A long, long way from home: Remembering the life of musician Richie Havens

Kevin J. Aylmer | 7/31/2013, 12:28 p.m.
Richie Havens Live Loud

Following Woodstock, Havens’ acoustic alchemy turned to freewheeling interpretations and collaborations tinged with cosmic consciousness and occasional indignation, which, as writer George Sand once observed, is the highest form of love. After his immensely successful rearrangement of George Harrison’s solar benediction, “Here Comes the Sun,” Richie joined The Who’s stage performances of the world’s first rock opera, Tommy. Three years later, he would play the lead role of Othello in Catch My Soul, a rock-and-roll interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Havens then co-starred with Richard Pryor in Greased Lightning, the balladeer joining the comedian in retelling the story of Wendell Scott, the first African American to obtain a NASCAR racing license. Inspired by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s unprecedented visit to Jerusalem in 1978, the ever-flexible social activist released “Shalom, Salaam Aleichum” which became a No. 1 hit in Israel.

For the next three decades, Havens flourished as an Aquarian ambassador in kinetic touch with his Native American ancestry, an awareness that transforms the deceptive simplicity of “The Indian Prayer” on Mixed Bag II into an experience of spiritual transcendence. This heightened ancestral awareness culminated in his decisive role as a founding member of the Native American Music Awards, the first of which aired on April 22, 1998. Thirty years after his inspirational August 15, 1969, helicopter ride over Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, when some 500,000 festival goers below appeared as a dayglo mosaic of humanity, Havens released his autobiography, They Can’t Hide Us Anymore.

For this musical Brahman, traditional indigenous reverence for the environment naturally inspired ecological activism. He became a co-founder of the North Wind Undersea Institute, a hands-on learning center headquartered in a Victorian sea captain’s mansion on City Island in the Bronx. Moving from conversationalist to advocate, Havens explained: “Growing up, I learned that all the things we have labeled as social issues, such as homelessness, hunger, drugs, joblessness, are in fact environmentally based issues. They really are not social issues. The ramifications of being in any of these places is social, but the problem comes from the earth. To me, such issues are part of the environmental awareness that we should have. Today it is called environmental justice.”

At President Bill Clinton’s Environmental Inaugural Ball on Jan. 20, 1993, Havens serenaded the audience with reminders of Tibetans under Chinese occupation; closer to home, he admonished revelers “to explain the touch, the feel, the fabric of our lives.” Many television viewers were already familiar with his railroad Americana for Amtrak, Havens’ barely audible background vocal reminding us there’s "something about a train that’s magic.” These wistful vistas reemerge in Havens’ deferential interpretation of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” songwriter Robbie Robertson’s elegy for the closing months of the Civil War. “In the winter of ’65 …”

Soundtrack For A Revolution, released in 2009, is an invaluable study of the modern Civil Rights Movement. For this video documentary, Havens sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” A half-century removed from his youthful stint with the McCrea Gospel Singers of Brooklyn, his rendition underscores commentator Coretta Scott King’s belief in “the indispensable role that songs of rebellion and hope played in helping activists fight against brutality and injustice.” In the same vein, Havens anchors a spirited, front-porch version of “Tombstone Blues” in Todd Haynes’ enigmatic 2007 investigation of the Dylan mystique, I’m Not There. In another testament to the timeless quality of Havens’ art Quentin Tarantino airs “Freedom” in his controversial 2012 release, Django Unchained.

Legacy of an Activist

Four decades later, in 2008, Havens’ last recording, Nobody Left to Crown, reveals a pervasive skepticism and deep unease, resonating as a lover’s ongoing quarrel with America. Selections such as “Fates,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Hurricane Waters,” “Lives in the Balance” and “Zeus’s Anger Roar” comprise an uncompromising indictment of life in an era of inconvenient truths and governmental gridlock.

For an artist so closely identified with an unrelenting ecological consciousness, it is ironic that this beloved troubadour passed away on Earth Day, April 22. On August 18 at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a Day of Song and Remembrance will witness the scattering of Havens’ ashes at Max Yasgur’s farm. As an exemplar of evolved consciousness and a model for future generations, Havens represents a vital part of the American character: a conviction that the most radical idea in America is the long memory.

Kevin J. Aylmer currently teaches American and world history at Roxbury Community College and formerly served as the reggae, African and world music consultant to the original House of Blues in Cambridge, Mass.