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Review by Tom
Gallagher


No one rising in
the 1960s folk music revival escaped the influence of the main figures of the
previous one—Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. But, for David Hajdu, these singers
“were not so much Pete and Woody’s Children as Pete’s Children or Woody’s
Children.” Hajdu’s book Positively Fourth Street is the story of a
“daughter” of Pete’s—Joan Baez, who decided on her on own career after a Seeger
concert; a “son” of Woody’s—the newly- minted Bob Dylan of Minnesota, who
presented himself at Guthrie’s home almost immediately upon arrival in New York;
and a couple of hybrids: Joan’s kid sister Mimi, and her husband Richard Farina
whom she married after the breakup of his marriage with Carolyn Hester, then
seen as Baez’s main rival on the female folk scene. It may remind you of
People
magazine more than you’d like, but if you loved the songs, you’re
probably going to love reading about the singers.

Although
eventually the biggest success of the foursome, things started much slower for
Dylan than for Baez. She gave her first New York City concert to an audience of
700; he debuted before 53. Baez’s vocal abilities were obvious before she even
took to the stage—you could hear her dominating coffee house sing-a longs from
the audience. She did not lack for ambition, once singing a sometimes singing
partner’s material right before the other singer was scheduled to take the
stage—to presumably sing the same material. She rose fast: In 1962 she sold out
the Hollywood Bowl for the first time since Frank Sinatra in 1944.

Dylan did not
even sing on his first record appearance; he played harmonica for Carolyn
Hester. But with Dylan it was always more about the words than the voice, and
after Suze Rotolo—the woman on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,
his second album—introduced him to the Civil Rights movement, the words became
pretty political. At one point Farina suggested that Dylan take up with Joan
Baez, who, he thought, could use a little modernizing. After all, “She’s still
singing ‘Mary Hamilton’.” Dylan did just that and soon his “With God On Our
Side” would turn Baez into a singer of 20th century protest songs.

By all accounts
an engaging charmer, Farina came to folk music as a writer of prose and
continued doing that throughout, once writing of Dylan in a 1963 Mademoiselle
profile, “Catch him now…. Next week he might be mangled on a
motorcycle.” As the 25-year-old Farina’s marriage to Hester faded, he met Baez’s
not quite 17-year-old sister, who had folk singing dreams of her own. On the day
of their secret marriage, Mimi was scolded for returning home 45 minutes late
for dinner. Farina ghostwrote her high school book reports. Thomas Pynchon, his
friend from Cornell University days, later made an extremely rare public
appearance as best man at their aboveground wedding; Joan was maid of honor.

Unfortunately,
Richard was as bad on a motorcycle as Dylan— with even direr consequences: he
was killed in an accident while returning from a Carmel Valley autograph party
for his just published Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me, the
improbable and outrageous tale of one Gnossos Pappadoupolos. The party was on
April 30, 1966— Mimi’s 21st birthday and 60 days before Dylan’s own career and
life- changing crash.                 

Richard and Mimi
recorded but two albums and a few more songs that sound unique and perfect
today. Mimi subsequently recorded one solo album and another as part of a duo.
When she founded the organization Bread and Roses to bring live music to
shut-ins, she felt that finally she “was doing exactly what I was meant to do.”

Baez and Dylan
negotiated the shoals of much longer careers. Certainly one of the greatest
sopranos to record “popular” music; Baez has sung to thousands of audiences,
many of which were barely seated before she told them about her latest antiwar
and nonviolence campaigns and what she thought of the issues of the day. In this
she has remained in Seeger’s tradition.

Dylan has become
opaquer with the years. Go to one of his concerts today and you will hear him
sing, introduce the band, and that’s it. He did not cooperate with the book, but
Hajdu quotes freely from previously unpublished interviews with Robert Shelton.
As hinted in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back that covers
some of the book’s events, Dylan was not always nice—to put it nicely.

By 1965, Baez
complained that while Dylan was as clear as a bell on what was wrong in society,
“he ends up saying that there’s not a goddamned thing you can do about it, so
screw it.” He told an old friend he wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin,”
because “It seems to be what people like to hear.” Later he attributed his early
attachment to the folk music scene to the fact that “I knew that Woody did this
kind of thing and Woody was famous and I used it.” Only his songs about George
Jackson and Ruben “Hurricane” Carter stand as exceptions in later years. But if
Dylan did not stay Guthrie’s political course, there is no one else who has sung
his own songs so distinctly since Woody. It was the brilliant writing of these
years that made Zimmerman, Dylan.

Mimi Farina died
of lung cancer this past year. She once told Hajdu, “I’ll always love Dick. He
was an impossible act to follow.” But his name was never mentioned at her
memorial service as San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. It was, after all, so very
long ago.     

Among her
eulogists that day was San Francisco State Senator John Burton, which seemed an
odd choice, particularly since Mimi’s name had once been briefly floated for
that same senate seat—at the same time that he first ran. But it turned out that
Burton and Farina had dated at some point. Burton said that when he was in the
rehab program he had checked into after leaving his seat in the U.S. Congress,
he would use the one call allotted to him each evening to call Mimi—the
California state senate president standing at the lectern of a cathedral talking
about calling Mimi from drug rehab—I gotta think Richard would have loved it.
    Z



 

Tom
Gallagher is an activist and freelance writer.