We had tickets, but WNEW-FM’s Scott Muni was saying that there were already 20,000 people there. This was on Wednesday. The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair up in Bethel was to begin on Friday afternoon. So early Friday morning we drove out of the City in our little VW bug. Picked up a couple hippie chicks from San Francisco hitchhiking just before the West Side Highway. Traffic became tighter and tighter as we neared the exit off Route 17.
Got off at 17B near Monticello and we didn’t move. Cars everywhere. Kids everywhere. Cops everywhere. Parked the car on the side of the road and we walked. A couple miles it was to the festival site. The gates were down. “It’s free!” someone told us, so I threw my tickets away and we walked down this dirt road and up and onto a small rise and there…there…were more people than I had ever seen in one place. It was biblical.
And at the bottom of this big rolling hill at the far end of this sea of humanity was, from my perspective, a stage no bigger than a couple inches long. And on it was this tiny figure, bouncing up and down. I could hardly make out who it was. But the voice that washed over all of us sitting, standing, lying there, stoned or straight, was unmistakable. “Freedom! Freedom! Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…” sang Richie Havens, and what has become one of the signposts of our cultural zeitgeist was officially declared.
Richie Havens had returned to “the garden” numerous times, but nothing could quite match opening for the biggest music festival ever and turning it into a “nation.” He tried; man, did he try. He was the ambassador of the Woodstock Nation of peace and love, even when the USA Nation seemingly had rejected those heady times.
He was accessible to all. I used to see him around the City to say hello. Saw a couple more of his concerts, once at OCCC (SUNY-Orange in Middletown), where he played “Indian” as a request for my then-4-year-old who was recovering from a serious illness. His big, soft, warm baritone voice singing, “As long as the rivers flow/As long as the grass shall grow/As long as the sky is blue/This land shall be yours/In-di-an… Whooooooooo!” My kid just smiled from ear to ear.
But, as all of us pass into other phases of our lives, Richie Havens physically passed away from us on April 22 of this year. And fittingly, it was his wish to have his ashes scattered at the hallowed ground of his Nation. The one-time Yasgur’s Farm is now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, but no matter; it will always echo with Richie Havens and his call for “Freedom!”
“Richie used to say a day never went by that he wasn’t asked about Woodstock,” according to a family spokesman, “and he certainly understood its profound and indelible cultural impact. As he said on the festival’s 40th anniversary [in 2009], ‘Woodstock was both a peaceful protest and a global celebration. We came together as a community to be heard and to be acknowledged!’”
A “Day of Song and Remembrance Honoring Richie Havens” concert will be held on Sunday, August 18 beginning at 3 p.m. Friends and fellow peace activists Danny Glover and Louis Gossett, Jr. (who wrote “Handsome Johnny” with Havens) will speak, along with original Woodstock Festival organizers Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman, with music by José Feliciano, John Hammond, John Sebastian, Steve Gorn with Sanjoy Bandopodhyay and Samir Chatterjee, Guy Davis, Stephanie Winters and Walter Parks, Dayna Kurtz and others – all hosted by Dennis Elsas of WFUV/SiriusXM.
Tickets to the seated performance area are no longer available, but anyone who wishes to attend is welcome. Bethel Woods will run supplemental sound to the concert field so that everyone who comes will be able to hear, and the aerial scattering of Havens’ ashes will be visible from the field. There will be various events throughout the day, including a drum circle hosted by Jimi Hendrix’s percussionist Juma Sultan at 12:30 p.m. on the original festival field. For more information, call (866) 781-2922.