Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth

Richie Havens ended his tour of Planet Earth yesterday, passing away at age 72 in New Jersey.

As news outlets from the New York Times to Rolling Stone remind us, Havens was the opening act at Woodstock in 1969, though he was slated to play sixth on the schedule. Traffic and other travel delays scotched those plans, and Havens ended up playing a marathon three-hour session, improvising when he ran out of material he'd planned to play for the gig.

From David Browne at Rolling Stone:
Havens wasn't supposed to be the first act to open the festival; that slot originally was intended for the band Sweetwater, but that band wound up being stuck in traffic. Backstage, co-organizer Michael Lang approached Havens and practically begged him to go on instead. "It had to be Richie – I knew he could handle it," Lang later wrote. 

After performing a half-dozen songs, Havens ran out of material – until, he later said, he remembered "that word I kept hearing while I looked over the crowd in my first moments onstage. The word was: freedom." Havens began chanting that word over and over, backed by his second guitarist and conga player, and eventually segued into the gospel song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," which he had heard in church as a child. The combined, surging medley wasn't just a crowd-pleaser; it later became a highlight of the Woodstock movie, which also immortalized Havens' orange dashiki.
I was too young for Woodstock, which is not true of some of the very many remembering him fondly in the comments to Ed Tracey's newsbreaking diary on Daily Kos. But one of the unanticipated benefits of organizing against apartheid on the UC Berkeley campus in the mid-1980s was that Woodstock-era artists and activists alongside we young'uns had the connections to invite fellow travelers like Havens to to lend fierce and righteous inspiration to our little corner of an international struggle.

In Richie Havens' case, the Woodstock-era connection was a woman I first met at Berkeley's 1985 anti-apartheid sit in on Sproul Plaza, and who became a very dear friend: Hannah Ziegelaub, an artist, intellectual, ardent activist, and subject of a documentary by Allie Light made some years after I met her, Dialogues with Madwomen (1994). Hannah passed away in 2006.

Hannah invited Richie Havens to perform at a pivotal moment in our campus movement, in the Spring of 1986 when it it was clear we had the moral wind at our backs, the support of campuses and communities across the U.S. and the world, but the governing Regents were standing firm against demands to divest the University's massive investment portfolio of companies with ties to South Africa's apartheid regime.

Havens agreed to come west to fuel our fire, and that's exactly what he did.

Soweto to Berkeley is a documentary about the anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s at Cal, made by Richard Bock and released in 1988. (I had a hand in writing the screenplay.) One of the clips from the film that Richard posted on YouTube is driven by a soundtrack of Havens on Sproul Plaza in that spring of 1986.

The clip interleaves the performer's inspired singing and playing (Going Back To My Roots) with construction of a sprawling shantytown to blockade California Hall, the campus building where UC Berkeley's Office of the Chancellor is housed. Click on the still to watch the video on YouTube (sorry, embedding is disabled).

[For the record, the 50 min. documentary is an hour well-spent, if I'm permitted to say so myself ... contact Richard Bock at the e-mail given at the end of the YouTube clip if you're interested, or rent it for a classroom showing from the Cinema Guild.]

That afternoon on Sproul Plaza was the only time I had the privilege to watch and hear Richie Havens live. I count myself lucky. The man was a bright star in a great firmament.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
When authorities equate disobedience with violence


  1. I was one of the people carrying the big prefab plywood slabs through Sproul Plaza that day. And I knew the guy in the red shirt rocking out behind Mr. Havens. Great day, great memories.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous ... the guy in the red shirt looks like Andy B-- to me, and I think he might be wearing a "Stop the Ship" shirt commemorating a blockade that stopped the unloading of South African cargo at the Port of San Francisco that same year.

  2. Thanks, I wasn't there in the mid 80s but Havens and his music have lived in my brain for a long time....I still find myself humming "sometimes I feel..." 40+ years later