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Woodstock at 40: Richie Havens on the Incredible Show

Like many of the musicians who showed up at Woodstock, Richie Havens was a charismatic, free-spirited folkster with a message.

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Richie Havens

Richie Havens

Photo By Barry Z Levine/Getty Images

Like many of the performers and fans who showed up for those three days of mud and music, Richie Havens was a charismatic, free-spirited folkster with a message and had the powerful voice to deliver it. Forty years later, an elegant, grown-up Havens continues to play festivals with the same enthusiasm he had at Woodstock. Here, he shares some reflections with WWD.

WWD: Do you think the 40th anniversary of Woodstock is a very big one?
Richie Havens: Oh yeah. All the people who were there are in disbelief that this could still be going on. [Laughs]. This is the biggest one. We thought “The Big One” was 35…and now how much more can we go?

WWD: You opened Woodstock.
R.H.: Yes. I was supposed to be the fifth act, but because of the seven miles of traffic none of the earlier [acts] had arrived yet. I left early because we had instruments that we had to carry. When they got the helicopters to come, we could just get a few bands over the globe.

WWD: What was your first song?
R.H.: I believe it was “Handsome Johnny.”

WWD: Did you stay for the whole festival?
R.H.: I [intended to] stay the first day. We were supposed to be doing a show the next day in Bloomington, Ind., and now we’re trapped there. But I felt so much a part of it. You know, on another level this was really a spiritual experience for everybody. It doesn’t matter what they’re playing because it’s how they moved the audience that counted for me. People like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were there.

WWD: But they did perform.
R.H.: Yes, they ended up singing something from a new album that they had never performed [before] and they sounded so great.

WWD: Do you think that kind of festival atmosphere could ever be recaptured? It was such a reflection of its time.
R.H.: That festival mood was brewing. We met musicians we’d never met or heard play before. Santana, The Who, Ten Years After. It was really interesting to see Joan Baez coming up onto the stage [and] Sly Stone. I mean, there were so many different people hanging out.

WWD: Do you have favorite recollections?
R.H.: It was just incredible. Even the idea of having to go to the house down the road for food, come back and hear them say, “Well, ladies and gentleman, it’s going to be a free concert at this point.”

WWD: Did drugs contribute to the excitement and energy?
R.H.: It didn’t have a lot to do with it. It was an accompaniment. You know, with however many people were there…the drug side really was miniscule.

WWD: That is contrary to popular belief.
R.H.: I would say, maybe 30 percent [of the audience] was grandmothers and grandkids. They came with tents and stuff and thought they were going to just be hanging out. But they couldn’t get out of there. Turns out a lot of the grandmothers didn’t want to get out of there. If you look at [Michael Wadleigh’s documentary “Woodstock”] there’s a mixture of people from their forties all the way down to the teenage thing, and then you have the 14 percent kids. So it wasn’t focused on the college kids, although the press wanted it to be.



WWD: Is that kind of audience integration — all ages and interests — different from the audiences you get today?
R.H.: I think [an audience] has the tendency to cross lines now, too. The way I see it, back then we were searching for something. It was a voice…and to be able to say what we felt about everything and anything. You come to the end of the day and you say, “You know, if it wasn’t for the Army, this wouldn’t have happened.”

WWD: You mean the Vietnam War?
R.H.: Yes. There was an appreciation there of something.

WWD: Do you think a festival like Woodstock, full of such spiritual energy, could happen today?
R.H.: Oh, it’s happening all over the planet. It’s been happening for the last 40 years.



WWD: That’s interesting. I just can’t imagine capturing that again.
R.H.: It was a good forum for all the people who were there. You’d pass by many different groups in the daylight. Some liked their own music in between the other music. They’d play their own guitars in the field until somebody starts performing. You know things like that…and things like saying to myself, “Well, the Hueys [helicopters] are coming now.” When you heard one, you knew you couldn’t perform. So in between they had these smaller venues, like, 10 people over there and 15 people over there. They’ve got their own guitars and they’re playing their own music. For me, the spiritual feeling that happened was because many of us were looking for it to appear. From one end to the other, there was a compact yearning to grab hands and do a circle, you know? And whatever happens in the circle happens in the circle! There were, like, 200 people in the lake just swimming around. They’re all nude. Babies, everybody.

WWD: The hand-holding, the circular goings-on. I don’t think it would happen today. People seem so much more self-conscious now.
R.H.: Well, I think it’s [still] in the DNA….It’s gonna continue to keep the front door open so that more and more younger kids can see what they see. You know, every year I’m stopped in the street by packs of teenagers who’ve heard that Woodstock music. I get soldiers now that say, “Rich, you’ve been singing for a long time but, you know, we’ve come to a point where we don’t say ‘war’ anymore. And it’d be cool if you could not say ‘war’ anymore or fix it some kind of way so they can kill the word.

WWD: It’d be nice if we could substitute more than the word. Are there any musicians today who play the kind of music we loved then that are of the same caliber of those artists?
R.H.: Oh yeah. There’s quite a bit of that. The wonderful thing is that I know the music is carried on locally. There are these great bands that are being supported by their own communities now. And you go, “Man, these kids don’t know what’s around the next corner.” But I see them as the people who are going to save us with a few miracles of their own.