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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How Richie Havens' Soothing Voice Rescued the Beginning of Woodstock

Posted By on Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 9:22 AM

Richie Havens in 1972.
  • Richie Havens in 1972.

Richie Havens was an old soul, singing with the voice of an ancient wise man even when he was young. Every artist strives to find their own voice, but it seemed to come naturally to Havens. His deep sandpaper and honey baritone came from some inner place of power and transformation. He was able to make every song he sang his own. Havens gained a national following when he played the Monterey Pop Festival, but it was his performance on the first day of the Woodstock Festival, Friday, August 15, 1969, that made him an international presence.

The festival grounds were a muddy swamp, it was hot and muggy, and, by late afternoon, the crowd was getting restless. The music was supposed have started that morning, but not a note had been played when the promoters convinced Havens to go onstage with his acoustic guitar at 5:00 pm. He sat down and started singing, and that voice, that gentle rumbling voice, came pouring out of the giant speakers and immediately calmed the crowd. Havens laid down an irresistible rhythm with his guitar, using open tunings and sliding barre chords, and several musicians -- including a conga player and second guitarist -- joined in. But it was Haven's otherworldly voice that transported the crowd that afternoon.

They'd been expecting rock 'n' roll, but instead they got a shaman who conjured up all the streams and rivers of American music, the sounds that floated over the ocean from Africa and Cuba, England and Ireland, and up the Mississippi from New Orleans and Memphis, as well as the traditional mountain drone of Appalachia. Time stopped and flowed backward, then turned inside out as Havens summoned forth the ghosts of American music and sent them drifting out over the assembled throng. The crowd sat in stunned silence as Havens played on, his voice ebbing and flowing like a cosmic tide, soothing and energizing his listeners.

After an hour, he wanted to stop, but the crowd called him back and he kept on playing. After two and a half hours, he'd played every song he knew and still the crowd wanted more. He started vamping on "Motherless Children," a traditional African American lament, but his exuberant playing and soulful, jubilant vocal transformed the song into a primal celebration of freedom. As he chanted, "Freedom, freedom, oh freedom..." the crowd came alive, and all the hippie clichés about peace and love and music bringing people together came true as performer and audience floated away, carried by the mellow tones of Haven's ageless voice. In the interviews he gave for the rest of his life, Havens always acknowledged the magic of that song and that moment in Woodstock.

For a few years in the '70s, Havens lived in Berkeley, and I'd often see him walking the back streets of the town by himself. He was a large man, but he moved with the grace of a dancer, a welcoming smile always on his lips. Even though he usually dressed in black, there was a mystical light around him, or so it seemed to me. I'd nod or wave to him when we passed, and he'd always return my silent greeting, sometimes bowing slightly, like a samurai or a British gentleman. When people came up and asked for autographs, he was generous with his time and they walked away wearing his smile on their lips.

His voice always sounded weathered, almost elemental, and it aged well, sounding as timeless on his last recordings as it did on his first. He made 21 studio albums, mostly singing songs of other writers, although his last few outings, including 2008's Nobody Left to Crown, included original tunes that pondered aging and life's inevitable end with his customary compassion and insight. He never stopped growing musically, adding classical and world music to the African and American sounds that were the backbone of his style. Like many folkies, he was also an activist, and helped found several nonprofits aimed at educating young people, including the North Wind Undersea Institute and the Natural Guard, an ecological group to get young people active in cleaning up their own neighborhoods. Havens loved performing and toured until his failing health forced him to retire in 2010. He died on Monday morning, April 22, felled by an unexpected heart attack. He was 72 years old. A public memorial will be planned for a later date.

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