Richie Havens: A Memory

[Thanks to Fred Coker for this very special story.]

On Woodstock weekend in 1969, when my best mates were heading up to the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, and with no idea how big a gig it was going to turn out to be, I was getting ready for my eldest sister’s wedding, due to take place on Sunday, 17 August.

Years later, we had the opportunity to see and meet Richie Havens, who opened up on Woodstock Friday when the scheduled acts got stuck in the unexpectedly heavy traffic, slowly winding their ways down the small country roads in upstate New York.

Richie Havens

Richie was asked to step in to start the show and had gone through his entire normal set list. He looked to the side of the stage and was given the nod to ‘keep going.’ Looking out over what was eventually to become close to 500,000 music fans, he instinctively started strumming his guitar in his trademark percussive style.

The crowd at Richie Havens’ Woodstock-opening set on Aug. 15, 1969. 📷: Getty Images

What followed was what would become one of the most iconic and improvisational performances of the weekend and an anthem of the peace music which formed part of the social and cultural backdrop to the festival; “Freedom – Motherless Child” rang out and got the crowd to their feet.

After a gig in Manchester, England, in about 2007, I related to him how, a year after Woodstock at the so-called Peace Concert at Shea Stadium in New York on 6 August 1970, he started to play “Freedom” at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon as the sun was setting over the outfield stands, and with the crowd of about 15,000 all concentrated in the stands behind ‘home plate,’ the whole upper deck started first to vibrate and then to ‘move’ with the rhythm of the fans clapping and stamping their feet. It was both a strange and scary sensation, feeling the ‘building’ moving under our feet.

Summer Festival for Peace – Shea Stadium

He laughed and recalled someone from the stage crew coming to the mike after the song, asking, almost pleading with the fans in the first deck to “spread out please, – this place wasn’t built to rock!”

Richie Havens at Summer Festival for Peace. 📷: Ken Davidoff

So that was the night Richie Havens, opening act at Woodstock, was almost the closing act of the Peace Concert!

As he in 2007 signed a CD in his trademark comment: “To XXX , a forever friend, Richie Havens.” I wondered how he could write, let alone strum a guitar with his fingers laden in silver and turquoise rings.

Richie Havens – a later photograph

Richie Havens RIP (22 April 2013). What better artist to kick off Woodstock, filling his fans with many fond memories!




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