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...

I think we designed rock 'n' roll specifically for parents to hear what we had to say.

-Richie Havens


Dino Valente. He became the lead singer for Quicksilver Messenger Service the second time around after they had broken up and gotten back together. And a guy by the name of Bob Gibson, who border-lined traditional with singer-songwriter stuff. What they did was they put their actual feelings into the music that they were writing about, focused on their surroundings and the times. If you came out of the subway on one corner you couldn't go in any direction expect in the direction of the people. I called it the "Big H." You would get out on Sixth Avenue and then walk up the uptown side of 3rd Street, and people would have to walk over to West Broadway and cross over to come back downtown.

Festivals were happening and as the times were changing you had an artist like Bob Dylan, who was part of the initial shift, but was pushing the envelope even farther. I was wondering how you felt while you were at Newport and other festivals leading up to the end of the '60s? Did you feel like Woodstock had to happen?

Richie Havens at Woodstock by Elliot Landy

Not only did we feel it but we thought it should have happened a lot sooner than it did. I believe the whole beatnik thing was there probably from 1952 to 1961, somewhere in there, and it was a very special time because getting a voice through the rock 'n' roll in the '50s forced us to sing very embarrassing songs. [sings] "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba / Get a job." I mean these were our protest songs. So, we were all thinking that something should have happened and lo and behold the '60s came along. It needed a universal community, which it was turning into. It was turning into a place where all of the arts came to perform. The performances were about our lives at that time. I went to Greenwich Village because of poetry. I never thought that I would be on a stage singing at all.

The Newport Folk Festival was a very big influence upon me, too, because it wasn't really a folk gathering. They used to bring people in from different countries, like from Russia and South America to play traditional music. We got to hear a lot of music that we'd never heard before and some of us never heard again. It was Fred Neil, and you might know some of his music, he wrote the "The Dolphins" and he wrote [starts to sing familiar theme to the movie Midnight Cowboy] "Everybody's talking at me / Can't hear a word they say." If you listen to those words you are getting the atmosphere of what Greenwich Village was all about. That is a Freddy Neil song and people know that song because he didn't talk about anything other than Coconut Grove, which is where he came from in Florida. He would explain how he was changing the lifestyle down there for the guys living in the area. Fred sang the song called "Tear Down the Walls" in 1958. Then you hear a song from Dino Valente that goes, "Come on people now / Smile on your brother / Everybody get together and love one another right now." Do you know that song?

I think I might have heard it once or twice.

Richie Havens
Now just imagine that being written in 1958. It is wild. Radio wouldn't play it. If FM radio didn't happen none of us, including Bob Dylan, would be here.

I was chatting with Patti Smith not too long ago, and I am getting the same vibe from you. I asked her how it feels to be a musician and she replied, "I'm not a musician, I'm an artist." Is that the philosophy of the people who were creating the music?

I don't think they thought of themselves as musicians at all. None of them wanted to record albums. The business was just not the place to be. That was part of the inspiration of the music that came out of New York City. They didn't do it to get on radio. They did it because they felt it and they had this stage to do it on. Patti is an artist because she was born out of this. People in those days influenced her, too. They influenced her in a poetic way and she managed to put it against music. She is another artist or poet who actually got to sing her own poetry. That is the same for Bob Dylan.

Regardless of the genre or generation, what do you think people find to be so important about music?

I think it is necessary 'cause you can paraphrase what it is and you can call it "The Heart Pump." Basically, we needed to have a heart and mind connection before we could have enough power to create a place where the heart and mind could actually be felt and touched. To me that is what it was. I never have better conversations than with kids. People under four feet tall blow my mind. They are on the case, especially the planet's case. They know that it is theirs, too. They are watching you. We seem to have a new big brother in town and its kids under four feet tall [laughs]. The thing about it is, if you were born in the '40s you actually felt that this world as a whole was going somewhere. The War was over. It was a brand new country. The planet went back to a much more engaging time where people helped people. Charity was part of staying alive for people back then. I think that our hope lies within the people under four feet tall. They are already here.

Continue reading for more with Richie Havens...

I never have better conversations than with kids. People under four feet tall blow my mind. They are on the case, especially the planet's case. They know that it is theirs, too. They are watching you. We seem to have a new big brother in town and its kids under four feet tall.

-Richie Havens


Well for those kids who are going to be growing up in a few years, do you consider the modern generation to be as volatile as it was in the '60s?

More so. We had to create the heart and mind connection but it is just DNA with them now. They don't even have to think about it. Everything around them suggests the turmoil rising.

What would you say now when we have a political race coming up and candidates are calling funding for the arts frivolous spending? How would that register to you?

Richie Havens
I think it already has registered. There are so many people that have worked against that wish. It is something you don't even hear [about] anymore. I think the whole idea of schools breaking up into different factions makes it easier for schools to provide funding to the arts for the youth. Craft learning all had to do with the times. When you go back and look at the college system, it was a very elite system. If you didn't have money you didn't have the ability to move through the schools. It was an awakening time because you had so many people of so many nations who lived in Brooklyn. I could tell you the whole damn world lived in Brooklyn. Believe it or not, growing up in Brooklyn had me thinking that this is how the rest of the world was. Up to 13 or 14 years old that is what we all thought. We grew up in the '40s after the War was over, and saw the people who came home from that War. We heard a lot of stories. My oldest Uncle was in World War II and when he came home, I was like, "Who is this man?" I wasn't yet born when he left. It was an amazing transition because awaiting these guys to come home was part of the big change. It didn't matter what color you were. If you were in the War they now had plans to get you a job. They now had plans to send you back to school. That helped to instigate a change, which the people helped carry on.

Built into their plight were people like me. Well, not me exactly because you were not going to get me to go over there, but what eventually became the peace movement. It wasn't so much peace or war. It was peace between everything. Each time you go around the circle. You can't say it about the Second World War, but you can say it about Vietnam, [that it] was a war that should have never happened in the first place. We got that part of the story, too. I feel that all of that was a time that I call "The Great Becoming." I lived in Brooklyn and all of my friends came from all nationalities - Irish guys, French people, Czech people, Polish people, Scottish people. The atmosphere was great. Everyone had a job, even us. Even though we didn't want to have one we worked in the telegraph room taking messages to people and in florists delivering flowers. We had a way to see the outside world from where we were. I grew up four miles away from Manhattan and didn't get there until I was 16 years old. The reason was there was no reason to go there. Everything you could ever need was in Brooklyn. I still have a couple friends that live in Brooklyn that have only been to Manhattan twice in their life.

What got me singing was Fred Neil coming up to me one day and saying, "Richie, you have been singing my songs from the audience, in harmony no less. Take this damn guitar and go home and learn the song." Well, I took the guitar and I didn't know how to tune it. So, I tuned it to an open chord. I put my thumb across and found the other two notes needed to play seven million songs. Three days later I was back at Café Wha? on the stage. I spent the next seven years on that stage. It was mind-boggling. I could do it. I knew the melodies, all I had to do was find the progression.

I just got one more question for you and it has to do with the record you are working on now. What do you hope to accomplish and what are your intentions?

I am just working on it, and it is close to being mastered. My intentions are to stay out of my own way. What is true is true. I only know the first and last song I am going to sing when I go onstage just because that is the way I have always done it. I was moved to do this and sing these songs. My whole thing was that I was sharing something with everyone else that was given to me. That is still the way I feel. When I walk into a record store and something catches me, I get stopped in my tracks.

Richie Havens tour dates available here.

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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/4/2008 05:37AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

Richie you are a GOOD man :)

moejoerisin Fri 1/4/2008 09:20AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


"when i walk into a record store and something catches me, i get stopped in my tracks."

i think we all know that feeling.. this doesn't need to be said but richie havens is one of the coolest cats in history.

hiddentreasure starstarstarstarstar Fri 1/4/2008 04:20PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Peace, love, fellowship, and charity. There are people in this world who never think of any of these things. Thanks Ritchie for reminding us what is really important.

gregpua Sat 1/5/2008 09:18AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

The original black badass...way before Samuel L and Denzel

dmhaeb starstarstarstarstar Sat 1/5/2008 11:17AM
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Mr. Haven's most excellent if not well-known song is 'Road to the Superbowl', which is featured in NFL Film's 1987 Washington Redskins Championship Video Yearbook. Hearing his voice over images of Doug Williams, Gary Clark, and Timmy Smith booring holes through the Denver Broncos paper tiger defense never fails to move me to tears, and I watch the video before each Redskins playoff game (all three that they've played in over the last 15 years). That I happened upon this article only hours before the 'Skins play the Seahawks in the NFC Wildcard Game is a powerful sign of good luck that bodes well for today's matchup. Thank you Mr. Havens not only for your wonderful music, but for supporting the NFL's greatest-ever franchise.

cocheese starstarstarstarstar Tue 1/8/2008 09:22AM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


i love watching the footage of his performance at Woodstock, simply amazing.

spyderbytedave starstarstarstarstar Wed 1/9/2008 03:10PM
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Richie is one of the most captivating performers I have ever had the pleasure to see, and is also one of the nicest ego-free people I have ever met. I'll never forget the first time I saw him live, he was singing this beautiful song acapella, and it made me cry. When I sheepishly turned to see if my buddy that went with me had noticed this, I saw that he was also crying. It was a beautiful moment, and to this day we never have spoken of it. We hung out afterwards to meet and thank Richie personally, and it was striking to me that the warmth of the man in person actually matched that of his music. Talking to him felt like talking to an old friend, to the degree that I forgot that I was talking to one of my idols. What a great heart and talent he has given to the world. God bless Richie Havens, we need him now more than ever.

Matthew Jaworski starstarstarstar Fri 1/11/2008 10:57AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Matthew Jaworski

I've only been a marginal fan of Richie Havens, but this was an excellent interview. Props, Martin.