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.

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.

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