If you can think back to a time in the mid- to late 1960s when folk music was king, there are a few faces and names automatically associated with its rise to dominance. Undoubtedly, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez are among them, but sly and soulful guitarist Richie Havens deserves to be on that list as well. His performances and musical/poetic presence helped make Greenwich Village the cultural hub it once was in New York City, and his songs during that time arguably helped showcase the beautiful nature of protest music better than those of anyone else on the scene.
But where many of his onetime contemporaries have switched media or stopped making music altogether, Havens, 67, is still on the beat, still touring, and keeping his grassroots approach intact.
"I'm the kind of person where I don't go out the back door when the concert is over," Havens says via phone from Woodstock, New York, during a recent interview. "I go out the front door and talk to folks and stay till the last person leaves."
That type of humility has been a part of his persona since he started performing 40 years ago, and not surprisingly, it hasn't left him yet.
Depending upon how you look at it, Havens was to folk music what Gil Scott-Heron was to jazz — a beloved outsider who was destined early on to exist just beyond the edge of what's popular within his own genre. Like Scott-Heron, the very nature of Havens' music challenges the fact that we should have music genres in the first place.
"I'm fortunate that, of all the guys that came out of the Village, I'm the only one that gets called out to blues or jazz festivals," Havens says. "I used to get scared when I'd see the bill, 'Richie Havens, folk rock singer, or folk jazz singer, or folk blues singer,' but I've realized that means I sorta get to play for everyone."
And over the years, he's performed for as many types of audiences as one could imagine. It was Havens who opened Woodstock in 1969, and despite its rock-heavy lineup, Havens received so many electrifying ovations from the audience that he played encore after encore until he eventually ran out of songs. Although that's the concert that made him a household name, he had another of those moments in 1993, when he performed at Bill Clinton's inauguration at the president-elect's request.
There's no distinct methodology to his style; he just sings from his heart — something he calls first-generational primal scream. With a honey-coated voice and soothing guitar skills, that scream of his is sometimes more like a whisper, but it's powerful just the same. He doesn't write nearly as many songs as he used to but rather chooses to reinterpret songs and put his own folk flair into them.
"If I cover a song, I sing a song that's really changed my life," Havens says. "I probably write about 50 percent of what I record and perform. Another 25 percent would be new songs that changed my life, and the rest are songs by unknown writers that really mean a lot. I always say, I only know the first and last song that I'm going to sing when I perform, but what happens in between is up to the audience."
He's had that approach to making music ever since he was a youth growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He started singing doo-wop on the corner with neighborhood friends, but by the time he moved to Greenwich Village, "I knew I wasn't going to be singing no doo-wop over there!" Instead, he learned to play guitar and started rubbing elbows with Dylan and beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, of whom you can hear traces in Havens' early material on Mixed Bag and Electric Havens.
Talk to him about Miles Davis or Nina Simone and he can go on and on about the essence of the music. But ask him what he thinks of the New York Giants playing for the Super Bowl and his answer is comical.
"You know... they sort of lost me when they took the Dodgers out of Brooklyn," Havens says with a laugh. "I used to follow sports, but not since then."
With his shiny bald head, slim frame, and trademark goatee, Havens looks like a relic from the past, but he's still on the road every weekend playing shows across the country and shaking hands with activists and lovers of folk music year-round. Havens is hip enough to have a MySpace page (rare for a musician of his generation) that he operates himself, and he continues extending himself to younger audiences in any way he can. Unlike many activists of his era, who complain about a collective complacency among today's youth, Havens says he sees something totally different.
"The only difference I see between my generation and young folks of today is that they aren't talking about the big-picture politics like we did but rather the politics in their own communities," Havens says. "There are activists singing songs and doing work right now in small towns and cities across the country, but it's localized. I am lucky enough to see what a lot of folks my age don't see."
When he's not working on songs or performing, Havens finds time to act and participate in documentaries. Most recently, he was in Todd Haynes' latest film, I'm Not There, based on the life of Dylan. It was an easy roll for him, since he and Dylan have been friends for decades, and he even pontificates somewhat on Dylan's success versus his own.
"He's out there almost as much as I am," Havens says. "He's a hard worker. I think he's finally becoming the rock 'n' roller that he always wanted to be. Back when he was on stage in the '60s, he wanted to play rock 'n' roll and have the sound of a band behind him, and now he's got there. He went from writing and singing his own poetry to writing and singing his own genre; that's why he's successful."
You may sense that Havens realizes he's the last of a dying breed, now that folk isn't half as popular as it used to be, but he says he can't foresee a time when he'd stop playing the music he loves.
"I'm not getting tired of it at all," Havens says. "I'm actually enjoying it more and more. If audiences will still have me, I'm going to keep playing. For me, it's like breathing."