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Four decades after Woodstock, Richie Havens talks about songwriting and Rage Against the Machine

Talkin' bout freedom!When Richie Havens called my cell phone earlier this month, I was expecting to hear a great, booming voice reminiscent of the musician's

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Talkin' bout freedom!
  • Talkin' bout freedom!
Talkin' bout freedom!When Richie Havens called my cell phone earlier this month, I was expecting to hear a great, booming voice reminiscent of the musician's singing style, one that grabs the listener's inner ear and demands attention. Instead, I found myself straining to hear a soft-spoken man. At one point I had to turn up the volume on my phone, causing me to miss the beginning of his answer to the question: How do you go about writing songs?

 
" ... a different way every time, whether I'm riding the bus or walking - wherever I am," Havens said. "First, the song's title pops into my brain, and the title suggests whether it's a song or a title for a whole album. So they come and I write them down. I take the title ... and before long the first thing happens: I hear a melody and start to figure out how that's happening. Then, I play a couple of chords and the first line comes. From that moment on I hear the song being sung, as if by someone else."


Many songwriters will tell you that Havens' approach to composition - letting the music come to him, as if by divine influence, rather than sitting down and tending the idea seed until it manifests into a discernable pattern - is difficult at best. Experienced songwriters often craft their work through the juxtaposition of ideas, followed by writing and re-writing until the chord progression and accompanying melody finally gel.

Havens' approach, for the less-experienced songsmith, lends itself to combating writer's block; he counts on the music to reveal itself in full rather than gradually crafting a song, much like a writer may gradually write a poem.

"I don't ever get blocked because, first of all, I don't ever expect to be doing it," Havens said. "When the music comes, it just comes, and I am always very grateful that I didn't have to push that idea from anywhere. The songs come through on their own - I'm just a carrier. I share the songs: songs about the relativity of what is happening to all of us, or should be happening to all of us - man to God; God to man; woman to man; woman to children; children to parents. There are also projections that come to me that point out new relatives - animals, the whole starry sky ... It sounds funny, I know, but it's serious business. I'm very fortunate to have been able to write half of them, because a lot of what I am doing is interpreting."

What proved most interesting about Havens' approach to songwriting was his revelation of musical influences. Havens began his career in Brooklyn, N.Y. as a teenager, singing doo-wop with a group of friends until he stumbled upon a burgeoning folk music scene in Greenwich Village. There, he witnessed a virtually unknown Bob Dylan singing original songs, and beat poet Allen Ginsburg reciting his poetry at coffee houses and book stores.

"I'd probably still be singing doo-wop if I hadn't of gone to Greenwich Village," Havens said.

But he doesn't corral his influences into any specific time or place, especially not the 1960s - that period of history that spawned Woodstock, where Havens made his mark improvising a performance of the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" with the refrain of "freedom," a moment so inspiring that mention of it still follows Havens in news articles 40 years later, including this one marking his appearance this Sunday at The Tower Theater in Bend.

"One of my favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine, just got back together," he said. "Those guys are very much the attitude and the rage that comes along with attitude... The world could use more artists like them."

Richie Havens
7pm Sunday, May 18. Tower Theatre, 835 Wall St., 317-0700. $35, $45. Tickets at Tower box office or at towertheatre.org.  

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