Over four decades and 25 albums, Richie Havens has used his music to convey messages of brotherhood and personal freedom. Cutting his teeth on the fertile ’60s music scene of Greenwich Village and interpreting tunes by Bob Dylan, he gained even more notoriety after opening the Woodstock festival on August 15, 1969.
The festival was off to a shaky start—several hours after the scheduled kickoff time, not a note of music had been played. Organizers convinced Havens to go on stage alone with his guitar and entertain the hundreds of thousands waiting for the music to begin. Each time he tried to finish his set, he found himself being talked into going back out. But after two hours and 45 minutes of playing, Havens ran out of material.
So he improvised. Over the intensely rhythmic strum of his own acoustic, Havens composed a festival-inspired song called “Freedom” on the spot (building on a snatch of the traditional “Motherless Child”). The tune was immortalized in the Woodstock film, and Havens has been performing it ever since. “I feel that it doesn’t belong to me anyway,” he said in 2002. “It belongs to everything that made it come out.”
The accomplishment Havens was most proud of, however, was co-founding the award-winning, multi-cultural, children-run organization called the National Guard. With chapters across the country, it teaches kids to take charge of their own communities, assesses local ecological needs and provides hands-on participation. When asked how we can become more engaged, Havens told us, “Start on a local level. What’s wrong in your own community? What can be repaired and improved? Solving problems on a local level first can lead to a national network of growth and change.”
Richie Havens passed away yesterday morning, April 22, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 72. We’d like to say thank you, Richie, for the decades of music and your life dedicated to working toward social, economic and environmental justice. You made a huge difference in this world, and will be missed.