I owe Richie Havens a profound debt of gratitude. In the late 1960s, when I thought of folk music, I thought of a white kid strumming a guitar and singing country music mixed with some hippie or antiwar lyrics. It was music that had no appeal to my Motown, rhythm and blues and jazz loving ears. There was simply nothing in the least bit “soulful,” let alone black, I thought, to folk music.
But Havens showed me how wrong I was. I heard him some months before his breakout appearance in 1971 at Woodstock at a small jazz and blues Club in Los Angeles.
Havens was on the bill with a couple of other blues artists. When he came on stage with his strum guitar and the MC billed him as one of the country’s most talented folk singers, I groaned. It took exactly one number for that to change. I was spellbound by his raw, gritty, yet lilting voice, and the fury and the passion with which he crushed number after number.
But what truly captivated me, beyond the brilliance of his musical artistry, was that this was a black man who could take a musical genre I wrongly assumed was a “white thing” and turn it into a rollicking, soulful experience. Havens did not just defy the stereotype that I had of folk music and musicians, he shattered it.
In addition, this was the late 1960s, and one felt the power and the militant spirit of the civil rights and peace movement in his music.
Woodstock sealed his fame, but he was something more
After that night, I became a passionate devotee of Havens and I made sure to stock my album collection with Haven’s music. By the time Havens took Woodstock by storm, and his name became an overnight rage, I patted myself on the back with smug pride that I had beaten the crowd and had “discovered” Havens before the rush. It was no surprise when Havens held the tens of thousands at Woodstock in rapt attention, and later the multitudes more that saw his spell binding performance in the Woodstock film.
The concert promoters had beseeched him to stay on stage longer to fill up time. The audience heard and saw a grimacing, pounding, relentless Havens wailing out what would become his signature work, “Freedom.” This was a work that was more or less improvised from the ancient black standard “Motherless Child.” This sealed Havens name and fame forever.
But in truth, Havens had been his own musical man and trend setter for many years. From the moment he left Brooklyn in the early 1960s and took up residence in Greenwich Village, he had taken an intense interest in folk music and as he reminisced later the “the poetry and the song of the Beatnik days of the 1950s.” His musical journey quickly brought him to the folk and music guru of the day, Bob Dylan. Havens was managed by Dylan’s manager, and contributed the cover song to Dylan’s Just Like a Woman. At the time of his Woodstock appearance he had released five albums.
The next two decades, the ubiquitous Havens cut albums and TV commercials, was a constant on the touring circuit, and even found time to dabble in films and TV, and play a lead part in a staged production of Othello. By the 1990s, Havens had truly become America’s long-standing universal ambassador for folk music and world peace. He capped this in the 1990s with a performance at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993 and later a featured performance at the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
An advocate for peace
Havens backed up his musical and peace advocacy by establishing a foundation to promote environmental causes and education among inner-city youth. But it wasn’t just his non-stop advocacy of folk music and peace that made him a standout figure; Havens was just as determined to devote his time and talent to a variety of causes and charities. If there was a peace or civil rights movement fund raiser that needed a headline artist, more often than not Havens would be the one. He truly believed that his music and art should be of, by, and for the people.
Fittingly, one of his last concerts before he announced he would end touring after 45 years was a benefit concert in 2009 for the legendary Pete Seeger on his 90th birthday.
Havens once told an interviewer that, “I really sing songs that move me. I make a distinction between me and a lot of my friends. I am not in show business and never was. I’m in the communications business. That’s what it is about for me.”
Havens more than showed that with his music and his never-tiring dedication and passion to the cause of peace and civil rights. He was truly the universal man.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is How the NRA Terrorizes Congress—The NRA’s Subversion of the Gun Control Debate (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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