There's no separating Richie Havens from the three hours he stood alone onstage at Woodstock 35 years ago and, as the opener for the festival, stole the show. His gravelly gospel voice turned folk songs like "Handsome Johnny" and "Freedom" into two of the most riveting anthems of the Vietnam era.
From his beginnings in Brooklyn where he sang doo-wop on street corners, Havens followed his love of music to Greenwich Village in the 1950s and 1960s where he was swept up in the folk movement that gave rise to Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.
Though Woodstock was certainly the defining moment of his career, Havens has toured and recorded incessantly ever since with the same passion and zeal that changed an entire generation.
The Independent recently spoke with Havens who is now touring behind his latest album, Wishing Well.
Indy: You've been in the middle of some critical points in American history, seen the country move forward and watched it regress. What's that been like for you?
RH: You get to see the actualization rather than separate realities -- the actualization of being on this planet. Ecology is waking us up on a lot of different levels. I think it happened with my entire generation. It was the first real generational awakening, much of it due to rock 'n' roll. That was the social platform for my generation. What were we singing about? About us getting a raw deal! We used what they gave us against them. We held their feet to the fire. But today we're all involved on a visceral level. Things happen to us that are so visibly obvious. We take a very quiet look at everything. It bombards us, but it educates us to educate ourselves.
Indy: Nina Simone died this past year. Can you talk about her influence on you?
RH: Big influence. Good friend. I listened to her in the '50s, so I was young. Basically what I heard is what I inherited: I heard her interpret songs that weren't hers, and she did it her way. That was something that I basically subliminally applied when I picked up the guitar. There's only one way to play it, and that's the way I feel it. It was amazing being in the Village and hearing Fred Neil and Bob Dylan. What they were saying at the time was really the awakening of my generation. It was the University of Greenwich Village. It was the first group primal scream down there, and trying to wake up people politically, emotionally -- any way we could to become part of the world we were in. Most everyone we know passed through there. It's just amazing. That was the influence.
Indy: Hip-hop was born in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where you grew up. Do you listen to hip-hop and do you consider it to be a folk movement?
RH: I call it rock 'n' roll 2. This is the second time around, the second generational primal scream. They are screaming 50,000 times louder than we did that the same thing [is] happening to them and worse. It's rock 'n' roll the second time around and it's all over the world. People need to know where these people have been pushed to come back around and rap about it. It's amazing -- really amazing.
Indy: Do you still perform your hits -- "Handsome Johnny," "Freedom" -- and do these songs still hold a timelessness for you?
RH: Oh yes, I have to or they'd beat me up. I try to do some of the songs they ask for even before they ask. Vietnam vets call for "Handsome Johnny," and that's their song. And sometimes it's in my mind.
-- Noel Black
Steam Plant Theater, 720 W. First St., Salida, Colo.
Sat., March 20 at 8 p.m.