Robert Tellefsen: bringing it back home

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Robert Tellefsen and I are sitting in a mostly empty coffee shop, which he’s using as a canvas to illustrate his former life as a 17-year-old in Greenwich Village in the midst of the 1960s folk revival.

“Bob Dylan’s sitting with his manager over there,” he points to a vacant table. “And in the corner, there’s Joan Baez scribbling down a set list.”

In those early days of The Village scene, he explains, running into folk icons was really no big deal.

I didn’t ask many questions. I put down the pen and tried my best to visualize Tellefsen’s description of a world that has long ceased existing but in record collections, hippy-themed coffee-table books and grainy black-and-white videos on YouTube.

He spent the next hour or so recounting run-ins with some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, back when they were still singing for tips and drinks.

“Jimi—before he was ‘Jimi’—would give lessons around the Village, he taught me a few chords,” he said.

Tellefsen’s entree into music came at a time when folk song was scripture and its singers prophets; he learned the style through absorption—immersion. He learned modesty through occasional discouragement.

“One day I was sitting on a park bench somewhere, and Dylan was walking by and sat next to me, listening to me play for a bit,” he said. “After a while he just looked at me and said, ‘You’ll never be a great guitarist.’”

Tellefsen laughed as he recited the jab. He’s somewhat dismissive of Dylan. Personally, as a long-time acolyte and emulator of Mr. Tambourine Man, I have to envy Tellefsen. Getting slighted by Dylan would be like getting socked by Muhammed Ali—the story is worth the bruise.

Dylan’s swipe clearly didn’t cut too deep. Over half a century later, Tellefsen is still playing guitar and gigging throughout Northeast Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.

If you know the music of Woodstock, Tellefsen’s sound is nothing short of embodiment. The grit in his voice, the rhythm in his strumming, the bongo and conga players by his side, pretty much everything about his act all points to one unmistakable source: Richie Havens.

The two met in Greenwich Village, sometimes even performing together when Tellefsen would sit-in for Paul Williams, Havens’ lead guitarist.

“Let’s just say Paul would get too ‘sick’ to perform some nights,” he said.
Tellefsen is not into reifying rock stars, that much is clear from his even-toned stories of his brushes with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Jim Morrison, but something changes in his eyes when he remembers Havens. He speaks about the singer and guitarist with great reverance.

Tellefsen never followed some of his contemporaries into worldwide musical stardom. He was too focused on some of the residual characteristics of the folk revival: sex and drugs, he said candidly.

“There were a lot of us who didn’t make it,” he said. “Musicians tend to get distracted.”

Tellefsen had left Greenwich Village behind and was living in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1969, when he and his friends heard about some music festival going on nearby.

“I knew the backroads pretty well,” he said. “So I was able to bring my friends up there while mostly avoiding 17B.”

Local knowledge aside, it wasn’t long before they hit a “wall of people.”

“Everybody was trying to get there, nobody knew what it was.”

Tellefsen often jokes on stage that he doesn’t remember much from Woodstock, but he does remember feeling the sheer weight of the festival as he stood on top of a hill, taking in the vibrations of Grace Slick’s voice singing “White Rabbit.”

“There was so much love there,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. It was a ‘happening.’”

Of course, Tellefsen considers Havens’ opening set at Woodstock a festival highlight. Indeed, it is the most legendary performance of Havens’ career.

“He’d try to walk off stage but they’d turn him around telling him to play longer,” which is what spurred the improvised closing song “Freedom.”

“That’s how Richie played: until he dropped.”

In the decades following the “happening” at Yasgur’s, Tellefsen stepped away from music, disillusioned by the state of the industry. “Wall Street and big record companies dried up the folk scene,” he said.

Working for years at IBM, Tellefsen barely touched the guitar, struggling with arthritis and carpal tunnel. In the 1990s, he reconnected with his hero. Tellefsen met Havens backstage at a club before a show. When Tellefsen explained why he no longer played, Haven taught him to tune his guitar to “open D” and form chords by bringing his thumb over top of the fingerboard: Havens’ own work-around.

This reverse hand technique was much easier on Tellefsen’s joints and reawakened the dormant musical passion of that 17-year-old on the West Side of Manhattan, he said.

“Richie brought me back to life, he really helped me out,” he said.

Since Havens’ passing in 2013, Tellefsen has dedicated himself to honoring the music of his friend and mentor, the sounds of Greenwich Village and the spirit of the original Woodstock.

“I’m trying to bring it back home,” he said. “Before it all got commercialized: the beauty of somebody sitting on a stage singing to a crowd.”

Tellefsen will be performing at Hector’s Inn on Sunday, August 18, just down the road from where Havens’ immortal words, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home,” echoed off the hills and down the traffic-stricken highway.

“Woodstock was an oasis from government and big business. Everybody was in tune, sick of the establishment,” he said. “It wasn’t the money, it wasn’t even the music. It was a generation of people trying to change the world.”

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