THE GREATEST OF ALL TUNES (G.O.A.T.) is a salute to the greatest songs of all time, one song per artist. Want more? Go to the G.O.A.T. Page for all the GOATs so far!
In celebration of the Fourth of July, today we have a special Greatest of All Time post from folksinger Richie Havens. Havens was born in Brooklyn, part Native American, and was one of those beatniks who got their start in 1950s Greenwich Village, much like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. In 1969, he was invited to play at Woodstock where his performance of Freedom—which he wrote while he was playing it up stage—became a huge hit.
Havens was the first musician on stage at Woodstock, and it was just him and a stool and thousands of stinky hippies. He was reluctant to go first, since he wasn’t nearly as big a name as the other performers on the lists, but the organizers essentially pushed him out in front of the crowd and told him to go for it. After singing for 40 minutes, they told him they needed to stretch it. Out of songs, he started riffing off the traditional tune of Motherless Child, and interpolated freestyle verses that became the song Freedom. The performance catapulted him to stardom. The song was formally recorded in the studio in 1972 and released as a single after Havens scored a top 20 hit with a cover of The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun.” Havens continued to chart into the late 1980s, when his album, Simple Things, hit #173. He released material after that, but sales were too low to register on Billboard.
In his lifetime, he played all the major music festivals and even at President Clinton’s inauguration ceremony! In 2013, his heart gave out and his ashes were spread on the Woodstock estate.
Further listening: His cover of Here Comes the Sun is great, but I also love some of his protest songs like “Stop Pulling and Pushing Me” and “Handsome Johnny,” which he co-wrote with actor Louis Gossett Jr.!
Cover versions: None worth mentioning.