Remembering Folk Icon Richie Havens

Apr 23, 2013

WAMC's Ian Pickus with Richie Havens in 2010

Musician Richie Havens died at 72 on Monday. The soft-spoken singer and guitarist stayed on the road for 45 years until ill health finally forced him to give up touring in 2012.

Trained on doo wop on the street corner, Richie Havens was one of those folk musicians from the 1960s to shoot to improbable world fame. Indeed, he was a musician of contradictions: a thoughtful and socially-minded songwriter famous for his covers, a frenzied guitar strummer who was actually a precise musician.

If you knew Havens, it was likely from his defining performance at Woodstock in 1969, when he stayed on stage for an epic three-hour set while the rest of the acts were struck in traffic. Captured in the concert film, Havens’ performance made a folk musician from the Village a certified pop act, as listeners responded to his lived-in but soulful voice and social commentary.

Unlike many of his Woodstock cohorts, Havens didn’t grow to resent his fame from the event – in fact, quite the opposite.

After the Massachusetts concert in 2010, Havens was eager to meet his fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. Some of the crowd had been at Woodstock – or at least, was the right age to have been — but some were far younger. The next generation – and the next one after that – had found a connection to Havens’ music, crafted over 21 studio albums and a half-century in the business. It was a summer night, the world was still imperfect, and Richie Havens was telling everyone about it.

Havens signed a poster to me from “a friend forever.” It seems like the right way to remember him.