Sad news: Richie Havens died yesterday, 22 April, 2013. I am so glad to have had a chance to see him perform. I can truly say that Richie Havens touched my life deeply with his passion and beauty. Here is an article I wrote about the experience, which was about a month before Jamie and I flew to Buenos Aires to begin our South America adventure.
Richie Havens Magic
Valdosta, Georgia, USA
Valdosta, Georgia, USA
Richie Havens performed along with an accompanist on guitar at the Suwannee Springfest back in March 2009, and I was lucky enough to get to see him. What a beautiful, shining example of a Wonderful Human Being he is! Jamie and I were standing together down in the amphitheater, and a good friend came and enjoyed the show with us, and then another beautiful friend found us, too. The whole incident was about peace and love and compassion, and was truly a moving experience.
I hadn’t previously known who Richie Havens was. Our young friend knew because of her parents’ record collection. All the older hippie types at the festival knew very well who he was – Jamie had been very excited to see him. He had explained to me that Richie Havens is the guy who sings, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” I didn’t know what that was all about, but as soon as the man started strumming his guitar with his intense energy, and then singing with his unique voice, so urgently insistent upon empathy and caring, I was very happy that he had come to our sweet little music festival there under the live oak trees, all decorated with Spanish moss, amidst the sand and fine black dirt, the results of the same dark leaf matter that stains the meandering Suwannee River black as tea, while a gentle rain did little to dampen the air of wonderment that enveloped us all – a subtle reminder of the power of our gathering to part the clouds and send the majority of the Lioness’ March Furies around us – quite rain that cleanses our hippie-camp sweat and dirty-sand feet, then seeps underground to the river – nourishing spring waters that hearty music lovers know will likely rain down upon us, so be ready to get wet. And then, after the rains move out during the night, the haunting morning mist starts the new day with yoga and hungry children and up-all-night seekers of coffee, and as the day progresses, the hot Florida sun burns the mist away, high clouds fly overhead, sudden, wild gusts of wind steal unsecured hats, and then the evening brings back the calm, the moisture, the changing of the seasons nighttime chill.
The two annual Magnolia Music events at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park display the very best qualities inherent in the United States of America – they move beyond the realm of the enjoyable and into that of the life-changing experience. They are a coming together of the most amazing community of music lovers in a sacred place, gatherings of just the nicest people you would ever want to meet – a few thousand of them, all happy to be there, sharing the love all around. I am sad if anyone thinks that this lovey-dovey-ness sounds corny, but a good dose of it makes those of us who have been there wish that the whole world could be like this, with everybody friendly and happy and at one with the enjoyment of the whole experience. It works nearly perfectly at the Magnolia Music festivals, similar to how it worked at Woodstock, the original, minus all the chaos of the new and the overwhelming masses, and as it often works when people gather together for something that they enjoy – except that Magnolia Music has the concept down to a fine art, a well-established musical phenomenon and an all-around dependably good time. It’s like going to worship at our lovely, outdoor church, complete with shrines to Bill Monroe and Vassar Clemens, where we camp, relax, and commune with each other and with nature, engaged in long days and late nights full of great performances and campfire gatherings by the most excellent, down-to-earth, heartfelt musicians that few have ever heard of, unless someone previously dragged them to a similar Americana music festival or they happen to be the festival headliner on Friday night, and celebrating the best qualities that humanity has to offer, all without suffering very much beyond maybe some wet clothes, a stubbed toe, lack of sleep, or the pain of having had too much fun the night before.
Literally everyone who is there is happy to be there. The kids love it. The parents love it. The young adults love it, the old hippies, and everyone in all the generations in between love it. The performers love it. Everyone, save perhaps a contrarian or melancholy teen-ager and the local and largely unnecessary security guys, loves it. It refreshes our souls and our very faith in humanity to be there. It is something that a bunch of human beings are actually doing right on this planet. We all gather and have a wonderful time, and then we scatter to the winds and return to normalcy, to the black and white reality of the Kansases we call home. We go back to our own welcoming kitchens and our private bathrooms and our comfy beds and our daily routines, and I know that we all try to live lives that carry out the Spirit of the Suwannee to the rest of the world, to whatever degree we can – the love, the kindness, the all getting along – and that is, indeed a wonderful thing.
But this March 2009 festival was different for Jamie and me, and I have been extra-inspired, partly by Richie Havens, but also by the freedom of not having to depend on making money in the booth that we have had there for the past eleven years (having missed only the very first Springfest). We were free, free, free little birds at this festival, just as we are soon to be expressing the ultimate freedom with our move to Uruguay. We are freeing ourselves from the burdens of possessions. We will be free to make of our lives something different, free to reinvent ourselves, free to truly express ourselves in a way that we have not been free before. For, although those who know Jamie and I well know our general opinions and outlooks, we have been silenced by our need to make sales in our booth, our sole means of income, and even at events like the Magnolia Music festivals, we have only whispered our true feelings. We have been silenced by the unspoken agreement that these festivals are not the place to talk about anything that might cloud everyone’s sunny day with thoughts that are not so happy. It’s not that we don’t know how to have a good time – Jamie is always having a good time, even when he’s not. It’s just that I cannot separate my different experiences of life. I refuse to ignore certain realities that exist. Good times can be had, with the understanding that we must not take those good times for granted, that such good times are not sub-realities of some larger reality, but rather are a part of the continuum of our lives. When we attend our outdoor musical gathering church, we must recognize the healing energy that is generated there, energy that could serve a larger purpose outside the festival bubble, if we would only allow the entirety of life to accompany us inside, if we would learn to connect all of our experiences instead of compartmentalizing, if we could see that the problems of inequity and violence around the world exist, even as we are enjoying our fleeting moments of joy and happiness, even if we choose to ignore it all, and so the way to make the world a better place is not to banish, but to acknowledge all of the world’s suffering by dedicating our celebrations to healing the pain of others as well as of ourselves. I believe that we can change the world with empathy, by being connected, by finding room in our hearts for all of reality simultaneously, by seeing our festivals not as a protective bubble of contentment and good weather amidst the world’s storms, but rather as a generator of energy that emanates from the banks of the Suwannee River up into the atmosphere and interacts with all the other energies that are constantly swirling around the planet Earth.
Richie Havens very much impressed me with his demonstration of our human connectedness, and he also did not shy away from the reality of politics. He was, I now know, a vanguard of the sixties social movement, whose gentle persona still has the power to awaken the soul. He appeared as a mystic, all in black, upon the scenic, beloved, lit-up-at-night amphitheater stage, transforming us all as if with a whisper of wise words and mesmerizingly energetic songs of peace, love, and action. Just seeing him there, still kicking – literally, as in his amazing karate kick at the end of the performance, to prove that he really is a master of great strength and beauty – his spoken words reminded everyone there that he had been a member of the Greenwich Village scene, along with other poets like Bob Dylan, and that along with the feelings of love and peace that we all experienced in those magical moments when he was on stage comes the work of utilizing that energy to change the world around us in a significant way. That is what the sixties social movements were all about, motivated by music and art and drug-induced awakenings of the soul and the exploration of true freedom, with the focus on building more peaceful and open societies, not just engaging in hedonism, as those who are too resistant to all that strangeness and change to actually listen to the deeper message believe.
I felt changed after that performance. Richie Havens lifted away a cloud of concern that I have carried with me at the Magnolia Music events, the troubled feeling that all the magic and wonderment of the festivals was simply a far-too-well-kept secret, a bubble to remain un-popped, to which those of us in the know could turn to for comfort and a little taste of Heaven on Earth. Indeed, especially for those of us who have been living in the Deep South, this has been an oasis in a desert of closed-minded colloquialism and unacknowledged fear of real freedom. And while it has always felt good to recharge the old “soul-ar” battery, to participate in such a harmonious happening, to see that not everyone in this country is brainwashed by the militaristic, exceptionalistic national narrative that the entrenched powers constantly disseminate in order to hoard their power, it has also always bothered me that the bubble has remained so closed, that that glorious energy has not translated into any kind of momentum for wider social change. Even as music festivals have proliferated over the past decade, each one is its own bubble of joy through music, all of them isolated, each its own separate over-the-rainbow, Techni-Color Oz, just dreams to be awakened from to our regular daily grinds, and none of them motivating anyone to do anything social or political, once we drive out the gates and onto the highways with all the other traffic of the world. There has been no call to social action, only murmurs of “Can’t we all just get along?” tucked into sweet love songs and bouncy Donna Cajun rhythms that are impossible not to dance to and be cheered by.
Sweet Magnolia, where everything IS beautiful and we CAN all get along, was the setting for one of the most poignant and bittersweet moments of my life: when the United States began bombing Baghdad, on the eve of Springfest, 2003. I stayed up nearly all night on the eve of the destruction, distraught, wondering how it could come to this, a nation of free people, a supposed democracy and shining beacon on the hill, nearly all of its citizens falling in line behind the unsubstantiated statements of our so-called “leaders,” in reality, fear-mongers, oil and other big industry representatives, war-profiteers, capitalist empire-builders, one and all. If I had learned from reports by experts in the field that the aluminum tubes that were being claimed to be part of a secret, mobile, as-of-yet undetected nuclear bomb factory were actually the wrong kind of tubes for nuclear bomb making, then how did the president of the United States of America not know that? If that president had already been caught red-handed, lying to the world through the mechanism of his hyper-marketing message machine, then how could he be trusted by anyone at all? And when I heard Bill Bennett incredibly, disturbingly, disgustingly, mangle the words of John Lennon, stating that we needed to “give war a chance,” yet there was no outcry of righteous rage that I could register, beyond the knot that tied itself up in my own gut, I became so grief-stricken, so disparaged, that I had looked toward the Springfest with a glimmer of hope that my feelings would be widely expressed and that the missing outrage would materialize in an explosion of anti-war activism that might stop the madness from unfolding.
But, alas, no such thing happened. My heart ached upon hearing people state that this attack may well be all for the best – those were the high times of the “it’s all good” mentality, after all, a mentality that drove inaction and a live-your-own-life sentiment, so that the Bush administration was enabled to get away with all of the undemocratic pillage that they wreaked upon the planet for eight excruciatingly long years. I, too, had participated in not raising a ruckus in the months leading up to then. I had emailed my government representatives, and sent a little bag of rice to the White House along with others who were registering our plea to send food, not bombs. Jamie and I had continued to set up our life-sustaining “magic stand” at those early spring festivals in Florida, where the theme was always fun and sun and good times, and there was no room for ruckuses amongst our slowly declining sales figures, nor for dissent amongst the unabashed Bush administration supporters, confidant that the forces of good inherent in our nation’s character would prevail. My tiny little protests did not make me feel very good about myself, and then I remember driving north past Tampa to Live Oak, and hearing that the student activist, Rachel Corrie, a U.S. citizen, had been run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer while she was trying to prevent the destruction Palestinian homes and water wells and gardens – my rude awakening to the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government, with the aid and support of the United States of America, home of the free, land of the brave, world leader in the gobbling up of natural resources, and glaring example of what happens when the citizens of a democracy fail to participate in their governance, thus becoming complicit in the running roughshod over poor and beleaguered people all over the world by that same government due to sheer complacency and ignorance of happenings of the wider world.
And so, my solace, the Suwannee Springfest, was a painful disappointment to me that year, when we all only whispered in dark corners about what our nation was doing, largely divorcing ourselves from the reality of the lives that our bombs were destroying. No outcry was heard, at least that I was aware of from inside my little booth/cage, inside the festival bubble, inside the surreality of a country that thinks that it can do no wrong. That dark cloud has haunted me and made me angry from the inside out – to the point that Jamie and I have finally broken free of our gilded cage; free of our cycle of money in, more money out; free of the vast circles driven in pursuit of our own American Dream; free of the necessity for limits on our self-expression; free of the society that has so foiled my visions of what the promise of progress and social change was supposed to entail. I speak out now, inspired by Richie Havens, and by his call, not only for “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” but also for strength of character and purpose, for speaking truth, and for connecting with the larger world around us. We are all connected, as individuals, and we need to all take responsibility for what our government does, because we are our own government. We all must remember, as was the whole point of the emergence of prophets like Richie Havens back in the day, to embrace the political as the personal, because just living our lives in peace and harmony isn’t getting the job promoting peace and preventing wars done. And just watching passively to see what happens won’t help our new president to achieve all that he can. Connect. Engage. Join with Richie Havens, and now the Greatful Dead, and everyone else who is voicing the need for us to keep alive the flame of social change that Barack Hussein Obama’s election ignited.
This final Springfest marked the end of a beautiful thing for Jamie and I, and we both thank everyone who supported our business at the Magnolia festivals through the years – we truly think of everyone at the festivals as our family, and we consider the festivals themselves to be our real “home,” whether we were living in a house somewhere or in our vehicle nowhere in particular. We will very much miss the Spirit of the Suwanee, as expressed by everyone involved in the Magnolia Music events. But we are travelers who must move on or be consumed with the despair of stagnation. We are just wired that way – wired to move on, to explore new horizons, to visit far corners of the world, to detach ourselves from the comforts of a home and the blessings of being surrounded by friends and family. Without such movement, the weight of our world becomes unbearably heavy for us and crushes our souls. But the vacuum of our physical presence amidst the familiar will quickly be filled with a new opportunity for me and Jamie to entertain you all not with personal adornments, the wonders of nature’s artifacts, and other colorful mementos to take home from festivals, but with some of our other skills, such as my writing, and Jamie’s photography. For those of you who don’t know, I actually have a degree in Philosophy: Values and Social Policies, and I guess I have been a frustrated writer for long enough, now – time to de-frustrate myself and open up that proverbial philosophy store I have always dreamed of. Through the wonders of the Internet, we can maintain contacts and remain connected. I am planning to try to keep a journal here of our activities in South America, something along the lines of “Lo Que Pasa en Sudamerica – What’s Up in South America,” just little reminders that “America” encompasses more than just the United States; and that the world is big and diverse and interesting and interconnected; perhaps a little musical reportage; possibly some interviews with people we meet; certainly quite a bit of expatriate gadfliery. We will not be absent, just down south a bit farther, and I am looking forward to sharing the view from there. This is not an act of disconnection so much as it is a reconnection with life’s vital forces, a realigning of our fates, a revival of our spirits. Viva la Vida!
See these sources for information and commentary about Richie Haven and see some of his performances:
Rolling Stone, 22 April, 2013
Brooklyn native opened Woodstock in 1969
Why Evolution is True, 23 April, 2013