Twenty-eight year old Richie Havens had twelve years under his professional belt when he was shoved onto the Woodstock stage. The date was Friday, August 15, 1969, opening day, and traffic already was so tangled that several bands — scheduled opener Sweetwater among them — were having trouble getting to Yasgur’s farm. Havens agreed to take the stage when Bert Sommer, a young performer who had yet to play in front of a crowd, refused to fill in for Sweetwater. Three hours later Havens walked off stage a legend, and with a new song in his pocket.
Three hours is a lot of time to fill, but the producers kept shoving the folk rocker back onto the stage while they tried to hustle the night’s other performers to the site. Havens exhausted his repertoire, nothing left to play. He started jamming on a simple riff, pure Havens — open tuning, almost percussive strumming — and then over the top he ad-libbed a variation on the spiritual “Motherless Child.” Freedom, freedom, freedom….
There might not be one single moment that created the Woodstock mythos, but one would have a hard time finding a performance that better captures three days of love, peace, and music. Havens’s performance as shown in the Woodstock documentary cemented his legend. He used his new-found status for good, devoting the next forty years to music, education, and charity. Unfortunately the great man retired from touring in March 2012 at the tender age of seventy-one. (Update: Richie passed away after a heart attack on April 22, 2013.)
Here’s Richie Havens’s Woodstock set list and where you can find official recordings:
- The Minister From Gault
- From the Prison
- Get Together
- From the Prison (Reprise)
- I’m A Stranger Here
- High Flying Bird
- I Can’t Make It Anymore (Woodstock Diary (DVD or CD))
- With A Little Help From My Friends
- Handsome Johnny (Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (CD))
- Strawberry Fields Forever/Hey Jude (Woodstock: The Lost Performances (VHS)–partial, no Hey Jude)
- Freedom (Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm(CD))
Your official Woodstock soundtrack song count to date: 4