The Sixties: An Interview with Richie Havens

By: Martin Halo

Richie Havens
The blistering hum of propeller blades bombards the senses. Hell has manifested itself on the surface of Planet Earth. The vegetation of thick humidity laden jungle passes below, littered with the dead, as bombs of fire incinerate souls. For scores of American service men arriving in Vietnam the only payoff is the horror of this existence and a flag draped box back home for their families. Dens of opiate sedation and sexual promiscuity briefly ease their impending doom before the orders come once again to take up arms for another stare deep into the belly of the beast.

It is the summer of 1969. Back home it is America's Summer of Love but the New World has exploded from a powder keg chain reaction ignited by political deceit, a burgeoning drug culture and the public slaying of Martin Luther King Jr. As the country descends deeper into a pit of almost irreconcilable despair and conflict, the war on the other side of the world rages with the nation's youth providing the most sensible voice.

While hell rages in 'Nam, heaven forms in New York. The open fields of Max Yasgur's farm buzzed with a half million smiling faces. Music unites free thinkers from around the globe. For the mile of hippies arriving at Woodstock their payoff is the experience of a legend unfolding, the sloppy end of a tumultuous decade, and movement towards peace.

Richie Havens stepped onto that farm in Woodstock and walked into history. With Artie Kornfeld psychedelically paralyzed and the financially stricken Michael Lang frantically pushing him on stage, it was Havens' sweat drenched three-hour performance, which set the festival's tone. "Freedom," he sang, "Freedom." The shockwave reverberations carried his message around the world to the troops struggling just to survive. At that moment Richie Havens was speaking for an entire generation.

War, torment, injustice and revolution: The Sixties.

JamBase: I'm 23 years old and over the course of the past three generations music has changed dramatically - not just people's exploration of it but their philosophy, ideology and what they want to accomplish with it. When you were my age, what was music all about?

Richie Havens
Richie Havens: That is a good one. I think I kind of see it in a special way because I used to sing doo-wop with my friends and that is how we stayed out of trouble. In those days, and a lot of people may not know this, but in the mid-to-late '50s there was a consciousness coming to the bubble gum stuff that was on radio. It was kind of sneaking in there under the wire. At the same time, across the river in Manhattan there were the beatniks and the folk singers alongside traditional blues and traditional jazz. There was a change in music because there was a change in my whole generation. When bubble gum really took over the radio, we dropped out. We found ourselves at Miles Davis' doorstep [laughs]. It was a very interesting thing because when I look back on it there was a shift from bubble gum to a very sophisticated music.

JamBase: Would you consider the folk music of the early '60s to be a fine art like jazz?

Richie Havens: Absolutely. Basically the only difference is that jazz is a living art form. It is alive now; it is improvisation that is happening at the time that you hear it. Then, when you go to folk songs what you are hearing is basic history because it is culturally clad. It is a cultural journey. They both had something in common, which was creating the history of your time. A great deal of it had no lyrics. It was pure music.

My father is a piano player, who used to sit down and play anything that he heard, like off the radio or any other way. We used to hear these kinds of songs from the '40s and realized the transitions into the '50s created the last generation that was, "Speak when you are spoken to." We had to invent what I call the first generation primal scream: rock 'n' roll. We did have a purpose singing those songs, even then. The folk songs and the singer-songwriter situation that came out of the time was like a second wave of fusion almost. I feel we had a message starting in the middle '50s as teenagers, and most of those songs had very blatant messages. I think we designed rock 'n' roll specifically for parents to hear what we had to say.

Can you describe the scene in Greenwich Village in New York City in the early 1960s?

You could try and cut it with a knife. I look at it as a large turnstile with everyone coming through it and walking into a whole different world. In those days, I first went over there because of poetry when Allen Ginsburg and all of those guys were still hanging out at the Gaslight Café. If you went down there and heard the poetry you also heard these singer-songwriter guys in-between the poetry. Not all of the coffee houses had poetry because it was dying out. It was basically getting beaten up by the newspapers, portrayed as crazy people playing conga drums, smoking cigarettes with long holders and wearing black French hats [laughs]. They had us pinned with a little goatee, and they drew all of these pictures of what we were supposed to look like and what not. There was a difference in the late '50s. A lot of the singer-songwriters came from the business. A guy by the name of Fred Neil, who really inspired me, and Glen Campbell were the first and only acoustic guitar players who played on every 1950's hit. When they got tired of doing that they sort of went their own way. Glen went to the Midwest and Freddy came to New York. He was one of the first people I saw in the village that sang songs that actually educated and changed my life. Let's just say there were three and a half guys there that were really writing stuff that mattered.

Who were the other two?

Continue reading for more with Richie Havens...

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