The Sixties: An Interview 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.

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