Richie Havens died Monday of a heart attack at his home in Jersey City, N.J. He was 72.
I think for most people the first time they heard Richie Havens it was from listening to the Woodstock album or watching the opening sequence of Woodstock, the movie. His performance of “Freedom/Motherless Child” in that film was riveting and earned him much acclaim. Many of us, though, had been familiar with Havens long before that, beginning with his first album, “Mixed Bag,” released in 1967.
His voice was soulful and deep. He always sounded eternal, immortal, and profoundly spiritual. His distinctive style owed much to the way he played guitar. He’d tune his guitar in an open D tuning, and fret by baring chords with his thumb; he actually played very few chords, it was his unique strumming that made it sound rhythmic.
He had already made a name for himself playing the coffee houses in Greenwich Village, when in 1967 he signed with Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, and recorded that first album, which contains one of my favorite songs, “Follow.” As I recall, he only had one “hit” song and that was with George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”
I saw Havens in concert just once. He not only sounded spiritual but he had a very spiritual aura. I don’t know if he followed any particular religion, however his daughter, Rachel Marco-Havens, has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for over two decades. Tuesday, on The Progressive, she wrote this:
My Father gave everything he had for the purpose of spreading beauty and love. The exchange of love that he shared, through his music, with listeners was unconditional, and every person he has ever touched should know that what they felt during their own personal exchange was genuine. He still loves you. Unconditionally . . .
It gives me great comfort to know that my dear teachers are saying prayers for his swift return, there is a lamp burning for him in the shrine room at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra that will burn for the traditional 49 days of his bardo and the prayers abound. The connections and friendships that he made in the Dharma community were very special to him.
Om ah mi dewa hri
The video below is from a 1990s Peter, Paul and Mary special on PBS. The song, “The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life)” was written by Peter Yarrow. The refrain is obviously Buddhist inspired, however, Yarrow has said it is not a reference to Buddhism. It’s an anti-war song. Richie Havens’ voice in duet with Yarrow’s gives the song a timeless, transcendent quality.
Take your place on the great mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time . . .
Photograph: Leon Morris/Redferns