HE OPENED THE show at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, and Richie Havens will return this Friday night to Bethel Woods, the site of the legendary gathering.
Woodstock Original Returns Home
By Jeanne Sager
BETHEL August 14, 2007 Richie Havens always wanted to see a Bethel Woods or something like it.
The legendary performer whose three-hour opening of the Aquarian Exposition in White Lake set the tone for the three-day festival is coming back to town Friday night.
It will be his first glimpse of the performing arts center that has risen on a field he first saw from a stage, looking out on a sea of people.
Havens was never meant to open Woodstock.
“They had to chase me for an hour to get me to go on first,” the folk guitarist said, a guttural laugh coming from the depths that produce the low, deep tones heard ’round the world.
“I said those people have been sitting there for a week waiting, they’ll kill me!” he recalled.
He finally emerged and saw hundreds of thousands of people people from across the globe, people who had torn down the gates just to hear the music.
“The first thing that hit me was, this is something we, my generation, was expecting to experience in the late ’50s,” Havens recalled.
Ten years later, they’d made it.
“We were finally able to bring out an undertone that across the board we now have a layer sewn into the fabric of everything.”
Havens started to sing… and sing… and sing.
“I’d get off the stage, and they’d yell, ‘Richie, three more!’”
Finally he was out of songs, and the old spiritual “Motherless Child” was the only thing he could summon to appease the enthusiastic crowds.
“The word ‘freedom’ came to me because I realized, this is the spot… I’m here to say whatever I want,” he recalled.
He started singing.
“Freedom, freedom… sometimes I feel like a motherless child…” and on it went, Havens recalled.
He closed it with a call for mother, a call for brother.
It was a call for everyone to realize they were connected, they were family, he said.
Raised in Brooklyn singing doo-wop and gospel, Havens said it was like a piece of his past coming out in the words of the spiritual, meshed with his future as he called for “freedom.”
The impromptu song has since been considered an anthem of the Woodstock generation.
It gave them a voice, Havens said, brought them out of the closet, so-to-speak.
“With that, I relegated myself and all those other people singing with me to above-ground status,” he said. “We could be seen, touched…”
The festival brought “a whole new approach to everything,” Havens said.
Along with fellow Woodstock performers Arlo Guthrie (who will share the stage at Bethel Woods this Friday), Country Joe McDonald (who appeared twice, once with his band, The Fish) and Melanie, Havens has been trying to keep that alive for almost 40 years.
“Between me, Arlo, Country Joe and Melanie, we’ve probably been back up there at least eight times apiece,” Havens surmised.
If he wasn’t working on reunion weekend, Havens said he’d head upstate.
“That’s how we kept it alive,” he said.
For one reunion concert, Havens actually called his guy in the city to bring in the sounds and lights to help the show go on as promised to the crowds.
“Sid Bernstein was supposed to do the last show [before the site was purchased by Alan Gerry],” Havens recalled.
But the man made famous for bringing the Beatles to America didn’t follow through on plans to erect a permanent stage and performing arts center on the site.
Bethel ’94 brought 25,000 people, and Bernstein wasn’t prepared.
But Havens didn’t want the fans to be disappointed.
“I called my guy in New York City and said, we have nothing here,” he recalled. “I went silent, and he said… ‘and?’”
Havens convinced him to come to Bethel, and the show had lights and sound.
In 1999, Havens was one of the headliners at the 30-year celebration at “A Day in the Garden,” invited by the Gerry Foundation to play.
He said he got a call from Gerry as plans began to make the site into a musical tribute.
“His daughter told him, ‘Don’t do anything until you talk to Richie Havens,’” Havens said with a laugh.
He recalls sending a letter to the Town of Bethel.
“Our paper to [them] was that they should build this thing next to the original site,” Havens recalled. “Make it a center for music and all arts… the community should have benefited from it from the very first day.”
Friday night, Havens will see what has blossomed on the old Yasgur farm.
He and Guthrie will take the stage once again to sing about freedom and the future.
Havens will be promoting his 31st album, but he’ll sing some familiar tunes too.
“I have to sing some of the old songs or they’ll beat me up,” he said with a laugh.
Gates for the Havens/Guthrie show will open at 6:30 p.m.
The show starts at 8 p.m. Friday night.
For information or tickets, visit www.bethelwoodslive.org.