If you’ve ever watched the “Woodstock” film, one of the most enduring images is that of protest singer Riche Havens furiously strumming his guitar while singing the song “Freedom.” His passion and commitment to peace and equality marked the nearly 50-year career of Havens, who died on Monday at age 72 at his New Jersey home after a sudden heart attack.
Havens, who mixed blues, jazz, traditional spirituals, rock and country music into his unique blend of folk music, was almost as well-known for his many unique interpretations of hits by contemporaries such as the Beatles (“Here Comes The Sun”), Bob Dylan (“Just Like a Woman”), Cat Stevens (“Peace Train”) and newer artists such as Bruce Springsteen (“Streets of Philadelphia”) as he was for such originals as “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed.”
After cutting his teeth on the Greenwich Village, New York, folk scene in the early 1960’s and releasing his first album, Mixed Bag, in 1967, Havens burst onto the national scene in 1969 at the Woodstock festival. Though he’d been signed early on by Bob Dylan’s manager and already released five albums at that point, it was his nearly three-hour opening set at the legendary hippie gathering in upstate New York that cemented Haven’s reputation as a fierce live performer with a gravely, forceful voice and intense delivery.
The most indelible moment of a set that included his take on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” came when he mixed his original song “Freedom” with the traditional “Motherless Child,” an impromptu vamp that summarized what would become his lifelong commitment to peace, equality and spirituality.
Richard Pierce Havens was born on January 21, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York, as the eldest of nine children.
A restless spirit, Havens collaborated with a wide range of artists over the years, from Bob Marley to modern dance acts Groove Armada and Thievery Corporation. He performed at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993 and released his autobiography, “They Can’t Hide Us Anymore,” in 2000.