Sunday, March 7, 2010

March 7: Richie Havens, "Freedom"

Artist: Richie Havens
Song: "Freedom"
Album: Woodstock
Year: 1969

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Often times, the most exciting music that an artist can create is when they push the limit of their established genre to a point that it almost becomes something completely different. Similarly, when an artist is captured "in the zone" during a live performance, there are many situations where they deviate from their original composition, and this crossing of boundaries occurs subconsciously. Add in the possibility of such an occurrence happening not only at a live event, but one of the most important moments in music history, and it is nearly impossible for the song to NOT become iconic. Case in point, the first act to take the stage at the legendary Woodstock Music & Arts Fair in 1969: Richie Havens. While one might assume that being the first artist on stage at such an event would be beyond intimidating, Havens shows no nervousness, as he immediately jumps into his mesmerizing, rhythmic guitar work, and deliverers one of the festival's greatest performances. Whether he was putting his own spin on another artists' music, or playing one of his brilliant original compositions, there was simply nobody else on the planet that was making music quite like Richie Havens. Thankfully, nearly all of his performance at Woodstock was captured for posterity, and there are few more stunning performances than the song he opened with, the powerful and aptly titled, "Freedom."

While many attempt to classify Havens' music as little more than a special take on the folk genre, the fact of the matter is, his music is almost more akin to rock music, and it contains strong sounds of the psychedelic movement as well. On "Freedom," there is nothing more than Havens, his guitar, and a lone conga drummer, which somehow created an almost intimate feeling, though there were hundreds of thousands of people in the crowd. It is within the first few notes of "Freedom" that one quickly realizes that the "folk" label will simply not fit Havens' sound, as he is far more aggressive and loud than the traditional notion of folk. The energy and power of his music transmits across all boundaries, as the simplistic musical arrangement allows for the overwhelming soul and conviction of his music to shine through. In many ways, the lone drummer is almost unnecessary, yet it is the ringing percussion that gives the listener a reminder of the massive space in which they were playing. Taking it a step further, and considering the fact that this was the song that would set the tone for the entire festival, it is somewhat less surprising that Woodstock remains so iconic, as the strength and tone with which Havens performs immediately gets the crowd moving, as well as perfectly captures the spirit of the generation.

Equally as impressive and mesmerizing as his guitar work is the unmistakable voice of Richie Havens. With a distinctive, rough voice, he is in many ways to folk music what Louis Armstrong was to the jazz genre. It is this grittiness of voice that also makes his words so much more captivating, and the soul-bearing words he sings are truly stunning. The title of "Freedom" is absolutely fitting as everything from the music to the vocals rings with this sentiment, as Havens rids himself of any restraints of the music world, and it is one of the reasons this song is so special. Filled with profound thoughts, Havens almost seems to yearn for the idea of freedom as much as he laments it, and in many ways, the soul behind the song eclipses the actual words that he sings. Overall, the song seems to speak of being lost in the world, and this is a sentiment to which so many can relate, and verbalizing it as "...sometimes I feel like a motherless child" is without question one of the finest comparisons ever made. Yet one can see these words on a far higher level, as they can be interpreted as a reflection of society at the time. Coming on the tail end of the civil rights movement, as well as the era in which the youth were striving for empowerment, the song can be seen as taking a look at society attempting to figure out "how" to function within these new norms and realities. Regardless of how one interprets the song, the sheer power of "Freedom," driven by Richie Havens' fantastic voice is never lost, and even after repeated listenings, it is still one of the most moving songs ever written.

Few artists in history can make a claim for being intimidated by their slot on a live bill as much as Richie Havens when he was asked to kick off the now legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August of 1969. More to the point, having to choose an opening song that would get the crowd moving, as well as immediately inject the spirit of the festival for the other acts to follow. Havens succeeded with flying colors, as his choice of the song "Freedom" remains one of the most iconic live performances in history. Playing with as stripped down a sound as one could find, he sets himself apart from the label of "folk" as he is far more aggressive in sound, and far more upbeat than a majority of artist for which the genre is known. With lyrics that can be interpreted on multiple levels, one would be hard pressed to find a song that would have been a more fitting opener for the festival, and the song remains just as powerful today as it was more than four decades ago. With Havens' gritty voice powered over his non-stop acoustic guitar work, the song is truly like no other in history, and this combination is the key to Havens' continued success over the generations. Fusing this sound together with an uncanny amount of soul and conviction behind his words, there are few songs that are as perfectly representative of a generation as Richie Havens' "Freedom."

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