The ‘Freedom’ and Heart of Richie Havens

All of the many people who sometimes in an addled, wishful moment really believe we were part of the crowd at Woodstock got sent right back there with the news that Richie Havens, the great, folk and beyond folk singer, had passed away.

If there was a singular and recuringly memorable moment at Woodstock—and God and rock ‘n roll knows there were many—it belonged to Havens, until then, while a veteran protest and folk singer, was not under the same charisma and glamour shedding sky of, say, Joplin, Sly, even Arlo. But that sky opened up for him that day, just the way he opened up Woodstock itself as the opening act who sang for three hours while the gathered tribe of Hair, Hippies and Hedonist rockers—show me that chest and peace sign and the long blonde hair—were gathering to become 500,000 strong.

Most of the acts scheduled for the opening day hadn’t arrived so Havens, his beard dark and crusty, his fingers nimble, his orange dashiki, began to play. “We played every song I knew for it seemed like hours,” he said. “And they asked me to play one more, and I didn’t know another song so this word freedom kept going through my mind,” he said in a long-ago interview.

Sometimes, it seems like “Freedom” opened the festival and nothing else—he also sang “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But “Freedom” was the song that made it into the hugely successful documentary about the peace and love generation at musical and legendary apex. It was part repetition, part gospel song, part heart and in Haven’s wonderfully elastic growly voice that sounds like God’s angel walking on a dusty road, it became something else.

“Sometimes,” he sang, “I feel like a motherless child, gone a long time from my home.”

The image and the song never leaves your mind. He has lit up YouTube this week with “Freedom” and all of the songs he covered, making them, not better, but cleaner, more like a story, song as our stories and poems. He did well with and by the Beatles—there are people who clearly think George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” is Havens’s song sung in heavenly fashion.

He was 72, part of that generation of musicians, legends, pickers, signers and prophets do. At the time of his death, his last pictures back in the recent day suggest that he had morphed into a prophet—the head hair was gone, leaving a shining dome, but the beard had some grown larger.

He had become a teacher, educating young people about ecology, but he always played and strummed, and he was at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday fundraising concert in 2009 when he also played at the Mountain Jam Festival and the Woodstock Tribute Festivals.

Havens’s music is a haven. Listen to the songs—“Lady Madonna” and “All Along the Watchtower,” respectively, a Beatles covers and Dylan cover. In his hands, and in that insistent, but gently authoritative voice, the songs become clearer as twice-told, often-told tales.

Online comments, sometimes a stormy area were anonymous dark souls carry on, were peaceful with the regret of his passing and notable for eloquence. “Sing us in our dreams,” one suggested, and that he does.

As the song goes, Mr. Havens, spread your arms, here comes the sun.


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