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Richie Havens redefines folk over four decades 

Wednesday, Mar 4 2009
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You can easily call Richie Havens a folksinger. He is, after all, an acoustic-guitar–playing Boomer. But you can't call him typical: His distinctive style couldn't be further from the sanctimonious post-Dylan stereotype. Instead, he's continued to propagate the dogged, soulful, street-level folk that made him famous.

Havens first drew the world's attention when he appeared in the 1970 film Woodstock. Backed by guitarist Paul "Deano" Williams and conga player Daniel Ben Zebulon, he delivered a powerful cover of the traditional spiritual "Motherless Child" (his version became better known as "Freedom" because he chanted the word during the song's ad-libbed intro). His tall figure hunched over his guitar, sweat soaking the top of his long orange tunic, Havens played for the half-million-strong crowd as if he were in a fitful trance.

He was likely exhausted. Though he appeared in the middle of the film, Havens actually opened the 1969 festival, and "Freedom" ended a three-hour set (he had to cover for other musicians who were stuck in traffic). Havens puts the legendary clip in perspective today. "I was out of songs at that point," he says, "so I just riffed on what brought us all there. It was that simple."

Havens' Woodstock performance cemented his reputation as one of folk's most compelling artists, not to mention his status as a major African-American artist in the hippie subculture. It was also testimony to the versatility and grit of his background.

Havens grew up in Brooklyn's melting-pot Bedford-Stuyvesant district, singing the gospel and street-corner doo-wop that influenced his reedy vocal style. By the late '50s, Manhattan's burgeoning boho mecca beckoned. "Kids on the block used to call me a beatnik because I drew portraits and wrote poetry," Havens recalls. After hearing that the beatniks convened in Greenwich Village, its folk clubs and poetry readings inspired him to move there by 1961. Havens credits his upbringing in immigrant-heavy Brooklyn for easing his cultural transition into the burgeoning Village scene, where he was one of few African-Americans.

Impatient to start performing, Havens honed a unique, chunkily percussive bar-chord guitar style that endeared him to the neighborhood clubs that would soon lure Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. His range enabled him to tour colleges with the likes of Nina Simone and Mongo Santamaria, and get jazz and blues clubs bookings in cities across the country.

But it was Woodstock — which Havens terms "the Great Becoming" — that led to his 40-year, 30-album career on both major labels and independents, including his own Stormy Forest imprint. His own songs — from 1967's war-protesting "Handsome Johnny" to the politician-bashing title track of his most recent album, Nobody Left to Crown — reflect the bluesy gravitas he has also brought to his covers of "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Here Comes the Sun."

Since resurfacing in recent years to a new generation via collaborations with electronic act Groove Armada, the 68-year-old "kid from Brooklyn" has gotten more of his due as an innovator. Nobody Left to Crown finds Havens mellowing his instrumental sound with cello and organ accompaniment. But his lyrical and vocal strength remain steadfast on tracks like "(Can't You Hear) Zeus's Anger Roar," the gospel feel of which reflects his early roots. Havens uses those dynamics to keep a sharpened edge to folk — and to prevent his music from succumbing to the genre's tedious stereotypes.

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Ron Nachmann

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