Richie Havens passed away this past week at the age of 72. From his participation in the Greenwich Village folk scene to his unforgettable performance as the opening act at Woodstock, Richie Havens’ will always be known as one of folk’s founding fathers and an undeniable all-around musical legend. Known for his smile as well as his open tunings, unusual fretting techniques and devastating reinterpretations of traditional ballads and popular rock songs, his music as well as his kindness will never be forgotten.
I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Havens in 2008 as he prepared to return to the Newport Folk Festival for the ninth time. We spoke briefly as he waited for a plane bound for Monaco to talk about 50+ years of folk as seen and heard through his eyes and ears.
You’re one of folk music’s veterans and have seen it all over the years. What is your definition of folk and how has it changed over the years
I hear you. I’m very strangely involved in that situation. When all my friends in Greenwich Village became famous and started going on the road they would play blues festivals if they were a blues band. They would play rock festivals if they were a rock band. When I first went on the road with an album called “Mixed Bag” they didn’t know what to do with me then—and they don’t know what to do with me now. I sing all different kinds of songs. When I showed up to the first club it was called Johnny’s Jazz club and I freaked out completely. I don’t sing Jazz. Then I walked over to the front door there was a little bill in the window and they said “Richie Havens: Folk-Jazz singer. I went ‘really’. That’s what I do. It went on and on. Richie Havens: Folk-Rock singer. Richie Havens: Folk Singer. And I was very fortunate to be a part of all of these culturally based musics. I’m really blessed to sing what I think is myself. I’ve never changed what I do. I think folk music is coming back in many, many ways. There are young people in all of these colleges with open mic nights and there’s a lot of talent out there. Young people have picked up on the idea that folk music is a language; it’s storytelling. There were 13 of us in Greenwich Villlage when it all started. By the time they made it big there were thousands of people that were doing that because they were inspired. They carried the next wave. And the next wave made rock n roll an acoustic thing.
Has folk music been blurred beyond it’s old definition.
I don’t really think folk has been blurred if you realize that everything besides what we traditionally call folk is also a folk music. A lot of people don’t realize that folk is the music of the ‘folk’. It doesn’t matter if they’re past, present or future. You get to chronicle what you’re living. I call rock ‘n roll the first generation primal scream. It was about trying to get a voice. And I think we made it. At my age at that time we were living in the traditions of cultural folk and were singing about ourselves whereas folk music that we learned which we called traditional was singing about the past. Now it seems the new generation is actually bringing out some originality in what we have. I think they have taken full advantage of what’s affecting them.
You were in last year’s biopic, “I’m Still There” about Bob Dylan. Most people point their finger at Dylan for changing folk. What are your thoughts on that?
I think Dylan always had a tension towards rock n roll. And I think he made it [laughs]. You could see even back then that there was something different about him. He wrote a lot of songs that we saw with a cultural basis, but there was a line that divided his songs. Fifty-percent of his songs were love songs; the other half were chronicles. He was on a search to figure out who he was. He was able to change people’s ideas, people’s hearts and people’s ears. I call him the all-inclusive poet who got to sing his poetry.
You must have played the Newport Folk Fest before?
Yeah, 8 times… maybe 9 times. After doing that many, there were only 3 that it didn’t rain. I was fortunate to be at the ones that did, and I was also fortunate to be at the ones they called miracles where it didn’t rain. But no one moves. People set up and don’t move for three days. That was the first time that people didn’t move besides the Woodstock movie. That was it. It’s really a special devotion to a common cultural devotion. It’s funny to me. We never really looked at folk music as a really important part of folk music. Just to those that are traditionally into it. Those on the outside settled for the crossover.
You are best known for covering and reworking songs instead of your own material. Why did you decide to take that path?
I call myself a song singer. That’s what started me out. When I started singing Doo Wop we were singing our angst. When you come around like I did, I heard songs that changed my life. I knew I had found a new thing because I quit Doo Wop immediately. To me this was a broader scale where we could speak about ourselves on a much larger scale. I consider myself a song singer because the songs that you hear that I covered were actually being resang to me by myself. Those were the songs that actually changed my life. Having done that I have the ability for a song to come to me and move me. I never sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna sing this song this way.’ I sing the song as I hear it the way that it moved me. Therefore these songs are for me as well as the audience. To me it’s so interesting to process what happens. I’ll hear a song and pick up my guitar and know for sure I couldn’t play it that way. I felt something, but I felt it in a different way. So that song would go in a box and 6 years later I’ll go ‘ah ha, that’s it. That’s how I do it.’ I get the songs to go through me. It always takes on it’s own tempo and it’s own meaning. It might be twice as fast. It might be half as fast. In these last three albums people have been saying that I’m doing something different. And I knew I didn’t know either. Then one day it came to me. The big secret it kept from me, ‘you’ve never sung songs in these keys before.’ That’s it– the pump is being primed again for sound and tangible lyrics.