This week’s Free Ride* muses on the artistry of Richie Havens, the Greenwich Village poet turned singer-songwriter who turns 70 today. He gained his fame when he opened the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in the summer of ’69. He gave the growing audience a marathon 3 hour set, having been told by the festival promoters that some of the artists were still en route and he needed to stall for time. The audience loved him, and brought him back for several encores, until he finally ran out of material. He improvised an ending to the set with his contribution to our freedom songbook, a repetitious chant of freedom, freedom across an old spiritual
Havens has maintained a voice for freedom and a visible role in human rights activism as well as in the folk music circuit in the four decades since Woodstock, supporting environmental and peacemaking causes. He has often been called on to reprise his Woodstock improv, with one of the more notable occasions being when he joined the Beastie Boys and other bands in the summer of 1996 for the Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco, giving the audience of over 100,000 a version of Freedom and raising awareness of the plight of the Tibetan people.
Reflecting on his role in music and community action, Havens says, I was born into the fact that music can make a difference. And not just to educate, but to advance ideas. We were the ones who invented rock and roll. That was music written in defense of my whole generation. It’s the forum of a generation. What we’re hearing from the younger ones now is what is going on in their world. I’m glad Richie Havens is still around to hear what’s going on in their world, and he’s still improvising on his riff of freedom.