And no, it’s not just on my way to Wetherspoons that I find myself singing this one.
I bet I’m not the only one that had never heard of Richie Havens until I saw him in the ‘Woodstock’ film – first act on the recording, in my memory at least ; bet, too, I’m not the only one whose teenage imagination was fascinated by the sight and sound – not just the increasingly sweaty frenetic energy , or by the tie-dye gloriousness, or by the proud dentally challenged boldness of the delivery, and those weird thumb-barred open chords, and the seemingly endless improvisational extension of the Freedom song, but oh, that unique gravelly voice. And the context, of course – even though this was only on film – couldn’t help but gild that magic !
And maybe it’s because of that, that Mr Havens stayed locked out of sight in a mental Woodstock ‘box’ for me, for years; till a friend who came to bunk in my home for a few months brought his LP collection which included a (double, was it?) album of Richie Havens ‘Live’. Even today I can’t think of many better live albums – a smattering of Beatles and Dylan covers, Billie Holliday’s ‘God bless the Child’, a great ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, the best cover ever of Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ song. I was more than grateful for the introduction: I made sure I got it all recorded onto cassette, then in later years to CD, and now MP3-ed onto my ipod.
But it’s none of those songs which is my focus here. Apart from that Live album, if I’m honest, other Havens albums I’ve encountered have left me sadly underwhelmed – clearly he was made for performance more than studio… but then I chanced upon this track. Once again,it was on one of those street-vendor cassette-rack stalls in abroad-land, and the cassette was, I think, from a US –made TV series ‘Songs of the Civil War’ – and I probably went for it for other artists included – Sweet Honey from the Rock did a couple of numbers, the McGarrigles doing some Stephen Foster songs, was there a bit of Emmylou too? But this was the standout for me. American musicologists – or perhaps even your average American high school student for all I know -will probably be well acquainted with this song, but I’d never heard it till then.
In short, if I understand the notes I’ve read, the song is a sort of set of coded instructions to African Americans making a break from slavery in the south – the ‘drinking gourd’ being the (US) ‘Big Dipper’, or the more prosaic (UK) ‘plough’ – guiding the escapees northwards. It’s more complicated than that, and its provenance and add-ons are debated by scholars – but you can Wikipedia yourselves up on all that at your leisure.
For now just enjoy it and the way that Richie H captures just the right note of urgency and ‘freedom’ (again – he’ll always be the ‘freedom’ man, after Woodstock). ‘For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom…’ I’ve heard rawer versions, subsequently, and I’ve heard The Weavers: and even though you can’t help but love Pete Seeger et al and their fearlessness in those folkie years, there’s something just a touch too clean about the earnest liberal whiteness of their otherwise commendable version. At least when I compare it to Mr Havens, Mr sweaty tie-dye, thumb-barre open chords (chords which in this recording sing out with a wonderful zingy crispness.)