Letters

Letters 07-25-2016

Remember Bush-Cheney Does anyone remember George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? They were president and vice president a mere eight years ago. Does anyone out there remember the way things were at the end of their duo? It was terrible...

Mass Shootings And Gun Control The largest mass shooting in U.S. history occurred December 29,1890, when 297 Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee in South Dakota were murdered by federal agents and members of the 7th Cavalry who had come to confiscate their firearms “for their own safety and protection.” The slaughter began after the majority of the Sioux had peacefully turned in their firearms...

Families Need Representation When one party dominates the Michigan administration and legislature, half of Michigan families are not represented on the important issues that face our state. When a policy affects the non-voting K-12 students, they too are left out, especially when it comes to graduation requirements...

Raise The Minimum Wage I wanted to offer a different perspective on the issue of raising the minimum wage. The argument that raising the minimum wage will result in job loss is a bogus scare tactic. The need for labor will not change, just the cost of it, which will be passed on to the consumer, as it always has...

Make Cherryland Respect Renewable Cherryland Electric is about to change their net metering policy. In a nutshell, they want to buy the electricity from those of us who produce clean renewable electric at a rate far below the rate they buy electricity from other sources. They believe very few people have an interest in renewable energy...

Settled Science Climate change science is based on the accumulated evidence gained from studying the greenhouse effect for 200 years. The greenhouse effect keeps our planet 50 degrees warmer due to heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. Basic principles of physics and chemistry dictate that Earth will warm as concentrations of greenhouse gases increase...

Home · Articles · News · Music · Ritchie Havens
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Ritchie Havens

Robert Downes - May 5th, 2008
Richie Havens sure seems to be having a good time.
In fact, the folk legend has been on a roll for more than 40 years now in a life filled with honors, wisdom, travel, friends, and always the joy of making some of the most singular music in American history.
Havens, 67, is performing in Northern Michigan twice this summer, starting with a show at the Traverse City Opera House this Friday, May 9 at 8 p.m., and again at the Dunegrass and Blues Festival in August. Between those gigs, you’ll find him flying back and forth between Colorado, Oregon, New York, Paris, Switzerland and Monaco, among other destinations.
“I’m always traveling,” he says in a phone interview. “I started out playing six days a week for the first seven years of my career, and for the past 29 years it’s been every weekend all year ’round.”
Havens is a living treasure of Americana. Like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary, he was one of the seminal influences and players in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and has maintained an enduring popularity ever since.

FOLK ROOTS
Born the eldest of nine children into a musical family in Brooklyn (his father played piano by ear), Havens performed in street-corner doo-wop bands in the ’50s, singing a cappella harmonies in his rich baritone.
But the times, they were a-changin’. An artist as well as a singer, he began drawing portraits at the age of 20 on the streets and squares of Greenwich Village during its beatnik days, gravitating to the poetry and folk music of its clubs. By the early ’60s, he was a regular in the audience at the clubs, singing along with the performers.
“One night I was sitting in the audience singing, and Fred Neil (“Dolphins,” “Tear Down the Walls”) called out from the stage: ‘Richie, why don’t you learn to play the guitar and get up here? You’re singing all of our songs already.’”
Although it had never occurred to Havens to play the guitar, that’s just what he did, learning the instrument on the spot and chancing upon his unusual style by a stroke of luck. Rather than learning how to play with a standard tuning in the traditional manner, Havens tuned his guitar to an open chord, which allowed him to strum away, using his thumb to fret the instrument.
Havens has played the guitar as an open chord instrument ever since, tuning his acoustic D40 Guild guitar to DADF#AD. He also reaches incredible speeds with his strumming technique for sustained periods of time -- a feat which requires both strength and stamina.
“The weird part of it is I don’t even think about playing,” he says. “I don’t try to play slow or fast -- I just play however the mood strikes me. I’m just accompanying my voice, and my playing can be slower one day and faster the next.”
Havens also never knows exactly what songs he’ll perform at a show.
“I never work on a set list -- I only know the first and last song I’ll perform,” he says, adding that he feels out the audience and intuits what to play. “I’ve had more than 100 people come up to me after shows and say they were amazed that I performed three songs in a row that they wanted to hear, and how did I know what they were thinking? Somehow, I just know.”
GLORY DAY
Havens soon made a name for himself in Greenwich Village, with mentoring by singer Nina Simone and songwriters Fred Neil and Dino Valenti. After being signed by Bob Dylan’s legendary manager, Albert Grossman, he released his first album, “Mixed Bag” on Verve in 1967.
But it was his power of intuition and improvisation that led to one of the most memorable performances of the 20th century when he opened the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. He played for 400,000 people for three hours, getting one encore after another for his bravura performance. Finally, having run out of songs, he performed the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and started riffing with the vocal tag line of “Freedom” to symbolize the power of the ‘60s youth movement. The electrifying, on-the-spot synthesis of emotion and music is considered by many critics to be the best performance in the film “Woodstock,” securing Richie Havens’ career as a must-see act for all time.
But there’s a paradox about Havens. Although he’s clearly a creative soul and enjoys painting, drawing and sculpting in his studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, he’s written relatively few of his own songs.
He’s best known as an interpreter of other musicians’ work, most notably Bob Dylan on tunes such as “Just Like a Woman” (which was the standout performance at big Bob’s 60th birthday tribute bash). Havens is also noted for his remake of the Beatles’ tune, “Here Comes the Sun.”
He’s influenced other musicians as well: back in his Greenwich Village days, he taught a little-known musician named Jimmy James how to play Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Jimmy ditched his band, The Flames, and reinvented himself as Jimi Hendrix, with the song becoming one of his biggest hits.

WHAT’S NEW
Havens has written more of his own songs in recent years however. “I wrote most of the songs on my last two albums,” he says, “and it’s funny, but all of the songs I wrote were in keys I’ve never sang in before.”
His new album, “Nobody Left to Crown,” comes out this year, with the title song being one of optimism in the face of adversity. “One thing I’ve seldom done is to name an album by the title of a song,” he says. “But this song seems to fit: it says we should be crowning ourselves for all the hassles we’ve had to go through just to be normal in these times. We should be patting ourselves on our backs.”
Given that he travels constantly and was a child of one of the richest musical scenes in American history, does he ever run across anyplace similar to Greenwich Village in its hey-day?
“Yes, I’ve been surprised to see that kind of scene happening in the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” he responds. “It used to be just barren down there, but now there are all kinds of music clubs and cafes and it’s the same atmosphere as Greenwich Village in 1958. It’s like New Orleans used to be, and 90 percent of the musicians are real good.”
What kind of advice would he give to young singer-songwriters?
“Make sure that you can be heard by the public in any place that allows you to play,” he says. “And don’t chase anything, because eventually, that will start chasing you. Remember that you are the show, the instrument, the words and ideas.”
“For bands trying to make it, I know that a lot of them save their best song for last, so I always tell them to play their last song first,” he adds. “Because if you can knock ’em out in the audience from the very beginning, you set the mood for the whole night.”
Count on Richie Havens to knock ’em out from beginning to end at his upcoming shows in Northern Michigan.

Richie Havens performs Friday, May 9 at 8 p.m. at the TC Opera House, with tickets $35-$50.
 
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