Skip to main content

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."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



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
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT