Richie Havens was supposed to play Anthology back in May, but he came down with a cold and had to cancel. He rescheduled for October, but that never happened either.
Earlier this year, I talked with him about his legendary set at Woodstock, how he helped Jimi Hendrix find his first band, and how he writes songs (or doesn’t). At the end of the phone interview, the ever amiable Havens asked for a hug. I complied, not sure exactly how it was going to work, with him somewhere in Central Time and me in Pacific; regardless, it was a fun interview with a living legend.
Owl and Bear: How did you first get into playing music?
Richie Havens: I think I inherited it from my father, who was a pianist. He could hear any song and play it back to you. I always thought I got a little bit of that. But that’s what he did — not for a living, but for his own joy — he knew he could go somewhere and play the music that he loved.
Owl and Bear: You started out in the Greenwich Village folk scene.
Richie Havens: I played folk songs and spiritual songs, and songs that educated me. I couldn’t call it anything but Mixed Bag at first, but I continue to learn like that. [Music] is a place to be educated about the world around you.
Owl and Bear: How did you end up playing the opening slot at Woodstock?
Richie Havens: By a freak of nature! There wasn’t one person at that place who went on when they were supposed to.
Owl and Bear: When you went up there, did you know that Woodstock was going to be a household name for the next forty years?
Richie Havens: No, the interesting thing is that most of the people who were there on the stage were there by contract. It blossomed, and everyone saw that they were a part of something.
Owl and Bear: Legend has it that you played for three hours and people kept calling you back out to the stage.
Richie Havens: I was getting off the stage, having done my forty minutes, and the guy in charge said, “Richie, don’t you want to go out and play four more songs?” I said, “Sure,” and sang four more songs. I came back, but I never got to the end of the stage. The guy said, “Don’t you kids want one more song?” And I said, “I don’t have more songs,” and he said, “Yes you do.”
It turned into two hours and forty-five minutes, and I had no more songs. But I did what I had to do. I stepped up to the mic and did the first thing that came to my mouth, which was “Freedom,” and that went on until the words to “Motherless Child” came out. So those two things were added together, not knowing that it was going to be that way.
Owl and Bear: And that song still resonates — it’s still relevant and you could be from any walk of life.
Richie Havens: That’s what I felt when I was up there. There were grandparents who brought their kids…because it was going to be like the Newport Folk Festival. [Woodstock] had something for every one of us. It had Santana, very spiritual guy…
Owl and Bear: But they probably didn’t expect to see Hendrix up there.
Richie Havens: He wasn’t even booked! He came on last. Imagine that — he was first, I was last. And it was that feeling right to the end. There were very few people, like I said, who played in the spot that they were supposed to.
As a matter of fact, I met Hendrix as a young guy who didn’t have a band of his own, who worked union gigs. I mean, it could have been tonight or tomorrow, and you lived your life going from city to city, and they might have a job for you. I met him right at the tip of becoming who he was. And the fact that he found his own band, I helped him do that. I told him to go down to Greenwich Village because there were a lot of young people there who were trying to find people to play with. So two weeks later, a friend of mine comes down and says, “Hey Richie, you have to hear this guy around the corner. He is incredible!” Turns out to be Jimi James and the Blue Flames. That was his first name for his first band.
Owl and Bear: That’s a good story.
Richie Havens: Isn’t it weird and…honest?
The name Woodstock was not even where we were. That was something that Warner Brothers owned from their movie title. [Hendrix] had this ability to draw people in, and he put very, very much of himself emotionally into how he played.
Owl and Bear: Can you tell me a little about your writing process?
Richie Havens: I actually don’t go looking for songs. They absolutely find me.
Owl and Bear: You’ve been pretty prolific. Do songs come to you often?
Richie Havens: Now they do. A sound comes through: the melody. I don’t sit down to the table and write a song. I have to first figure out that sentence that went through my head — the title of the song, or the title of the album, or try to figure out what the song is for. And then if I just sit and watch it, and just listen to that sound over and over again, the next line is written for me, and then I know exactly what I’m going to be singing.
Owl and Bear: On Nobody Left to Crown, your most recent album, you covered Citizen Cope’s song “Hurricane Waters.” A few months after it was released, Katrina struck. What inspired you to record that song?
Richie Havens: The song’s overall theme tends to move toward saving others.
Owl and Bear: Are you working on anything new that might make its way into the set list in San Diego?
Richie Havens: It’s possible. Because wherever I go, I either get something or I don’t. That’s the way it works. I don’t go looking for it. It has to pop out.