08 August 2019, The Tablet

It would be upsetting to lose one’s house, or even one’s tortoise, under a wall of water


It would be upsetting to lose one’s house, or even one’s tortoise, under a wall of water
 

It’s 50 years since Woodstock, and on the first day of that festival in 1969, before Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez got going, the stage was held by Richie Havens, who played for two hours while other acts were delayed by the traffic.

Before he made his name that day, Havens had already broadcast a miraculous performance of High Flying Bird on the BBC, introduced by the lovely Angela Huth on How Late It Is (11 p.m., in fact). His silhouette thrown against the wall, Havens sat on a high stool to play his guitar, keeping time with one long leg. He was meant to be 28 but looked older, his missing teeth adding to the character of his blues delivery.

The miraculous part was the transformation of the lyrics, written only a few years earlier by Billy Edd Wheeler, into a mysterious invocation of flight and death.

In Wheeler’s lyrics, the sun in the sky “gets gone every day”; in Havens’ version, the sun “meets God every day”, while down below, “Lord, look at me here / I’m rooted like a tree here. / Got those sit-down, can’t cry / Oh Lord, gonna die blues.”

In Wheeler’s lyrics, there is an old man (or in a later version “mule”), who for Havens is his “woman”, who never saw the sun.

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