Folk Activist – Havens’ moving message still powers the music

It‘s not accurate to say that Richie Havens is “back,” because he never went away. “We’re still on it. Actually, we didn’t get off of it yet,” he says. “It was just a little disguised by the ware of the day.” A fiery folk activist whose “Handsome Johnny” (co-written with Louis Gossett Jr.) became an antiwar anthem in the late sixties, whose cover of “Here Comes the Sun” was a signal of hope, Havens is irrepressibly positive, and his voice and message wear well in the nineties, as evidenced by a new urban folk release, Cuts to the Chase (Rhino).

Havens is a master at creating new folk standards from the popular file, and Chase features writers Jackson Browne, Sting, Eric Clapton and Robert Cray, as well as Bob Dylan‘s classic “The Times They Are A—Changin’.”

“A lot of songs talk about things we should be talking about, but they don‘t have answers. I try to get the clear material, finished songs,“ Havens says with a deep, calming, trademark rasp. “Songs that move me and have meaning through the generations that I pass through should be kept alive. They were important for us in the peace and civil rights movements. Folk music became big because it was talking about the then.”

Havens began singing doo-wop at 12 with friends in Brooklyn, shaping a unique1y soulful rough—edged voice. At 20, he discovered folk music and the acoustic guitar in Greenwich Village. “Not the acoustic guitar as I’d known it in the country music of that time, but acoustic guitar in terms of singing songs that had meaning—people songs. Those songs inspired me to pick up the guitar.”

The singer jokes that he has survived because he’s in the communications business, not in show business. He maintains an impressive touring and recording schedule to this day, making time to work as the voice of Amtnak. And he founded an environmental organization called the Natural Guard, which allows children to positively affect their own communities. “One of the biggest secrets about the environment is it’s not about environment, it’s about people,” Havens says. “And if it has anything to do with animals and people, children are involved emotionally. They’re going to save this planet whether we like it or not. In the last ten years, every kid has realized that the planet is in trouble. Now we have planeteers.”

At 53, Havens listens more closely than ever to young people. His favorite band at the moment is L.A.-based Rage Against the Machine. “Those are heavy guys, and as far as I’m concerned they’re doing a very refined Hendrix It’s real poetry, real writing and thoughtful arrangements. It’s high-end music. The kids need to vent and get it out or they’ll be real angry and burst. And if we don’t listen to it, we’ll never know how to help them.”

Last summer, Havens returned to the original Woodstock site, where his fiery improvisation “Freedom” had set the tone for a festival and generation 25 years earlier. “I knew that a lot of young kids would show up looking for where they belong, and they found it,” he says. “It was incredible. It was all free and lasted for a week, no problems. They had four food booths with free food for seven days. I pitched my own tent there in the field with everybody else.”

Havens hopes to produce a concert film (five cameras, 48-track digital sound) to prove that there were really 122,000 at “Bethel… Where It All Began,” rather than the 20,000 as reported, there watching Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Canned Heat, Country Joe, Paul Winter, Soul Asylum, Mountain, Joe Walsh, Vanilla Fudge, and local bands from the surrounding four states. “That was the way it should have been, and that was what was going to happen there whether it was the official Woodstock or not. A lot of the young bands picked a song out of the sixties or seventies to play, and the energy and power they put into those songs, you knew they meant them. These kids just happened to be from another generation, but they understood what it meant.”

Richie Havens will perform at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, with Louis Small on keyboards and Daryl Pettiford on guitar, on Thursday, November 10. Susan James will open the show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. 885-0750.

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