There were a great many great musical performers at the historic three day Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, whose 40th anniversary is being celebrated this August 14-16. But few are as etched into the public mind as singer-songwriter Richie Havens, whose rendition of "Freedom/Motherless Child" and others songs were featured in the Oscar-winning documentary about the legendary festival.
Richie Havens played his now-iconic medley end of the opening act before a crowd of between 300,000 and 500,000 music fans, hippies, counterculture activists and drug-soaked pleasure seekers. Havens was later followed onstage by superstars like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Ravi Shankar, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Janis Joplin. That might also help explain why Havens' long African-style tunic was soaked with sweat during his performance.
Havens recently told this reporter that he had already been onstage for nearly three hours when he played that song, which suddenly sprang to mind from his doo wop and gospel days back in Brooklyn.
"To tell you the truth, I had sung … all the songs I knew, and I am going 'What am I going to do now,'" he said.
At the same time, Havens was deeply moved by the camaraderie and free-spiritedness and of the Woodstock audience.
"And in my mind I'm going 'you know, this is the freedom that my generation is looking for," he said.
Havens was onstage for as long as he was because Woodstock producers were waiting for the other performers to arrive. The roads to the festival site were choked with cars backed up for over 100 kilometers in all directions. So Havens and the others had to be flown in by helicopter.
Havens remembers hovering high above that city of youth massed in what days before had been a peaceful cow pasture, and being awed by the size and the power of the gathering.
"And when I looked down and I saw all those colors, I said to myself 'If the newspapers get hold of this shot, we've won,'" he said.
Woodstock was billed as entertainment, not politics. But as it swelled, the watching world was aware that the vision of peace, music and community it represented was a gentle protest against the previous generation's way of life.
But music and rebellion were nothing new, says Havens. "We were protesting in the 1950s!" he said with s smile, and began to sing – in a perfect "doo wop" falsetto "No, no no! I'm not a juvenile delinquent!'" Those lyrics, to his ear, expressed the spirit of youthful protest too. "It was about being something our parents don't understand you are. It's [asserting] the freedom to have a voice!"
With escalating racial tensions and increasing public anger over the Vietnam War, the Sixties was a time filled with strident voices. But Havens says that for those three muddy days at Woodstock, politics and activism took a back seat to peace, love and cheerfully dealing with the rain and mud.
"Many of the fans that I came in contact with, they were so mellowed out, you could feel there was real joy," said Havens, who added that he was hugged "thousands and thousands" of times over the course of the event.
As August 1969 fades farther into the past, the Woodstock Festival continues to enjoy a near-mythic status, both for those who were there and for the millions who wish they'd been there. But many of the tens of millions more who've been born since, and who know only the music, the legend and the media hype, are still inspired by the free-spirited and communitarian values that Woodstock has come to symbolize.
"There was just such an open door [that] even the least of us could have a vision," Havens said. "This is the challenge we have now: to open a lot of those doors."
For his part, Havens, now nearly 70, continues to express the Woodstock ethos with new songs like "The Key," which is featured on his new album Nobody Left to Crown, Meanwhile, in a role he seems to relish, Havens will continue to act as a benign, bearded ambassador for the Woodstock state of mind.