On the turning away from the weak and down-trodden
And the words they say, which we won't understand.
Don't accept what is happening.
It's just a case of the suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in the turning away.
--On The Turning Away
Pink Floyd/Richie Havens
FOLK MUSICIAN AND LOVE-IN GURU. The last track on Richie Havens' newest CD sums up all that he's trying to teach us as a folk troubadour for the last three decades.
"It's the prayer of hope. The lyrics beg us to take stock, to see the people we really hurt, that we fail to help," Havens explains when I ask him why it's his favorite anti-war song.
It's a simple composition--just Havens' stunning voice, a vocal drone and a bansuri bamboo flute. It's got a touch of East Indian vibe to it, lasting more than seven minutes (as only Pink Floyd knows how to do).
In 1969, Havens proved his singer/songwriter mettle with his three-hour, mesmerizing performance at Woodstock. It put him on the folk music map, and ever since, he's been a voice of American consciousness, crooning about freedom and community and love.
"My music won't shift just because this country's at war. I sing songs that change me and I hope change others," Havens attests.
His albums are full of original tunes and homages to his favorite fellow singers: James Taylor's Fire and Rain, Leon Russell's Tightrope, The Bee Gees' I Started a Joke, George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun. Wishing Well is his 25th release--a much-awaited studio album--on Evangeline Recorded Works. His soulful vocals are framed by his singular guitar work--a skill he's taken on the road every weekend since 1967.
"It's a brand new weekend each time," Havens grins. "But it's an entirely new age group I'm singing for now. They have a heck of a lot more consciousness."
He adds, "I wish at 19, I knew what kids know today. They're attuned to and in tune with all the media. It tells them something, scary or not. What's happening in the world today is probably scarier for adults than for children."
Along with his musical career, Havens has devoted much of his energy to educating young people about ecological issues. In the mid-'70s, he co-founded the Northwinds Undersea Institute, an oceanographic museum for city kids in the Bronx. That led to founding the Natural Guard in 1990.
"I grew up in Brooklyn, post-war, with kids from all over the world--a real mix. It was a very special experience. Y'know, my Czech friends and my Irish friends--their moms screamed at them just like mine did with me."
That experience seems to infuse every Havens song.
"What I learned by the time I was 12 or 13 was that we're all still just becoming American. We don't get there until we all have freedoms. If 500 people put $5 in a hat, lives could actually be changed.
"But we're taught that change is long and drawn out. It's really fairly instant. And it's the kids that are much more open to this concept than adults."
Havens adds that adults do learn lessons the hard way. "It's called voting. We need to arouse that sleeping giant of nonvoters. Community by community, by the grassroots," he warns.
Havens takes his role as folk musician very seriously.
"You become an observer, but really you're providing the newsletter of the times to the masses. I'm singing what I've always been singing about--the now. I was doing it in Greenwich Village in the late '50s, reading poetry with the Beatniks, and I'm still doing it with my songs."
Havens couldn't remember exactly when the last time he had played in Tucson, surmising it was sometime back in the '80s.
"But you want the honest truth?" he asked, "I know these people, the folks in the audience, because I know their approach is truly American. The Americans we're privileged to become is due to the history we love together. It's all our shared adventure. Woodstock? That was just the beginning of the birth of world consciousness."
Havens believes this global passion for folk music--whether it's jazz, country or rock--is not going to disappear anytime soon.
"Why is it that you see so many more kids picking up djembe drums or learning Taiko? Because it's our communal spirit, it's our heartbeat."
Better than war drums?
Havens agreed and trailed off on his ever-contagious folk music, global consciousness, lovefest mantra.
Richie Havens joins more than 70 local and regional bands, singers, drummers and musicians of all folk stripes at the 18th annual Tucson Folk Festival presented by the Tucson Kitchen Musicians' Association this weekend--Saturday, noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Three stages line El Presidio Park, located downtown west of Church Avenue behind the old Court House at Alameda Street, and an additional stage is set up in the Old Town Artisans courtyard at 201 N. Court Ave.
Havens performs on one of the El Presidio Park stages at 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 3, and again at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 4. The entire festival is free of charge. Get the full schedule of performers, songwriting playoffs, children's shows, song circles and workshops at www.tucsonfolkfestival.org or call 792-6534.