intense on Friday as Richie Havens.

It couldn’t have started off any better. There are many characters from all facets of the festival who have laid claim to or been given the title “Father of Woodstock.” Some are certainly worthy of the sobriquet. But, more than most, Richie Havens can wear that mantle with pride and dignity and humility. At this writing, he is still the greatest living embodiment of the Woodstock ethos.

On the occasion of this fortieth-anniversary milestone, Richie is still recording, still touring, still painting, still acting, and still making his voice heard on a variety of issues as he completes his seventh decade on the planet. I’d like to illustrate his generosity and commitment with a personal observation. In the 1980s, after the death of singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, I cohosted an annual twenty-four-hour fund raiser at the United Nations for World Hunger Year [now WHY HUNGER], the charitable organization cofounded by Harry and my friend Bill Ayres. On the afternoon of the broadcast, Richie came by to perform and lend a hand before a scheduled concert that evening on Long Island. He sang, he talked, he played, then he left for his gig. That was it. I put it out of my head and moved on to the next guest. At about three o’clock in the morning, the really dead hours of a twenty-four-hour Hungerthon, there was an unexpected knock on the door at the UN. It was Richie! He had taken a collection for World Hunger Year at the concert and brought the proceeds back with him to the city after the show! That is the ethos of Woodstock!

Richie’s performance crystallized and clarified the real underlying reason these half a million people have gathered together here in the single-word clarion call repeated over and over and over again, and

screamed right back at him by the throng, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom . . . !”