For some, the Woodstock Festival in 1969 was a spiritual experience. For others, it was a place to hear music and get high. But for guitarist and singer Richie Havens, it was a meeting of minds.
"We were applying the whole idea of, 'We as a generation need to be heard and we will be heard,'" he says. "Music was the vehicle. ... It was so accepted that this was a good thing and that we were really maybe making part of history."
As the first act onstage at Woodstock, Havens, then 28, was slated to play for just 40 minutes. After six encores and more than two hours onstage, he had run out of songs. To cheers, he came back for a seventh time, strumming the same chord repeatedly.
"I kept it going because I was trying to think, 'What song could I sing?'" he says, laughing. "And looking at all those people, I said to myself, 'This is the voice that my generation paid for — with their lives in many cases, with the wars going on and everything — and what I'm looking at in front of me is that freedom we've been searching for.' To me, we had arrived. So I started singing [the word] "freedom." And that's when you really know I'm stalling, because it's a long intro."
(In the YouTube video capturing the performance, Havens repeats the word eight or nine times before neatly sliding into "Motherless Child.")
His now-famous "freedom" ad-lib set the tone for the festival.
"It was quite an experience, physically, mentally and spiritually, in the sense that we made it," he says. "To me, I felt that we just crossed a line and we just joined our own party."
Havens, now 68, sang in doo-wop groups in his early teens before picking up a guitar around the age of 20. Since then he's released 30 albums, showcasing his own unique talent as well as covering some of his favorite artists, including the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
His latest effort, Nobody Left to Crown, is no exception. Much of Havens' guitar work is energetic, almost frenzied, and his soulful voice conveys his intensity, a personality trait he brings to issues outside of music, such as politics and eco-consciousness.
In 1990, Havens founded The Natural Guard, an experiential nonprofit organization that encourages young people to get involved in ecological issues. That first year he gave full rein to 16 middle school-aged kids in New Haven, Conn. They planted a garden in a donated plot of land and for six years used the yields to supply a local soup kitchen as well as feed their own families.
"They were doing more than the city was," Havens says. "They were given the tools to do whatever they wanted to do — we just pointed them in the right direction."
A longtime political and peace activist, Havens describes today's nascent generation as part of a "brand new world," something much like what emerged after World War II and then Vietnam.
"Every year, it renews itself, the quest for [kids] to get answers to the questions they'd like to ask," he says. "That's what keeps me going, is that there are kids that have questions and answers. And it's good to know that the answers they have are totally logical. Totally."