New book by Philip Kenney

The Writer's Crucible Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity

Phil Kenney

Philip Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. He did his post-graduate work in British Object Relations at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry and has taught Self Psychology as part of his private practice. A long time meditator and poet, Mr. Kenney is the author of the novel, Radiance, and a collection of poetry, Where Roses Bloom. He strives to bring together the worlds of psychology, creativity and spirituality in his work and is the author of a new book on those subjects entitled, The Writer's Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.

Freedom, Song of the Soul

July 6, 2013

Let’s hear it for traffic jams! That’s right, you heard me, traffic jams, because without the mother of all traffic jams in upstate New York in the summer of 1969 we might not have ever experienced Richie Havens singing “Freedom” for his final encore as the opening act of Woodstock.

Ritchie Havens

Ritchie Havens

Mr. Havens was scheduled to perform fifth on the program, but the lead off band was stuck somewhere in the line of cars stretching for miles and miles on the country roads leading to Yasgur’s farm. He was planning on singing three or four songs, not the many songs that were required to fill the space until other bands arrived. He was not planning on singing “Freedom” because it didn’t exist yet I was delighted to learn that “Freedom” was inspired and composed on the spot! Improvised at the conclusion of his amazing opening act.

Many missed his performance, stuck in that endless caravan. It wasn’t until the movie version came out in 1970, that we were mesmerized by Mr. Haven’s presence and his dramatic exit from that stage. I was one of those not present, and I don’t have the traffic jam to blame! In what shall go down as one of the top five idiotic decisions of my life, I gave away the ticket in my hand to stay in New York and watch Woody Allen perform “Play it Again Sam” on Broadway. Ugh.

The play was great. Seeing Woody Allen perform was way fun and my friends and I laughed and laughed all night. But it wasn’t Woodstock. And it wasn’t Richie Havens electrifying the crowd with his raw and urgent voice. The voice that brought together the old Negro spiritual of 1870, “Motherless Child,” with the passion of the moment’s yearning for, and declaration of freedom.

A generation was moved by this remarkable performance. We stood and chanted, “Freedom” along with Richie Havens as he turned and danced his way off that memorable stage. On that memorable afternoon Ritchie Havens embodied the struggle of all African Americans to overcome the spiritual damage caused by slavery and racism. But that unforgettable voice also reached out to the white, privileged baby boomers coming of age recognizing their-own poverty and enslavement. They were moved to the core.

I know I felt every word and note of that song reverberate through my body. Did you? Do you know that feeling, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home?” I used the motherless child story as the primary theme in Radiance because I feel it is so close to the spiritual and psychological experience of being alive.

Of course I wasn’t motherless. My mother was a kind and good woman in many ways. But like scores of American women in that time, she was enslaved by the roles and rules determined by the dominant culture. Believe me, I am not blaming mothers here any more than the old Negro spiritual blamed mothers who were taken from their children and shipped away by the plantation owners.

In the end, my mother was very hard to find in an emotionally vital way, and the connection with someone present and alive that would have energized life, was missing. This absence haunted me. I was not free nor were most of my brothers and sisters of our generation. We went about desperately trying to find what was missing. We searched for fulfillment in drugs, sex and music. We expressed repressed rage in our justifiable protests against an illegal and ugly war and the continued expressions of racism. Some went back to the land looking for home. Many died, yearning and searching for an experience that would transform the feeling of being, “a long way from home.” The feeling of being, “almost gone.”

I did not inhabit my body or psyche. For a long, long time I was “homeless,” and spiritually emaciated, just like the improvised lyrics proclaim, “This is the skeleton which stands here before you.” It took me years and years to find my way back to the homeland of my body and my own experience. I was not alone in this pilgrimage.


Certainly, freedom has been written about in a million ways over the centuries, and continues to be the subject of heated debate in the contemporary clash over civil liberties for women, minorities and Gay and Lesbian individuals. On the national level, people are dying daily in places like Syria for a chance to live free of authoritarian rule.

These struggles are as old as humanity’s capacity to be aware of and conceive of this thing we call freedom. Most of the stories of our brief time as a civilized species have to do with the suppression of freedoms and the brutal domination of others. The use of power to eliminate the freedoms of certain groups of people is a shameful part of our nature.

The forsaking of individual liberties is a less obvious story. In preparation for a section of the new novel I am working on, I re-read Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” taken from The Brother’s Karamazov. A more eloquent, existential analysis of the very human fear of and rejection of personal freedom has probably never been written. In my life and in my psychotherapy practice, I am continuously overwhelmed by this phenomenon. The oscillation between reaching for and forsaking freedom is staggering.

On the other hand, the consumer-culture we live in advocates choice and freedom as if it were a piece of cake. As though you could purchase it at Costco at a discount. As though the complexity and influence of unconscious and cultural conditioning had been eliminated from daily life as smallpox once was. As if being free relied upon a simple decision and not a continuous engagement with the multiple forces at work in the world and the human psyche at any given moment.

As a writer, in love with the act of creating, this brings me back to Richie Havens on that stage in upstate New York forty-four years ago this summer. Can you imagine improvising before 500,000 people? It seems to me that in that moment, Richie Havens brought to life the spark of freedom in an act of creation, and, in particular, in the union of something old with something new.

We hear so much lately about being in the moment: in the now. Sounds good. But often this seems to carry with it the subtle, or not so subtle, suggestion that we are then free of the past and future. To me this misses the beauty, complexity and mystery of the creative impulse.

Faulkner said, in essence, the past is not past. It is alive in us right now. For better and worse, much of it is unconscious and available to inform our lives in a very rich way or to be re-enacted in what can be destructive ways. Either way, the past, or the known world, is present in the center of any action we might take.

Though we might attempt to suspend our awareness and be open to new, fresh inspiration, it is not possible, or advisable, to eliminate the history of our experience. When I sit down to work with a patient I try to be open to what is alive in the room and in my psyche. Freud taught that for the patient and the therapist, free association was the best means to get at the unspoken material at play. But all the training and study previous to that encounter is part of the dynamic field of consciousness moving the patient and therapist’s responses.

Similarly in writing, I listen intently for the voices within that wish to speak. But that spontaneity is influenced by every bit of literature I have read over the past 40 years as well as everything, good and bad, I have written over the past 20. All that experience, and every bit of life I have lived, goes into the soup.

This is what is so fascinating to me, whether it is an act of creation or living creatively; somehow we dip our spoon into that soup, into that eternally creative field which includes our own history of experience as well as the energies of the moment. And having entered that realm, with the aid of our conscious intentions and the uncanny support of the unconscious, we are able to bring forth something new and fresh. Something alive.

It is that dynamic engagement at the interface between the old or known world and the unborn moment, coming to life, that is so satisfying and intriguing. What happens is not something that is chosen in the conventional sense. It is more like play: a dialect between what came before with what wants to come now. Playing with the creative tensions that include elements of both makes for fresh goods.

Richie Havens took an old Negro Spiritual he’d probably heard a hundred times before and infused it with the emotion and spiritual longing of the hour. Shakespeare did the same thing. Most of his stories were not original. But it is that relationship, the relationship of what is known with the spirit of the moment that brings new life, or new art, into the world.


Thank you Ritchie Havens. You are missed. In my grandiose fantasies of seeing Radiance become a movie, I created a sound track and “Freedom” is the opening song for my feature film. I love this song for so many reasons. What I love most is your voice, the raw urgency of yearning, a hunger for freedom, battered, beaten and scarred as it may be, that will not be extinguished.

And why, despite the overwhelming odds, despite the position of powerlessness through the ages, why and how does the voice of Richie Havens combine with the percussive insistence of six simple guitar strings to create a sound that is free, indestructible and still resonating today across the fields of Yasgur’s farm, across the universe of four decades into our hearts and minds?

“Freedom is the song of the soul.” The genius of India, evolving for five to ten thousand years through the practice of meditation and contemplation, tells us that freedom is our essential nature. What’s more, all our human pursuits, veiled and disguised as they may be, are movements towards union (Yoga) with that nature. The mystics called this the path to liberation, or Moksha.

Whether we call it grace or the path of liberation doesn’t matter. There does seem to be a fire that cannot be put out; a flame that endures brutal oppression, trauma of all sorts and the despair and hopelessness that sometimes dwarfs all other feelings. That spark burst into flames in the late 60’s. It brought us Woodstock, Richie Havens and so much more. According to Vedantic thought, that force is eternal and wants nothing other than to bring us all home.

According to that wisdom though we feel, “a long way from home,” we are not. We abide in the fresh love of the great mother of all creation who is the blood in our veins and closer than our own breath. That formless mother waits for us to turn to her and ask for freedom with all our hearts. She waits for us to give ourselves over fully to the freely given energies of life. Ritchie sang it like so, “This is the pledge that always needs a home. Come on, come on, come on, come on.”


Come on, come on, and may all beings feel that love and know that freedom,








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2 Responses

  1. Andy Robbins says:

    Hey Phil, thanks for another thoughtful and insightful post. There is a lot to think about in what you have written. Your observations on the process of creativity are spot on; it is a kind of soup and I wish I had the recipe that made it repeatable.

    • Phil Kenney says:

      Thanks Andy. That’s why I never cook with a recipe, but I understand the wish for a way to make it repeatable.

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