We rarely are allowed to remember those who come to us to teach peace. As children we are taught of all the generals and warlords throughout history. You leave high school knowing Hannibal, the Caesars, George Washington, Robert E Lee, Ulysses Grant, MacArthur and Patton. We learn all the wars, especially the American wars and are generally given the impression that military might and the willingness to kill are the marks of a good and strong society. Too seldom to we learn about men of peace in our schools. Aside from Christ and Siddhartha, men who are tied to the founding of religions with all sorts of other baggage attached, who might you have learned about as a student? You were of course taught about King, and if you were lucky, Gandhi. There is no room for others in our endless curricula of worshiping the sword.
Which is why I was so sad to learn this morning of the passing of Richie Havens. Few outside the folk or peace movements knew the man. If someone outside those groups had heard of him, it was likely tinged with a benign condescension: oh what a nice old hippie. He was gentle as a mouse but had a voice and passion of a lion. He dared to believe we could be better as a species than we are. He wept for our past and present but held high hope for our future. There are so many like him, but it is unpopular to pay attention.
Through this I cannot help but think of Pete Seeger, that grand elder statesmen of both folk music and the peace and environmental movements. Pete has had to bury most of his friends of his generation, Woody Guthrie and Lee Hayes coming foremost to mind. Now he finds himself saying goodbye to one of the “kids” that followed in his and his friends footsteps. We’ve already lost Mary Travers, now we have to send another of our great proponents of hope and healing to whatever comes next.
I watch the world, the one that Richie and his contemporaries worked so hard over the decades to mend, and sometimes I quake with sorrow and rage. I want to bellow at the world “you are killing yourselves, you can do better than this!” Sometimes in my way, I do. Mr. Havens and his friends, however, chose a different way. It is not a popular one, but they strove, and some still strive, to lead by example. Peace is not something achieved through strength of arms. The tools of the movement should not be the dynamite, blasting a worrisome tunnel through the mountain ranges of a history of bloodshed. It should be the natural, gentle stream, slowly making its way down the mountainside, quietly carving a pass through that mountain range. A pass that reshapes it, and us, forever, not just for a generation or two.
Mr. Havens and his friends dared to hope in ways that the vast majority of us, regardless of our political stripe, have not shown the willingness to do. They saw brotherhood not just in the people like them, but in those that would return their love with hate. They understood, understand, that we are all due each other’s love, and won’t know real, lasting peace, until we finally accept that, in our hearts and in our minds.
- Richie Havens, RIP (brooklynvegan.com)
- Richie Havens, Rest in Peace (onthewilderside.com)
- Richie Havens Dies at Age 72 (jambase.com)
- Agent: US folk musician Richie Havens dies at 72 (itv.com)