August 19, 2013 —
“I guess the watchword for the day is – don’t get any on you.” That line from performer John Sebastian drew a laugh as it acknowledged that a short time later the ashes of Richie Havens would be scattered over the field at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts where the original Woodstock Festival was held in 1969.
Sebastian teamed up with blues veteran John Hammond to perform a couple of songs in honor of Havens in front of about 500 people in the Market Shed on August 18; about 500 more listened from speakers hooked up playing above the field.
About 30 members of Haven’s family turned out to the event, but the venue was packed with Haven’s fans. When disc jockey Dennis Elsas asked for a show of hands from people who had attended a performance by Havens, nearly every hand in the room was raised, and they were raised again, when he asked how many went to multiple performances.
Among the eight acts that performed in honor of Havens was Jose Feliciano, who played one of Haven’s signature tunes, the anti-war song Handsome Johnny.
Actor Louis Gossett Jr. was one of five speakers who shared memories of Havens. Gossett Jr. said that in the 60s he lived in Greenwich Village as did Havens and other performers, and he co-wrote Handsome Johnny. Gossett Jr. said he was being evicted from his apartment when a check related to the song came in the mail. He said, “It was for $72,000.”
Havens became irrevocably linked with Woodstock and thus Bethel Woods, as everyone with even a passing interest in the topic knows, because he became the opening act after other acts could not make it to the stage because of traffic problems and the unexpectedly large crowd.
Prodded to play a very lengthy set by the organizers because other performers had not turned up yet, Havens ran out of material, but then improvised the song Freedom on the spot and merged it with the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."
After the performances and the memories, Havens' recording of Freedom was piped outside as the crowd in the Market Shed migrated to the hill overlooking the original Woodstock field. An airplane circled Bethel Woods three times, and on the third time released the ashes. It was not easy to see from the ground but briefly looked like a faint plume of smoke.
One woman watching the event said, “That’s the way to go.” Havens died in April of a heart attack at 72 years of age.