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'Talk Of The Nation' Remembers Folk Singer Richie Havens


We've heard any number of remembrances today of legendary folk singer Richie Havens. He died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 72. The Brooklyn-born singer is perhaps best known as the opening act at Woodstock, for his unorthodox guitar style and his message of peace that helped define a generation. In 2004, Havens talked with Neal Conan on this program around the release of his album, "Grace of the Sun." We thought the most fitting way to remember Havens on this day is to let you hear from the man himself.


Why don't you get us started with a song?



HAVENS: (Singing) There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There's so much confusion. I can't get no relief. Businessmen, they drink my wine. Plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth, know what any of it is worth.

(Singing) No need to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke. There are so many here among us who think that life is but a joke. You and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate. Let us not speak falsely now. The hour is getting late, late, late, late, late.

(Singing) All along the watchtower, all along the watchtower, all along the watchtower, the prince kept the view. All the women then came and went, barefoot servants too. Outside in the distance, a wildcat did growl. Two riders came approaching as the wind began to howl. The wind began to howl.

(Singing) There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief. There's so much confusion. I can't get no relief. Businessmen, they drink my wine. Plowmen dig my earth. None of them along the line know what any of it is worth, know what any of it is worth, know what any of it is worth.

CONAN: Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," Richie Havens, getting some help here today in Studio 3A from Walter Parks. Welcome to you too. And this - the song and album - an excerpt from the album "Grace of the Sun." You can hear some of that album, if you'd like to, online at npr.org. And, Richie Havens, we're talking about the music business today. You have been in the business a very long time. We mentioned you opened up at Woodstock. Things have really changed.

HAVENS: You know, absolutely. I have been in this a long time. However, I think I got out of the music business when I stopped singing doo-wop with my friends...


HAVENS: ...and I got into the communications business. So that's a big difference for me. I think it's why I've been on the road every weekend since 1970.


CONAN: You are a - well, now a double act, but for most of your life, I think, a solo act.

HAVENS: No, not really. I started out in a Village as a trio basically. I started out by myself, but it eventually turned into a trio by the mid-'60s - a conga drum and another guitarist. And that's been mostly what I've worked with most of the time. I still have a conga drummer that joins me every once in a while, and I have the great Walter Parks.


CONAN: How much does it complicate life as you add musicians, though?

HAVENS: You know, for me, it doesn't really complicate it that much. The only complication I have with the conga drummer that I use is that he lives in Buffalo and I live down...

...down in New York City. But, you know, we worked in Canada together. We worked in all the places where he can actually be. And when he's in town and I'm working, he also plays with me there. My original conga drummer from - the guy in Woodstock, lives in Florida. When I go down there, he plays with me. So it's...

CONAN: Still play.

HAVENS: Yeah. So it's a very organic situation for me. And I don't, you know, I basically don't have a lot of background in terms of what a concert may cost, you know, in that sense. And I don't actually, for the most part, ask...


HAVENS: ...you know, what the place actually carries is what I actually go to do, and it's the people there that I go to play for.

CONAN: Unique for the Studio 3A festival here. We can take callers on the air. Jim is on the line with us from Medina, Ohio.

JIM: Hi, Richie.


JIM: I saw you about 10 years ago at the Cuyahoga Valley Folk Festival...

HAVENS: Oh, yes.

JIM: ...and it was absolutely incredible.

HAVENS: Oh, I thank you.

I mean, you sound great in recorded but you were so good live.

Oh, boy. Thank you.

JIM: Yeah. And I want to ask you about - I know you use a lot of alternate tunings when you play guitar.

HAVENS: Actually, no.

JIM: You don't?

HAVENS: No. Actually, I use one tuning, and I change two strings within that tuning to get to certain songs. It's D, A, D, F sharp, A, D. And that's top to bottom.

JIM: Oh, OK.

HAVENS: And then I would turn down the F sharp note in order to make a minor out of that open D. And sometimes the high D, which is, you know, the highest note, the sixth string, I turn down a whole note to make a seventh, so that I could either play with that seventh or if I made a minor it would be a minor seventh.

CONAN: Well, for those of us who are not musicians, what I was noticing, Richie, when you're playing because you have an open tuning - I think across your top four strings - you used your thumb...

HAVENS: All of them, all of them.

CONAN: ...and you moved the thumb up and down the fret more than you use the fingers to fret with.

HAVENS: Yeah. And that's, you know, there's about four or five positions that I've used for all of these years for the songs I have to sing. And I'm lucky because if I moved up the neck and I play a minor, it's a minor with the same finger positions, so I don't have to change that a great deal. My thumb is the major.


HAVENS: And as I - if I drop a string, it's a major seventh down your high string or up to strings as a major ninth. So I get all of that and a lot of suspensions out of what I do.

CONAN: I always thought, though, that if there was any musician who is ever going to get carpal tunnel syndrome, it was you and your right wrist.


HAVENS: Well...

TIM: I hope to see you again.

HAVENS: Thank you. I hope to see you again too.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Tim.

HAVENS: My right wrist is connected to the left foot. You know, if the left foot doesn't work, the right wrist doesn't work, and that's really the truth.

CONAN: Richie Havens here with us in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we have - what about six minutes left. You have another song for us?

HAVENS: Oh, sure. Let's see now. I'll get this in tune...


HAVENS: (Singing) Spending everyday seeing everyone. 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.

(Singing) Need no time to think being everyone. Castles tend to sink. Living on the run, living on the run. But we will see the dark we all share as one. Only by the grace of the sun. There is only one truth alive in the sky. Isn't that enough proof? We need not know why. We are all we live for whenever we decide.

(Singing) We all seem the same, each and everyone. Twilight sets the frame. We give up the sun, we give up the sun. We will be the dawn we all share as one. Only by the grace of the sun.

CONAN: Richie Havens and Walter Parks doing the title tune from Richie Havens new album. It's called "Grace of the Sun." We got a minute and a half. We don't want to waste...

HAVENS: Oh, sure.


HAVENS: OK. Let's see what we got.


LUDDEN: The music of Richie Havens, who died yesterday at the age of 72. Tomorrow, Neal Conan will be back for a conversation about the challenges facing survivors after tragedies. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.