By Adam Ellsworth.
When you get down to it, there aren’t that many famous musical performances from Woodstock.
Music nerds might point to Crosby, Stills & Nash playing live for only the second time, or The Who playing Tommy and Pete Townshend kicking Abbie Hoffman off the stage. Maybe they would point to Arlo Guthrie’s performance, or at least the way he giggled after announcing, “New York State Thruway’s closed man.”
But really, for such an historic music event, Woodstock isn’t much remembered for the tunes. It’s remembered for an iconic poster, a lot of rain, and bad brown acid.
Despite the fact that the festival was three days long, musically, Woodstock is really just Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” Santana playing “Soul Sacrifice,” Joe Cocker singing “With A Little Help from My Friends,” and the opening performance by Richie Havens.
Havens died Monday of a heart attack. He was 72.
Over his career, Havens released many albums, though none of them sold particularly well. He’s best known for his iconic performance at Woodstock.
Havens was the first performer onstage at the 1969 festival, and even after playing for well over an hour, he wasn’t allowed to leave. None of the other artists were ready to take over, so Havens had to keep playing. Eventually, he exhausted his repertoire, but, as there was still no one ready to relieve him, he was forced to improvise. He came up with “Freedom,” which incorporated the spiritual “Motherless Child.”
There was probably no better summing up of Woodstock Nation than the lines “Sometimes, I feel, like a motherless child/A long ways from my home.” There they all were, half a million orphan longhairs in an upstate New York field, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that they weren’t really alone. They may have been a long ways from home, but they were free, and they had a family after all.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and in that improvisatory moment, Richie Havens created an anthem that summed up a movement. He did more than just that over his 40-plus year career, but even if that was all he did, it still would have been something.