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Revisiting Woodstock With Richie Havens

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Four summers ago, I stood on the site of the Woodstock festival with Richie Havens, the legendary musician who died earlier this week at the age of 72. He had returned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the iconic Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969, whose site has been preserved and is now part of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, NY. I was there for Goodman Media International, the public relations firm that was promoting the occasion for the Center.

Richie Havens' two-hour performance had opened the Woodstock festival, and he had improvised his way into history singing "Freedom", which would become arguably the signature performance of the event. We had approached him about returning for the anniversary, because he embodied as much as anyone the spirit of Woodstock. Forty years later, he was still a vibrant contemporary musician -- as dynamic and compelling onstage as he was thoughtful and considerate offstage -- electrifying audiences with his driving acoustic guitar and singing about freedom -- a concept that's just as inspiring and relevant today as ever.

As he stood overlooking the site, the renowned field was empty, except for the more than 100 reporters who had traveled to be with him that day, but it was easy to imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who had filled the natural stadium that had made Woodstock possible. The cameras clicked and whirred, as he sang "Freedom" once again, with an American flag flapping and the countryside spreading out behind him. The image was on the front page of the Washington Post the next day and carried by countless other media outlets around the world.

He was remarkably patient and kind, as reporters lined up for dozens of one-on-one interviews. He wasn't focused on the past as much as he was cognizant of the opportunity to interpret the spirit of Woodstock and share it with new generations.

The site of the festival is accessible to the public through The Museum at Bethel Woods, the spectacular multimedia experience -- located adjacent to the site -- that brings Woodstock to life. Through film and interactive displays, text panels and artifacts, it captures the uniqueness of Woodstock, while putting it in the context of the Sixties: the Cold War, the space race, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the youthful idealism of the time.

The Museum is less than two hours by car from New York City, but it transports visitors more than four decades back in time. Richie Havens did the same four summers ago, as he performed "Freedom" on those sloping banks one more time. When he sang the refrain "clap your hands," one felt an irresistible compulsion to clap, as he lofted the anthem into the air to land wherever in the world it's needed most.

Richie Havens' Woodstock performance of "Freedom" is available on YouTube, revealing his uniquely powerful and captivating guitar-playing and his dynamic stage presence. In all likelihood, people will be clapping their hands for Richie Havens and freedom for a long time to come.

The author is Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International.