Most folks know by now, I’m sure, that Richie Havens passed on yesterday at his home in Jersey City, New Jersey. When I heard the news, I posted a link at Facebook to his recording of “Follow” from his 1967 album Mixed Bag. The first person to comment wrote simply “Heartbroken.”
As am I today.
One of my recent posts ended with a note detailing the artists I’ve shared here most often since this blog’s inception in early 2007. Only Bob Dylan’s fifty-seven shares and Bruce Springsteen’s forty out-number Richie Havens’, whose music I’ve celebrated twenty-nine times. Had I been asked in 2007 who my three favorite artists were, I’m pretty sure I would have started with Dylan and Springsteen. I don’t know that I would have thought of Richie Havens next. But the numbers put him next in line, and I think that’s correct.
As was true for many people, my first glimpse of Richie Havens was in the film Woodstock, the documentary chronicling the famous 1969 festival in upstate New York. Havens opened the festival when the scheduled opening act, Sweetwater, was held up by traffic. And at the end of his set, grasping for another tune to play, Havens improvised, mixing a rhythmic chant of “Freedom” with the old folk song, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It was an iconic moment.
Seeing that moment on film in the Paramount Theatre here in St. Cloud didn’t make me a fan. It took a couple more decades for that. When I got there, however, I went hard, buying and listening to as much Havens as I could. It all connected with me: The voice was magnificent, the musicianship – both Havens’ and that of the musicians who backed him – was stellar, and the song choices, both of Havens’ own and of the many songs he covered, were inspired. The man’s dignity and decency, his love of peace and hope for justice, all of it came through the speakers as clearly as Havens’ voice.
His story, from his birth in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1941, is fascinating, and the New York Times tells it better than I can. What I can do is note how Havens’ music makes me feel. A few years ago, I compiled for a forum a list of albums to which I turn for comfort. That list of maybe twelve albums ended with the notation, “and anything by Richie Havens.” His music – like that of a very few other performers – can take me to a meditative place, a place inside the music, so to speak, where the real world with all its burdens and blessings can be set aside for a time.
I have a feeling that Richie Havens knew that place very well. After seeing him in concert five years ago (in the Paramount Theatre where I first saw him on screen nearly forty years earlier), I wrote:
“Maybe the most remarkable thing about the concert was the energy Havens puts into his performance. His entire being is focused on the guitar and his music, and sometimes he seems oblivious to the fact that his audience is present as the music envelops him. ‘Don’t you wonder where he goes?’ the Texas Gal murmured to me during one such stretch.”
We didn’t know where he went then, and we don’t really know where he’s gone now. I have my beliefs about what comes next, and others have theirs. But wherever the soul of Richie Havens is now, it has gone there with peace and love and joy, and with the song in the air of a life well lived.
And as many times as I’ve shared the song in this space, I must share “Follow” one more time.
And close your eyes, child, and look at what I’ll show you;
Let your mind go reeling out and let the breezes blow you,
Then maybe, when we meet, suddenly I will know you.
If all the things you see ain’t what they seem,
Then don’t mind me ’cause I ain’t nothin’ but a dream .
And you can follow; And you can follow; follow . . .
Tags: Richie Havens