Remembering Richie Havens, who became a star at Woodstock

Remembering Richie Havens, who became a star at Woodstock
Richie Havens at Woodstock in 1969

The fact that for years no one was certain how long Richie Havens played at Woodstock tells you he belonged to a different age. The 28-year-old folk singer from Brooklyn was not scheduled to be the event's opening act. In fact, he wasn't even stage manager John Morris' first choice for an emergency replacement when traffic snarls held up many of the acts. (And Tim Hardin was found too stoned to perform.) The largely unknown Havens was given the spot intended for Sweetwater, who had first caught ears with a heavy psychedelic take on a familiar spiritual, "Motherless Child."

Havens once claimed he played for three hours, which is unlikely since it was still daylight when Sweetwater finally took the stage. He did play a long set, extended by several encores, during which he may have exhausted his repertoire. He struggles with the lyrics of three Beatles covers, and eventually riffs on the same spiritual recorded by Sweetwater on their first album, improvising what would become one of the most iconic moments in Michael Wadleigh's documentary of the festival.

Much of the reported 120 hours of footage Wadleigh shot over those three days has been lost to the ages, but some of Havens' set has survived. Today, of course, Morris's introduction ("Ladies and gentlemen, one of the most beautiful men in the whole world") would have been greeted by a sea of cell phones held aloft. Havens would have been all over Twitter -- an instant celebrity whose set would soon be criticized in comment threads on Youtube and other sites. Examples: "This guy doesn't even know the lyrics to 'Strawberry Fields Forever,'" "Nice dress, dude," "Open tuned to E? Anybody could play that," etc.

But most of the world heard Havens' performance of "Motherless Child" a year later, when Wadleigh's epic film opened screened in theaters around the world. There Havens was seen in his orange robe, eyes closed strumming with seemingly complete abandon, chanting "Freedom, freedom" over the driving rhythm. Tens of thousands get to their feet and clap their hands when Havens asks them to, and his improvised performance is all the more riveting. When the film stopped running Havens's performance remained familiar, the highlight of the first side of the soundtrack album, even if memories of Havens's brief appearance faded for most (although not for The Omega Man, of course).

Havens walked off stage still strumming and into bigger prospects. MGM Records allowed him his own imprint, Stormy Forest, and over several years he issued a series of successful albums, highlighted by emotional interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Guitarist Paul Williams, who performed with him at Woodstock, was still backing the singer when "Here Comes the Sun" rose up the charts in 1971. Although his highest-charting single was a Beatles cover, the album's title, Alarm Clock, was an original. In that grim, dark performance Havens bellows "Is there anyone here alive?" with a desperation entirely unheard in "Motherless Child." In a world where Altamont and Manson family murders and images from Vietnam had clouded recollections of Havens on stage at Woodstock, it was a fair question to ask.

Richie Havens never let that darkness overtake him, though. His political activism shifted from civil rights issues to environmental concerns, and in the '70s he founded an organization, the Natural Guard, that encouraged children to study ecology. He continued to perform until just over a year ago, often still eyes closed, rocking slightly and strumming with ferocity just as he had in his improvised performance captured by Wadleigh's cameras.

We have learned in recent days there is a value to the ubiquitous cameras that document our public events from a thousand angles, but the fact that Havens' performance at Woodstock is not entirely documented adds to its mystique. He was fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time, and talented enough to have risen to the occasion. Havens stepped over Sweetwater, who didn't even appear in the film, stealing their thunder all the more when they opened with a distinctly wrong time, wrong place "Motherless Child." My brother always said, "If you're not early, you're already late," and Richie Havens was living proof.

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