Richie Havens’ Passion for Peace, Justice, and Damn Fine Music

Richie Havens, 1941-2013.<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Richie_Havens_1972_Hamburg.jpg">Heinrich Klaffs</a>/Wikimedia Commons

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

On Monday, celebrated folk singer Richie Havens died of a heart attack at his Jersey City home at the age of 72. The Brooklyn-born musician was famous for his distinctive, husky baritone, and was a skilled and tough guitar player who could turn strummed rhythms into rhapsodies. He recorded and performed some of the best acoustic covers of the ’60s and ’70s, including renditions of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” and (my personal favorite) George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”

Havens dabbled in cinema, including acting alongside comic giant Richard Pryor in 1977’s Greased Lightning, a film about Wendell Scott, the first African-American to get a NASCAR racing license. Quentin Tarantino used his signature song “Freedom” in a pivotal shootout sequence in Django Unchained. Havens toured tirelessly for nearly five decades. But since history has a nasty habit of reducing notable lives into single episodes, Havens will forever be remembered as the man who opened Woodstock ’69 with a mesmerizing three-hour set.

Through all this, he maintained his passion for liberal politics, environmental action, and education. Though he wasn’t the most fiercely political or ideological of his generation of entertainers, his dedication and interest were impressive nonetheless. In 1976, Havens cofounded the North Wind Undersea Institute, an oceanographic children’s museum in the Bronx that reportedly “has a history of rescuing marine animals.” He also formed the Natural Guard, an international organization created to promote hands-on activities that teach children about ecology and the environment. Here he is talking about it in the early ’90s:

“I’m not in show business; I’m in the communications business,” Havens told the Denver Post. “That’s what it’s about for me.” You could feel this in virtually everything he recorded or sang on stage, most evidently in “Handsome Johnny,” a song he cowrote that became a civil rights and anti-Vietnam War anthem. In 1978, his song “Shalom, Salam Alaikum,” written after watching Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, was a huge hit in Israel. And on a lesser note, Havens performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993.

To the very end, he was a gentle soul pushing for peace, justice, and damn fine music.

I’ll leave you with footage of the Transcendent Nation Foundation interviewing Havens in 2008 about “how to save the world”:

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate