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.

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.


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