I am saddened to read of the death of Brooklyn born folk singer Richie Havens who died of an apparent heart attack at age 72 in his home in Jersey City. I first became aware of Havens as a child when hearing his singular sound through the walls of my elder brother’s room. Songs like “Handsome Johnny” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” have stayed with me ever since. Staying with me as well, as doubtless as with millions of others, was Haven’s sublime interpretation of the sublime spiritual,
“ Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” which he performed at Woodstock and was included in both the record and film of the event. Havens later admitted he largely improvised the tune as he had run out his song list while the next act was stuck in traffic and the concert promoters were pleading with him to keep playing. Keep playing he did. It was a magnificent, unforgettable improvisation and, to my mind, the most moving version of that most moving song I’ve ever heard.
Moreover, even as much if not most of the music of that event seems hopelessly dated and anachronistic, it is not so with the music of Havens. It proved the highlight of a steady and honorable career which ended only in his death.
Havens’s gifts lay not in writing but rather interpretation but Havens did create something that few musicians of any genre accomplish: a sound that is immediately recognizable as his own from the very first notes of a performance.
A working musician in an age of the rock star (rock stars do not live in Jersey city) Havens continued to record, tour and perform in small venues long after many of his contemporaries retired or died.
As luck would have it, I had a brief but very memorable encounter with the man many years ago when we both much younger. It took place at an event at the New School where Havens was to speak and it was my job to make the speakers coffee. I was a 18 a year old guitar playing fool and one intrigued and flabbergasted by Havens’ unique rhythmic guitar playing which I loved but which made no sense to me whatsoever in terms of playing. I summoned up the courage to ask Havens how he did what he did. The man was the epitome of grace and decency, patiently explaining to me the mysteries of open tuning and its strange fingering, demonstrating as best he could without a guitar. There was not an ounce of idiot rock star in the man.
Those moments of kindness were of great importance to me then and were again today when, reading of Haven’s death, they swam up from my memory.
“Little things , “ a wise man once told me, “ are big things.” And so they are.
Rest you in peace, Richie Havens. Thank you for the music and the decency. You finished the race. You fought the good fight. You kept the faith.