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Richie Havens: Master of Freedom

Mike Keeler
Mike Keeler

OK, here’s this morning’s challenge. Imagine you are sitting quietly. Somebody walks in and tells you that there are a half-million people outside, waiting for something that’s a little late showing up. Would you mind going out there and entertaining them for a while? What’s that, you want to know how long? Um, no one is really sure, but please just keep the folks entertained as long as you can. Here, take this guitar. Just go out there and play them a few songs, until you’re told to stop. Oh, and by the way the whole thing’s being recorded, and later it will be shown to everyone on planet Earth. So go ahead, have fun, knock ’em dead.

This was the situation that Richie Havens was facing at 5PM on Friday, August 15, 1969. He was sitting in a tent at the bottom of a large field in Saugerties NY, behind a stage that had been set up for a music festival called An Aquarian Exposition. The festival hadn’t even started, and things were already out of control. Way out. A rumor had spread that the concert was free, and so many people showed up that the access road backed up all the way to the New York State Thruway. Sullivan County declared a state of emergency, and many of the superstar musicians had to be airlifted in from nearby Stewart Air Force Base. The opening bands hadn’t arrived, and the crowd was getting restless. The show organizers needed a simple act with very little gear to get the party started, and fast.

Richie Havens was born in Brooklyn and had made his way to the folk scene in Greenwich Village when he was 20. Working the coffeehouse circuit, he was spotted and signed by Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman. Between 1961 and 1968, he cut seven albums, with only the last one achieving any commercial success. But over that time, he had developed a reputation for incredible live performances. He could alter his set list for any length or situation, playing his own songs, covering Dylan and the Beatles, and just making it up as he went along. He knew how to entertain an audience. And so now, on this summer afternoon, this largely unknown folkie was suddenly asked to be the opening act at Woodstock.

He walked out on stage armed only with his guitar, and backed by only a second guitarist and a percussionist. He started to play and then, oh man, he let loose with that voice. Over the next two hours or so, Richie Havens played 10 songs. A bunch of his own songs, one of which he repeated a second time. He played a song he’d co-written with Louis Gossett Jr. He covered a few others. And he played and he sang and he played and he sang. And then he unleashed a marathon rendition of Strawberry Fields Forever which slowly transformed into another melody which eventually brought the crowd to its feet singing, “Nah, Nah, Nah, na-na-na-Nah, na-na-na-Nah, Hey Jude!” They screamed for an encore. So he reached all the way back to 1870 and pulled out a slave spiritual called “Motherless Child.” He started to play it, but before he started singing, he looked out at his Hippie audience, and just started chanting Freedom, Freedom, Freedom, Freedom…Oh man.

Richie Havens died this week at age 72, after a long, respectable musical career. He will be forever remembered as the first track on the Woodstock album, and the defining image that opens the Woodstock film. And his unexpected, impromptu, immortal performance at the world’s largest coffeehouse.

Freedom, Richie. And thanks, brother.

– Mike Keeler

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