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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,

at Woodstock.

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

has happened."

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

Pig label.

"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

The Wildflower Festival, Patriots Theater at the War

Memorial, West Lafayette Street, Trenton, 609-984-8400. Judy


with Richie Havens, Janis Ian, and Roger McGuinn. 800-955-5566; or

( $35 to $65. Wednesday, November 14, 8 p.m.

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