He entranced the audience for three hours, being called back time and again for encores. With his repertoire exhausted, he improvised a song based on the spiritual Motherless Child. This became Freedom, his best known song and an anthem for a generation. His inclusion on the subsequent film of the festival – where he can be seen strutting around the stage, pouring every ounce of emotion into the song – further enhanced his reputation. The song was included on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino's 2012 slavery-era film Django Unchained.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest of nine children, Havens formed street corner doo-wop groups with his friends, and sang with the McCrea Gospel Singers at the age of 16. Although he had already visited the artistic hotbed Greenwich Village, to read poetry, he was 20 before he moved there to live, soon learning to play the guitar and performing in the Village's folk venues, where this 6ft 6in tall African American stood out in the largely white clubs.
His distinctive guitar playing and soulful, gruff singing style quickly marked him out as a performer to watch, and after a couple of albums on the Douglas label, Havens was signed up by Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, who secured a record deal with Verve Records.
The first album with Verve, Mixed Bag (1967), included his own anti-war ballad, Handsome Johnny (co-written with the actor Louis Gossett Jr), and a handful of covers, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney's Eleanor Rigby and Dylan's Just Like a Woman. As with all his subsequent covers, he made the songs his own, with his highly rhythmic guitar accompaniment.
His Woodstock success encouraged Havens to found his own record label, Stormy Forest, and although the first album, Stonehenge (1970), was more subdued than his Woodstock audience expected, his next record, Alarm Clock (1971), indeed became a wake-up call: it was his highest charting album, and a single of George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun made the US top 20.
Havens's repertoire was always a mixture of his own compositions and covers of other songwriters: he had a special talent for interpreting other people's songs, always delivered in his soulful, fiery and passionate vocal style with his attacking, urgent, rhythmic guitar accompaniment.
After kidney surgery in 2010, Havens retired from touring. He is survived by four daughters.