From Woodstock to the West Bank: Richie Havens looks back and looks forward


Richie Havens, having made an iconic career of singing and writing soulful, acoustic fare, has released his 30th album, Nobody Left to Crown; he’ll be promoting the album with an appearance at the Cedar Cultural Center on May 28th. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket—needless to say, the show quickly sold out—it’ll be one of those events for which you save the stub, putting it in your album, dragging it out every now and again to either show company or simply reflect by yourself on how the man’s music has touched you again and again over the years.

Havens was a hero well before his historic 1969 gig at Woodstock. He’d recorded Mixed Bag (1967), Something Else Again (1968), and Richard P. Havens, 1983 (1969), generating a following that packed houses and, at NYC’s Central Park for the annual Schaeffer Music Festival, filled the place to overflowing with revelers parking themselves outside the Wollman Skating Rink (the festival site) on blankets or bare grass, some sitting in the trees. The Woodstock recording of “Motherless Child/Freedom,” along with Havens’s 1971 single “Here Comes The Sun,” vaulted his genius to the mainstream. Whether you know him from the hits or always were among the faithful, Nobody Left to Crown will leave you basking in the Richie Havens you’ve learned to love: the warm and lasting afterglow, that unique blending of gospel fervor tempered by his signature jazz balladeer’s touch.

“The Key,” an original, is quintessential Richie Havens magic and will remind you of every song he ever sang while, at same time, breathing fresh air into his legacy. His feel for delivering a song with personable intimacy is a beloved calling card. His gift for vocal phrasing remains innovative and brilliant. His take on the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” leading with a cello solo, showcases his uncanny hand at interpreting songs, no matter how identifiable, as if Havens had written them. As with Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “What About Me,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “I Can’t Make It Anymore,” Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” and several Bob Dylan and Beatles covers, Havens makes it his own. The Who galvanized with a power-avalanche. Havens affords an exquisitely impassioned understatement. Never a stranger to social commentary, Havens continues to argue that humankind can yet transcend itself to deservedly inherit the earth.

Currently on a national tour, Havens spoke with me by phone. Characteristically, it was an interviewer’s nightmare: ask Richie Havens the time and he’ll tell you how to build a clock. Nonetheless, hang in there and you come away with a conversation well worth being archived.

Why the title Nobody Left to Crown?
It’s because we now know all that belongs to us together in this country is what really failed. [There’s] nobody left to do the right thing.

When did “Motherless Child/Freedom” get added to your repertoire, and what moved you to add it?
On that stage [at Woodstock]. I went up onstage, because they caught me. Every time I’d see them coming, I sort of dashed off. I was supposed to go fifth. But, I picked up, figured out they were in trouble [for an opener] and said, “Okay. It’s okay.” I got 40 minutes to do what I do and get off the stage. Y’ know, maybe we’ll make that Illinois concert tomorrow. So I went up there and sang 45 minutes of songs that I sing, and people were into it. They were really into it. I walked off the stage at that point and, before my drummers could stop playing, the guy goes, “Could you do four more songs?” So, I go, “Sure.” And went back and did four more. Then, [going off] I walked by and it was, “Richie, can you do four more?” This happened six times. So here I was, having fun. Every song I knew. And I wasn’t going to revert back to doo-wop, which I came from. So, I got offstage for the sixth time and they turned me right around, said, “One more.” This was [after] two hours, forty-five minutes. I didn’t have any more songs to sing. I sat on the stage and went: finally, we made it. They can’t half us. Y’know, h-a-l-f, half us. Because media cut [the attendance] in half. I was in the throes of watching our generational history being challenged. Twenty percent were kids under 14, twenty percent were elderly people or past fifty. Everything in between was everything.

So you’d run out of material and you improvised. You’d known the spiritual “Motherless Child” and you took it from there.
Yeah. “Freedom” I sang because I was looking at the freedom we were trying to get all through the 50s, as a generation. It was so much on the spot that when I got off, I didn’t even remember what I said. I felt it. Everybody else felt it.

For all that you’re famous for doing inventive covers, you have strong originals. “Girls Don’t Run Away,” “New City Blues,” and “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed.” When you make a set list, how do you decide which originals and which covers to do?
I don’t make a list. I have the first song and the last song.

You make up what goes in the middle as you go along.
Yeah. I’d seen so many artists in my early days in Greenwich Village—the professionals and [those] who were trying to become the professionals. Those poor kids who wrote a list down and if no one claps for the first song, you put yourself in real deep trouble. By the third song, you’re panicking. You don’t know what to do. I said, I’ll never do that to myself. I know the first and last song I’m gonna sing, and that’s it. I sing what comes. That’s the way all of my sets have been since the beginning.

On first hearing “New City Blues”—you and Jon Court wrote that—the hair on back of my neck went up.
You know, I’ll tell you what. If I was sittin’ at home and that came on the radio, I’d be in the same bag you were in. And vice versa, in and out.

How did you arrive at your strumming style?
I actually didn’t. It’s the last thing I would think about. It was pure support of what I was singing, lyrically and melodically. It happens automatically.

Your vocal styling?
I was fortunate enough to sing a lot of doo-wop, but I was never the front guy. I did harmonies.

When you got around to singing lead?
I was expressing the song as it meant to me.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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