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Richie Havens in his own words

By Richie Havens, Special to CNN
updated 2:23 PM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
Richie Havens opened the Woodstock festival at Bethel, New York, in 1969. He died of a heart attack Monday.
Richie Havens opened the Woodstock festival at Bethel, New York, in 1969. He died of a heart attack Monday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richie Havens, who came to wide fame as the opening act at Woodstock, died Monday
  • He wrote a recollection of the festival for CNN.com on its 40th anniversary in 2009
  • Havens said he took the stage to perform his iconic set when other acts were delayed
  • Havens: In a pre-digital age, Woodstock was a peaceful protest and global celebration

(CNN) -- Folk singer Richie Havens, who died Monday at 72, was the opening act in 1969 at Woodstock, the historic counterculture music festival, catapulting him to fame and securing his status as an icon of the baby-boomer generation. Havens would tour widely for the next 40 years and release more than 20 albums. On the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, Havens wrote this reflection for CNN.com in 2009.

Forty years ago this summer I wound up opening the Woodstock festival when the four acts scheduled before me were stuck in massive traffic jams and delayed in getting to the concert site in Bethel, New York.

My band had made it up from Manhattan in the early morning hours, and we had the least amount of gear to set up, so after some strong convincing from the promoters I agreed to go on.

Havens performs at a festival in England in 2007
Havens performs at a festival in England in 2007

The show was late in starting, and they were feeling pressure to start the music. We played for nearly three hours as they were still building the stage around me. I sang every song I knew, and when they asked me to go back on one more time, I improvised "Freedom."

When you see me in the movie tuning my guitar and strumming, I was actually trying to figure out what else I could possibly play! I looked out at all of those faces in front of me and the word "freedom" came to mind.

One of my strongest memories of that day is flying in the helicopter over that vast, spectacular crowd that had already stretched back over the hills and well out of view of the stage. Looking down, my only thought was, "This is incredible. ... We're really here and they can't hide us anymore."

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I've been asked all summer long if I believe Woodstock is still significant and if I think another Woodstock is ever likely to happen. Well, certainly large three-day festivals are still happening all over: Coachella and Bonnaroo in the United States, the Isle of Wight and Glastonbury abroad, but the reality of what made Woodstock become such a historic event has definitely changed.

Woodstock happened in August 1969, long before the Internet and mobile phones made it possible to communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere. It was a time when we weren't able to witness world events or the horrors of war live on 24-hour news channels.

Folk singer Richie Havens, the opening act at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, died on Monday, April 22, of a heart attack at age 72, his publicist said. He is pictured performing on a TV special in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 1969. Folk singer Richie Havens, the opening act at the 1969 Woodstock music festival, died on Monday, April 22, of a heart attack at age 72, his publicist said. He is pictured performing on a TV special in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 1969.
Legendary folk artist Richie Havens
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Photos: Legendary folk artist Richie Havens Photos: Legendary folk artist Richie Havens
2006: Havens says he's not anti-soldier

News coverage was filtered and selective, and we felt manipulated and silenced by the lack of information. So much was happening around us, and we didn't feel like we were being told the truth.

With everything that was going on in the late 1960s -- the war in Vietnam, civil and human rights issues, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination -- we rallied and relied on strength in numbers. We came together communally to be heard and to be acknowledged.

Though it's frequently portrayed as this crazy, unbridled festival of rain-soaked, stoned hippies dancing in the mud, Woodstock was obviously much more than that -- or we wouldn't still be talking about it in 2009. People of all ages and colors came together in the fields of Max Yasgur's farm.

Some traveled for days or weeks to get there. The world was quickly changing, and none of us was willing to sit and just watch it go by. We needed to feel like part of the change and that spontaneous coming together felt like the world's biggest family reunion!

When Wavy Gravy said, "What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000," that's what it felt like: hundreds of thousands of friends and loved ones taking care of one another. Woodstock was both a peaceful protest and a global celebration.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary were solely those of Richie Havens.

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