People who experienced Woodstock through the lens of the 1970 documentary film “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music” can describe every contour of Richie Havens’ face. With focused eyes and a scraggly beard, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and activist, who died on Monday at age 72, is ingrained in a generation’s memory.
In the film and on record, you can hear the mantra that he offered echo across Max Yasgur’s farm, and that message has resonated over the years to become one of Woodstock’s archetypal performances.
“Freedom, freedom, freedom,” he sang, the camera close on his face as his hands strummed out a percussive rhythm on his acoustic guitar, driven by a musician whose work in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s had laid the foundation for this worldwide stage.
Setting the tone
As his two collaborators accompany him on guitar and congas, Havens’ final song of his set feels like an opening argument — and served as a reminder of the African rhythms that helped birth much of the music that would follow over the next 72 hours.
Havens’ message not only helped set the tone for the concert but also became part of a conversation about an unpopular war and a country that felt like it was losing its way. The artist offered such power throughout his musical life, even if his fame never ascended to the levels of some of his peers at Woodstock.
That perhaps stands to reason. His was a level of intensity that made Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sound like the Kingston Trio, which didn’t endear him to an American mainstream then wrestling with the black power movement.
Havens too was more commercially successful as an interpreter than as a songwriter. To critics in love with iconoclasts such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Sly & the Family Stone and James Brown pushing at the fringes of songwriting, Havens never felt on equal aesthetic footing.
At Woodstock, Havens performed killer versions of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and transformed the hallucinatory “Strawberry Fields” into a journey through a place of seeming peril.
When Havens hit in the early 1970s with George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” he did so with an excitement of someone who seemed to understand the essence of a sunrise.
As a songwriter, he presented lyrics that illustrated his unwavering moral compass: He addressed crime and racial inequality with the same spirit that guided his love of the natural world, and over the years his ecological activism became as central to his creative spirit as political inequality.
Still, from a fan’s perspective, his best works are the records he made in the late ’60s after signing a management deal with Albert Grossman, Dylan’s long-time manager.
The first of these (his third studio album), “Mixed Bag,” is an essential and unsung gem. Not only does it feature fantastic versions of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” but a thrilling rendition of New York proto-punk band the Fugs’ “Morning, Morning.”
Havens released almost two dozen albums over his nearly 50-year musical life, moving from folk to electric blues (including a nice version of Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55”) and collaborating in the early ’00s with smooth electronica group Groove Armada.
That Havens never achieved the universal fame of some of his Woodstock peers shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Rather, unlike many of the Woodstock generation who ditched politics and charity when they accepted their first salaried position, or signed to major labels and chased hits at the expense of righteousness and purity of message, Havens never left his politics behind, treating his musical gifts as more of a means than an end.