INTERVIEW- Freedom: From Woodstock to the Gravity Lounge

It's hard to decide whether Richie Havens' strikingly tranquil demeanor indicates that he doesn't often think about the reputation that precedes him or it's just the dignified composure of an elder statesman. Either way, it makes for a great storyteller's voice– and that's handy indeed, because he has tales for days.

As a resident of Greenwich Village in the late 1960s, Havens watched a now-legendary arts scene explode around him without necessarily trying to put himself near the center. By the end of the decade, however, his beat poetry had morphed into song, and he found himself scheduled for the first performance slot at Woodstock, where he closed his set with a career-defining improvisational take on the old Negro spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" which would come to be known as "Freedom" as it rocketed around the world.

The Hook: Tell me about the album you plan to release in March.

Richie Havens: It's basically structurally no different than previous albums in that a number of issues seem to follow through some of the songs. There's a kind of a hook that hooks into each previous CD because it's an ongoing story.

The Hook: What do you mean?

Richie Havens: There's always been a song that didn't make it in about 70 percent of the albums I made. That's where I set my future platform for recording– it starts with that song. It's kind of chronicling the history, social issues, personal issues, all of these things. Then it becomes a story that's been going on for a long time.

The Hook: How long have you been starting your albums by searching the cutting room floor?

Richie Havens: Actually, from the beginning. I started out singing the songs that educated me and confirmed certain things I had thought about. Being able to re-sing the songs that changed me was the purpose of doing them again. All the way through this career of songs is why it was kind of laced together. All the covers I did still had to do with educating me.

The Hook: You covered a Bob Dylan tune on Mixed Bag way back in '67. Did you have any idea at the time that Dylan covers were going to become such a major foundation of rock music?

Richie Havens: You know, no I didn't. I was so thankful for Bob. I knew him personally. My sense was, 'This guy is a great poet.' Then I changed that to, 'This guy is the poet who actually got to sing his poetry.' That change, getting to sing what was pure poetry, really gave me a foundation.

The Hook: I read somewhere that you helped Jimi learn "All Along The Watchtower."

Richie Havens: [laughs] Oh yeah. He asked me for the lyrics because he hadn't heard Bob singing it yet. He recorded it, and it blew my mind– I stopped singing it for a few years. It was powerful. It was part of the songs that changed me. But it came back– it's the first song I sing when I go on stage.

The Hook: As someone who came up with Dylan, what was it like appearing in the movie I'm Not There?

Richie Havens: It was great to sit in the audience. I told some friends to go see it, but I never told them I was in it, because that wasn't the important thing. The person who wrote it and directed it, he captured invisibility. He was showing us not Bob Dylan, but the transitions of Robert Zimmerman. He changed from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan, and it's that expansion of experience, all the changes that he went through. No one had ever done that. The closest we see in the movie is Cate Blanchett, and I have to say, after two minutes, it wasn't Cate Blanchett, it was Bob Dylan.

The Hook: How do you feel about the extent to which Woodstock has been romanticized by music fans?

Richie Havens: I think it was more important that it happened to younger people– teenagers. I have to sing that song at every show I've ever done. Every year it affects a whole new strata of teenagers who come out of school, and the first thing they want to see is me on stage, because they've just seen the movie for the first time in their lives. That gets them to a show, all these teenagers. They are, to me, definitely a product of the '60s. It's really magic.

The Hook: What do you remember most about Woodstock?

Richie Havens: It was a completely surreal happening. They expected 60,000 people which would have been big anyway, but by the time I got there, there were 520,000. We only see the front field, but at the top of that hill was a road, and on the other side of that road was another field that you don't see. They made sure to only film one side of the hill in order to cut our numbers down. But it didn't work, because we all knew everyone was there. The irony is that if the Army hadn't brought the bands out, there wouldn't have been a Woodstock. We were supposed to be military haters, because that's what they wanted us to appear to be. But we weren't that, and the soldiers found out that. We were pro-peace, not anti-military. And we still are.

The Hook: I've talked to other musicians who are concerned about the fact that this war hasn't produced any relevant protest music. Do you agree?

Richie Havens: No, I don't exactly agree with it. I've actually heard some songs that refer to that. The Foo Fighters did one. I get to see opening acts every weekend, and they happen to be local, and they happen to be good. I've heard quite a few songs that these kids who are about to start making their first albums wrote, and it's about to come out. I gotta get their names, because the audience of the future needs to know they're coming.

The Hook: "Freedom" became your calling card because of Woodstock, but is there another song that you think could have done the job better?

Richie Havens: I've always had room for two or three songs to speak out on what the conflicts are. It's a song that belongs to the audience that was there, and then it became a song that belonged to the audience that went to the movies. Its message is still as poignant, because teenagers see it every year since it happened. They see it, and they are a part of it.

Richie Havens performs at Gravity Lounge on Thursday, February 7, at 7:30pm. Wait, you don't have your $35 ticket yet?! Why do you hate "Freedom"?