On Richie Havens

I could be wrong but it seems to me that a lot of people don’t really know Richie Havens by name but when you point him out in the Woodstock movie or in some doc about the Greenwich Village folk scene, they say, “oh yeah, that guy”. Don’t worry, I’m not launching into a pretentious music-snob screed about how he should be as much of a household name as Dylan or Pete Seeger because he was never that nor will he be. For most he will merely be that great story from Woodstock, holding the fort for 3 HOURS to open the weekend, just a guy and his guitar, and that’s more than enough. For others, like myself, his footnote in history is a rich vein of inspiration to be mined for years to come.

Richie Havens was a masterful song interpreter, a thoughtful writer of purpose and conscience and a beautiful performer to watch. Any genuine appreciation of him has to start with his incredible guitar playing. The open-chord tuning and thumb-based bar chording with his left hand are the most immediately distinctive parts of his style. The chording is an unusual technique I’ve only ever seen from one other player, singer-songwriter Jules Shear. Many guitarists incorporate the thumb into their chording but they don’t use it as the basis of it, as Havens did. That coupled with the a precise and  often furious strumming-hand made him a true marvel to behold. His bushwhacking rhythmic style was impassioned and propulsive in a way that could put even some drummers to shame. On recordings with just another guitar player or a hand drummer, he drove that song forward with fills and flourishes all his own. Try as I might, I’ve rarely been able to replicate his speed or timing but I strive ever to make even the most basic rhythm parts distinctive and lively.

Havens is probably better known for some of his covers than his originals – his versions of “Here Comes The Sun” and “Just Like A Woman” are actually definitive for me; I often go to them over the originals when I want to hear those songs. Even with all the tremendous artists that have performed “God Bless The Child”, there is something so compassionate and hard-won in his voice that it always brings me back.

Politically, his was another powerful voice of protest from an era full of them. The authority with which he addressed race, class and war is the kind that stokes passion for those causes in eager listeners. Folk singers can be a didactic and over-earnest crowd at times but he never struck a false note with me. And while I never had the pleasure of seeing him live (he was playing right up until this past year) but I can only imagine the crackle in the air during a performance of “Handsome Johnny” in the mid-sixties with Vietnam as the galvanizing cultural backdrop.

His profile would rise and fall over the years. I don’t think he ever lacked for a gig – he was a perpetual folk circuit performer and he’d show up in surprising ways, like at the Clinton inauguration in 1993 or even writing jingles. True - Amtrack, Maxwell House, Cotton: the fabric of our lives? You remember. (Hey, man, even hippies gotta pay the mortgage.) I was working in a record store in the early 2000’s when I was delighted to discover his presence on some Groove Armada tracks. Truly formidable artists never rest on their laurels.

In the end, he was a tribute to the power of an idea, a man, a voice and a guitar. This combination is timeless in the right hands. I have a feeling that his legacy will be aided in no small part by YouTube and reissues and retrospectives (not like when I had to go out of my way to special order a “best of” CD back in the day) and I’m glad to know that plenty of people will find their way to him, via Woodstock or Beatles or Dylan or wherever. Sometimes character actors deliver performances that outshine the leads. Sometimes the guy singing his heart out in your local coffee shop takes command of an incalculably bigger stage, even just for a moment. Sometimes he sells ketchup to send his kid to college. Sometimes he leaves his song in your heart. That’s a pretty damned good legacy, isn’t it? 

Smithee


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