Jean-Marc Lubrano/Courtesy of the artist
Folk-music icon Richie Havens was the man who opened Woodstock, and he hasn't stopped performing or inspiring since. Havens' distinctive guitar style, which employs percussive strumming and an unconventional thumb-fretting technique, has become a calling card for his rousing music — and for the performance for which he's best known.
Havens, who just released his 30th album (Nobody Left to Crown), recently spoke with Weekend Edition host Scott Simon about his early days and performed songs at NPR's New York studios.
Early in his career, Havens was a poet in Greenwich Village. He was convinced by fellow beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg to get on stage and perform. This eventually encouraged Havens to immerse himself in the folk-music scene and begin a career in music.
Havens is most recognized for his legendary three-hour performance at the Woodstock Festival, which culminated in an improvised rendition of "Motherless Child" that saw Havens chanting the word "freedom." Havens says he wasn't originally supposed to open the concert and landed the gig at the last minute.
"The field had been inhabited two days before [Woodstock] was supposed to start," Havens says, "and it sorta clogged itself up on the first day of the concert. No one could get there. So I hear this loud noise in the parking lot out back of the hotel, and it's a glass bubble helicopter. It was a farmer, and he said, 'Sure, I'll take some people over,' and we happened to be the first."
Havens says that the title track on Nobody Left to Crown was written in 1968, but still has relevancy today. He says it's about how "we're guided to question certain things about our state of community, out of working so hard to put someone in who is the 'crown' for this short four-year period of time, [and] we've been disappointed each time around. So we figured we need to do our own thinking, our own speaking out. We don't need someone to do that for us anymore."