Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the November
14, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Richie Havens: An Enduring Wildflower of Folk
In performance Richie Havens is a gifted and compelling
storyteller. He’s known as much for his deep, soulful voice,
energetic shows, and unorthodox guitar style as he is for his natural
ability to tell a good story in between tunes. At a Richie Havens
show, sometimes it may be 5 or 10 minutes before he starts the next
tune. Since Havens is such a storyteller on stage, it’s no surprise
that his recently published memoirs, "They Can’t Hide Us
(Harper Collins), takes on a conversational tone from the get-go.
The book opens with Havens’ most famous performance: August 15, 1969,
Although the video documentary about Woodstock doesn’t capture the
depth of emotion, sweat and sheer energy he mustered up that first
day of the historical gathering — Havens played for nearly three
hours while other bands were stuck in traffic jams — his fate
was forever sealed after that defining, momentous performance. In
retrospect, opening his memoir in this way makes sense for the reader,
as it did for Havens, who co-wrote the book with writer Steve
"Woodstock is just something I’ll never be able to get away
he explains from his apartment in Jersey City, where he has lived
for the last five years.
"What’s just so wonderful about it is that different generations
discover it every year. It’s brand new for people, all the time,"
he says, chuckling in his deep, smoky voice. That Woodstock era gets
replayed in Trenton this Wednesday, November 14, when Havens, Judy
Collins, Roger McGuinn, and Janis Ian perform alone and together at
the War Memorial’s Patriots Theater.
Says Havens: "I’ve got seven-year-olds coming up to me after
telling me about hearing that song [`Freedom’] on the radio, or seeing
the Woodstock movie, or their mother plays it, or their older brother
plays it," he says.
Asked to fill in while other performers were making their way to the
Woodstock festival, Havens went on stage, thinking he’d be off in
an hour or so. Instead, he had to go back out to perform another tune
or two, seven or eight times. He played for nearly three hours,
a band, mind you.
"At the end, I didn’t know what the heck I was going to sing.
The first thing that went through my mind was we already had the
that we were supposed to be looking for," he recalls, "so
I started singing the words `freedom, freedom,’ and then [Billie
`Motherless Child’ came back to me, which I hadn’t sung in eight
By that point, I really knew a lot of songs but I couldn’t think of
many more after almost three hours of performing. It’s kind of
that the tune I’m most known for was totally improvised on the
Richie Havens was born in 1941 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of
Brooklyn, the oldest of nine children. His father was a piano player
with Louis Jordan’s big band and other big bands around New York.
The radio was always on at the Havens’ house, and his parents exposed
him to all kinds of music. As a teenager, he organized street corner
group harmony ensembles and auditioned for "Star Time,
a TV program that also helped the careers of Bobby Darin and Connie
Francis. He started performing as a 19-year-old in basket houses in
Greenwich Village, and decided to make the big move from Brooklyn
to the Village at age 20.
Although many people know Havens for his gifted
and arrangements of other artists’ material, including songs by
McCartney and Harrison, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and
Cyndi Lauper — from the beginning of his career, Havens has been
a prolific songwriter. In fact, most of what he performs these days
consists of songs he has written recently.
"There are songs I have written over the last four years or so
which will be coming out on my new album," he says. In concert
with Collins, Ian, and McGuinn (formerly of the Byrds), each performer
does five or six tunes and then all join onstage at the end.
"My album should be coming out within a few weeks and may even
be out by the time of these shows," he says. "It’s all very
folky," he says of the live shows, adding that no one takes too
much time away from one of their other fellow folksingers. "We
all come back together on stage at the end of the night and end it
with a song or two. In between all of these gigs are my own gigs,"
he says, laughing, "so it’s been very crazy the way this tour
Growing up in Brooklyn, Havens was a patron of revue-style shows at
the famous Brooklyn Paramount and other theaters.
"It’s the variety trip that draws people out," he says. "A
lot of people come to the show because there are more than just one
or two singers. And a lot of times, in the folk world, we share
so it’s all very normal for all of us involved."
Havens admits that as he has gotten older, Jersey City has seemed
like a more appealing place to live. John Paul Hammond, the son of
the legendary producer and an internationally successful blues
and a longtime Greenwich Village dweller, also made the move to Jersey
City about five years ago, the same time as Havens. "In fact,
he doesn’t live that far from me," Havens says.
Aside from Hammond, he explains, "there’s a lot of other
musicians and singers already here in Jersey City, a lot of rappers
and rockers, Kool and the Gang, they’re all here."
"But for all of these people who lived here for years, it’s always
been a nice quiet place to live, and I like it for the same
he says. "I tend to get a lot more things done."
Havens first made a name for himself in Greenwich Village in 1960
as a painter. Now, he experiments with computer-generated art. Through
the years, performing on stages around the world, including President
Clinton’s January 1993 inaugural bash, and a show that same year by
special request of the Dalai Lama, he never let his love for painting
and visual arts fall so far behind he could not return to it.
While Havens turned 60 in January of this year, anyone who sees him
perform with his band, or even just a second guitarist, knows he puts
incredible energy into his live shows. Musing on his seventh decade,
Havens shares some insights:
"I finally figured out something, and I think everybody should
know this: you never grow a day older than the day you leave your
mom’s house," he says. "Think about it. We run from there,
throwing away stuff that they taught us, and we actually get out with
less . . . and then we find the universals that mom and pop taught
us are all true!"
On the morning of September 11, Havens had just finished
packing his bag and was to catch a flight out of Newark Airport a
short time later. Far from the stereotypical left-leaning folksinger,
Havens has always had a healthy appreciation for capitalism, as
by his numerous TV commercials — for Kodak, Amtrak, and the Cotton
Association of America.
"I have pictures of the World Trade Center being built," he
says, "and it blew my mind when those buildings were being built.
It was amazing to see. I’m an architecture freak. I draw a lot of
architectural things and I take pictures of architecture, old and
new. I’m very interested in how we live."
"I was very lucky, because my guitar player, Paul Williams, worked
in that building and he was actually there during the first bombing
in 1993. We were very lucky that he wasn’t working there that
he says. Havens still works with New York-based guitarist Bill Perry,
a fiery blues guitarist who records under his own name for the Blind
"I had just finished packing my bag, was getting ready to go to
California, and I just happened to put the bag down after packing
it and looked up and saw the fire in the trade center building on
the TV set," he says. Havens says he ran to his back window in
Jersey City, looked at the twin towers just across the river, and
ran to get his video camera.
"Then I stopped videoing and ran back downstairs to watch it on
TV. That’s when the second plane hit and my cable went out."
Havens says his sense is that U.S. foreign policy created this
to some extent. And U.S. foreign policy will get us out of it.
"Unfortunately, for the average American, our lives have been
put in danger by a very few people. And now our lives are in more
danger by a very few people," he argues. "That’s the way it
"As far as I’m concerned, it’s all damage control, because we
trained Osama Bin Laden, we trained Quadaffi, we trained Saddam
we trained Noriega, and we armed them all — so in a sense, we
created them all," he says.
But when asked about the Pakistan situation, where U.S. government
figures seem to be falling all over themselves to thank General
for use of Pakistani air bases and Pakistani air space, Havens’ true
American colors shine through. "Pakistan may have more terrorist
training camps than anybody, but the guy who’s in there now, General
Musharraf, I think he was in there to change all that, too."
Havens acknowledges that because people from more than 30 different
countries perished in the World Trade Center disaster, the response
is "a great testament to who we are as Americans."
"I’ll tell you one thing: I do take very great relief in the fact
that we couldn’t go to Iraq without the rest of the world behind us,
and we couldn’t go into Afghanistan without the rest of the
he says. "To me, that seems to be how our foreign policy has
a great deal over the last 40 years."
— Richard J. Skelly
Memorial, West Lafayette Street, Trenton, 609-984-8400. Judy
with Richie Havens, Janis Ian, and Roger McGuinn. 800-955-5566; or
(www.tickets.com). $35 to $65. Wednesday, November 14, 8 p.m.
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