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Workin' on the Railroad

To promote his new album, the folksinger travels by rail for several impromptu concerts

You're a baby-boomer legend. An act that opened Woodstock back in 1969. How do you parlay that into 1994 credibility? If you're Richie Havens, you sing ''Something About a Train,'' the theme song for Amtrak's nationwide TV campaign, then use the connection to promote your new album, Cuts to the Chase, on a one-day whirlwind tour of East Coast train stations. Even though Havens says, ''Nothing I do feels like work,'' we tagged along on July 12 to see how well he (and his rep) held up.

WASHINGTON Union Station, 8:30 a.m. The 150 red-eyed commuters seem dumbstruck by this early-morning bundle of energy plucking an acoustic guitar. ''Washingtonians tend to be catatonic under the best of circumstances,'' observes Mary Lynn Skutley, a 40-year-old editor. But by the end of his 30-minute set, they're clapping along to ''Freedom,'' the song he ad-libbed onstage while waiting for Woodstock's other acts to show up. A dazed crowd is nothing new to Havens.

PHILADELPHIA 30th Street Station, noon. As Havens furiously strums Jackson Browne's ''Lives in the Balance,'' a woman points to her arm and chirps, ''He gave me goosebumps!'' At the end of his set, Havens draws chuckles by crooning ''Something About a Train,'' reminding the crowd, ''It was a song first, you know.'' Afterwards, he dashes to sign autographs at the station's Tape World store. In line is 26-year-old bartender Michael Goldstein, who says, ''My mom bought me the Woodstock album when I was 12.'' Good news for the 53-year-old Havens: The signature's for Goldstein, not his mother.

Back on the train, Havens talks about his long career — he's churned out 16 albums for a loyal cult following since his first, A Richie Havens Record, in 1965 — and his disenchantment with the upcoming 25th anniversary of Woodstock shows in Saugerties, N.Y. Says Havens, who will play a smaller celebration in Bethel, N.Y., on August 14, ''The original was called an Aquarian Exposition — it only became Woodstock after the movie. And it was about the people who went, not about making money. The press would like to link this summer's festival to what happened then. That's not true as far as I'm concerned. If they want to call it Woodstock, fine. It's just a name, not the place I went to.''

NEW YORK CITY Penn Station, 5 p.m. Havens sets up his portable stage under a 15-foot Stars and Stripes. He wonders whether any of the commuters from his notoriously jaded hometown will bother to stop and listen. But during the set, a small crowd grows into a throng of 400, with many of them hanging off stairways and from overhead railings. Against the odds, their urban cool melts into a warm fuzzy. For Havens' encore, the crowd sings along to (steady now) ''You Are So Beautiful.'' Men in suits look nervously at the departure board. More than a few decide to take a later train.

Originally posted Aug 05, 1994 Published in issue #234 Aug 05, 1994 Order article reprints
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