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Everybody get together

Folk singer Richie Havens brings generations closer with music

Margaret Hair

About once a year, VH1 Classic airs Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary, “Woodstock.”

For weeks after the airing, folk-rock singer Richie Havens can’t walk down a street without someone yelling the title of his iconic performance that ended his opening set at the festival, and opens the film: “Freedom.”

“My whole thing about that is, if I walk as fast as everyone else walks, no one sees me. If I slow down, I can’t get the next four blocks,” Havens said on the phone from New Jersey, apparently unbothered by the annual flood of attention.

“It really is wonderful to see that connection is there. : Every year a whole new strata of teenagers discover that movie,” Havens said. “They come in packs to the festivals, teenagers with their friends, and they’re interested in that kind of music.”

On Sunday at the new Strings Music Pavilion, Havens undoubtedly will play “Freedom,” along with the original folk songs and timeless covers that have gained him listeners for four decades. At the end of July, Havens, 67, will release his 27th record.

He spoke with 4 Points about being a face of American folk music, the continuing ideals of the 1960s, and the songs that changed his life.

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4 POINTS: What will your set be like on Sunday?

RICHIE HAVENS: It’s always the same in the sense that there are new songs and there are older songs. : There are certain songs that if I don’t sing, they’ll beat me up. Of course “Freedom” – if I don’t sing that, they’ll get me.

4 POINTS: How do you decide on the set list, with so many years of material?

RH: The vibe comes from the audience. Whatever happens between the first and last song, happens. : Sometimes I’ll be sitting around and I come off the stage and go, “Four Bob Dylan songs in a row? Where am I? Is that what they need here? Because I didn’t think about it.” :

One time after a show, a woman came up to me and said, “You played the four songs I wanted to hear, all in a row.”

I said, “No, I didn’t do that, because I didn’t know what I was going to do, because you do that to me.” It’s just a vibe people put out and it gets connected.

I do think of myself as a good audience. I didn’t really know that I was going to sing these particular songs. : Even my musicians don’t know what’s going to happen.

4 POINTS: In playing songs from your more recent albums on the same concert as the older stuff, are there similarities in what you’re singing about?

RH: Basically, the thread that I see that goes through all of it is that the first six songs that I learned were the songs that changed my life.

The information they had in them, the content, was something that I was too young to take seriously at the time, but singing the songs that I heard got to what I do. : That which we thought was then, is now.

4 POINTS: How does that apply to the songs you cover?

RH: I always call those songs surprises, because I’m surprised that I’m actually singing them. But it’s nice for them (the audience) to hear it happen, and to realize that the same experience that I have with the song, they are now having with the song.

It’s always fun to hear at the end of the show, people say, “I would never have expected to hear that song.” But that’s part of what I do, because that song did for me what I think it also has done for you just now.

4 POINTS: With the attention that you get from younger fans, do you think that points to all those songs that you started with, and that performance at Woodstock, still being relevant now?

RH: Yes, I do.

Interestingly enough, they just opened the museum that they put together on (part of) the land where (Woodstock) was held : What’s wonderful about it is that I really didn’t expect it to be as good as they made it. But they got the right people to build it and to put it together, and it’s even more informational context than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. :

This particular approach that they made (at the Woodstock Museum) was the history of that time – all of that stuff that made us seek answers to questions that we had, about where we’re living and who’s ruling it and who really should be ruling it and all of those things.

4 POINTS: So it’s better to put that 1960s folk music in context.

RH: I can tell you that my generation of rock ‘n’ roll – and I am by nature a rock ‘n’ roller – that we grew up trying to have a voice and have a say, that we had to become rebellious just to tell the truth and to ask for the truth to be told to us. And that’s what reflects throughout in this museum, is the history. :

The idea that I sing songs that I learned in the 1960s, still to this day, you can say how it relates prophetically now. We’re living under an arc that spans from 1950 to 2009, and that is the arc of history where they’ve embedded all of our personal, physical, spiritual contact with our world. 4 POINTS: So it’s all connected.

RH: The general needs of our world are the same. Peace, for sure, is one of the things we need. And we need content that brings us together because we can see the history of it. I’m singing songs that changed my life in hopes that they possibly have changed other peoples’ lives.

4 POINTS: Those six songs that saved your life, what were they?

RH: There was a singer-songwriter whose name was Fred Neil who sang a song that went, (sings) “Everybody’s talkin’ at me / I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’.” It was one of the songs that I heard actually in the early ’50s. Harry Nilsson made it famous and it didn’t get out until the ’60s.

But that was how advanced the guys were that I found in Greenwich Village when I got there, is that they had built up this whole history of our world that they have developed in songs.

4 POINTS: And all that still resonates today, everything from that 1960s Greenwich folk movement.

RH: : You know, if the 1960s didn’t happen, we would not have the possibility of having a woman or an African American president today. : That is something that it should have been history a long time ago, in terms of the newness of all of the things that we still cling to. :

There are so many who contributed to me, that it’s really something to look back and see all of the people who actually created me by singing songs that changed my whole life.

There was Dino Valente, who wrote (sings), “Come on people now, smile on your brother / Everybody get together,” – he actually wrote that song in 1958 (The Youngbloods took “Get Together” to the Top 10 in 1967).

There’s a chunk of history that everywhere in the world I go, people know that song. I mean, there are kids sitting on the curb singing that song with hats in front of them, busking.

And of all the songs that they sing, that one really gives you an insight into what they are searching for, and what they are finding.