Remembering Richie Havens

What’s the use of singing this song?
Some of you are not even listening.

Nearly every announcement and obituary notice reporting the sad news of folksinger Richie Havens’ death last month began with a reference to his iconic status as the opening performer at the legendary 1968 Woodstock music festival. Most of them included either a photo or a video of him – face dripping with, and shirt drenched in, sweat – chanting the words “Freedom! Freedom!” at the top of his lungs, as he feverishly paced the stage strumming his guitar through his intensely improvised version of “Motherless Child”.

All of these tributes were pointing back to his singular, career-launching moment – a moment that occurred some 45 years ago. A few of them also referenced Richie’s most well-known album, “Mixed Bag” – his first recording, released in 1967, one year before Woodstock, and some 46 years ago.

The lyrics quoted at the top of this post come from one of the most enduring songs on that album, the anti-war ballad “Handsome Johnny”. Spanning centuries of human warfare, each verse of the song describes a new “handsome Johnny” – some anonymous young soldier enthusiastically marching off to his generation’s war, shouldering the latest version of military gadgetry, and almost certainly fated to returning home from the battlefield anything but young and handsome.

It is only in the song’s closing verse that Richie abandons the history lesson he’s been conducting, and adopts instead the resigned stance of a singer/songwriter painfully aware of the limited impact his impassioned words will have. The wars would continue, and the handsome Johnny’s would continue dutifully marching off to them – too many of us indeed “were not even listening” to what Richie was trying to tell us.

But that didn’t stop him. Richie kept on writing songs, recording albums, giving concerts around the world, and inspiring his listeners for the next 42 years, until health issues forced him to retire in 2009. The songs he gave us on his last two albums – “Grace of the Sun” from 2004 and “Nobody Left to Crown” from 2008 – are among his most moving and heartfelt compositions.

Here are selected lyrics from a few of my favorite songs from these two albums:

“Grace of the Sun”

Got no time to play
Giving time away
We don’t see the gift
We all share as one
Only by the grace of the sun

“Way Down Deep”

Somewhere in the darkness as I scramble to the light
Somewhere I am falling down
Somewhere in the twilight when I finally get my sight
Somehow I can see the common ground

“The Key”

Somewhere there is a place
Where the heart meets face to face
With the whole human race
Before the last shadows fall

“Nobody Left to Crown”

To those of you seeking perfection
Oh Lord, it’s not a long way to go
All you need is a bit of reflection

“Standing on the Water”

Why do we surround ourselves with houses and big cars
Trying to make out we got it made
When nothing really belongs to us
We’re only passing through
We’re part of a masquerade
When you’re standing on the water
Talking to the walls
Making so much matter
Out of no matter at all

“If I”

If I could change the ending
No one would ever lose
And I’d keep this road from bending
No one should have to choose
And we’d walk this line together
And share what we could share
And we’d all do this forever
And that should get us there

What a gift it was to “walk this line together” with this sensitive, compassionate artist – even if it couldn’t last forever, and even though there seems such a long way further to go down that line.

Some of us were not listening, Richie. You were right about that.

But a lot of us were listening, all along. And we still hear you.

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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