We bid adieu tonight to Richie Havens: folk stylist, soul renegade, singer, environmentalist, generational inspiration and all-around peace warrior. He died of a heart attack Monday morning at age 72.
For more than four decades, the Brooklyn-born guitarist was a gentle but demonstrative pop music voice, an artist who found common rhythmic threads in the sounds of folk, blues and pop and weaved them into an intensely rhythmic acoustic sound all his own. He was an occasional songwriter, and his most visible radio hits were interpretative tunes. But these weren’t mere pop covers. They were complete transformations. In his hands, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun went from a euphoric reverie to a more pensive meditation.
But no revision resonated more profoundly than Freedom, the chanted, whittled-down version of the blues spiritual Motherless Child. Initially improvised, Freedom was the lasting highlight of Havens’ opening set at Woodstock in 1969. It has since become viewed as one of the landmark festival’s most defining moments.
Havens went on to record great solo albums, including Stonehenge and Alarm Clock, and toured continually. By the time he made it to Lexington in April 1993 as the second presentation in the Troubadour Concert Series, there was a more relaxed, sage tone to his performance. He wore the passing years just as proudly as he did the role of ambassador of the Woodstock generation.
“Woodstock was very much a part of the future in a way,” Havens told me in an interview before the 1993 concert. “It was a time where like-minded people of all ages came together to set numbers down in the public’s eye and in the eyes of the world. No one expected it to turn out the way it did – especially the people performing there. That was the magic of it.”