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Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine

Positively 4th Street: The Lives And Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina And Richard Farina.

Positively 4th Street: The Lives And Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina And Richard Farina. – book review

Positively 4th Street: The Lives And Times Of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina And Richard Farina By David Hajdu Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001, 328 pages, ISBN 0374281998, hbk., $25.00

During her “folkie” days in Cambridge in the 1950s, Joan Baez was so driven to have her singing heard that she’d bust up a cafe musician’s solo performance by singing along unbidden, much to the performer’s dismay.

Bob Dylan, essentially apolitical at the outset of his career, took lessons from New York City girlfriend Suze Rotolo on leftist politics and wrote protest songs at her behest. Her inspiration is allegedly behind “The Ballad of Emmett Till” and several more, including “Blowing in the Wind.”

In what must have amounted to hundreds of detailed interviews, author David Hajdu extracts many similar stories about his quartet of subjects. Using ostensibly verbatim quotes from rivals, friends, family, managers and other performers, he tries his best to transcribe every thought, every turning point — every meal and carnal interlude, practically! — allegedly experienced by his folk “Fab Four.” This foible could have been avoided with more judicious editing.

We’re told once again, and at length, that Bob Dylan tried on for size numerous public personae before settling on the desengage vagabond image that endeared him to alienated American youth by 1964.

Bob projected the essence of hip to admirers. He was also an opportunist; a master of the icy putdown and, by most accounts, an indifferent friend. Yet, of the four profiled in this book, it is Dylan who emerges the most complex and certainly the most influential.

Starting out as a wide-eyed kid from Minnesota who lies almost pathologically about his roots, young Robert Allen Zimmerman arrives in New York City already thunderstruck by Baez’s quick national success with her first Vanguard LP. How he would shortly transform publicly into the balladeer with bad attitude and the poet of alienation is mesmerizing reading.

What the author does not tell us is why he places Joan’s younger sister Mimi and husband cum doomed artiste Richard Farina in the same Pantheon as Joanie and Bob. Surely, neither Richard’s nor Mimi’s careers can sustain the same scrutiny as Baez’s or Dylan’s. Nor can anyone — including the author — make a case for Richard Farina’s catalytic role during the folk revival.

A poor musician by contemporary accounts (including that of his first wife, folk singer-composer Carolyn Hester), Farina wrote one frenetic novel titled, Been Down So Long (Looks Like Up To Me) and some minor poetry. Seemingly talented in this regard, his verse received early publication in The Atlantic and several literary quarterlies. But he died in a motorcycle accident well before these promising starts could form an opus. His great gift during his short life was insinuating himself into the careers of the folk scene’s famous and powerful. Some speculate that he married Hester, an early Baez rival whom he practically forced to perform with him on stage, and later Mimi, only to bathe in their musical auras.

Mimi, more introverted and less driven to perform than Joanie, had a good voice and excellent guitar skills. Maybe because she didn’t crave folk goddess status the way Joanie did, she wound up living in the shadow of her older sister. The younger Baez sister appears never to have emerged from Joan’s overwhelming shadow as a folk performer. However, in 1974, after witnessing the “healing” that went on between blues performer B.B. King and a prison audience, Mimi established the nonprofit volunteer-performance group Bread and Roses. She dedicated the remainder of her life to the group, which organizes free concerts for the sick, imprisoned and homeless in and around the San Francisco Bay area.

Biographical interpretation of history is always risky. Except for Dylan, anyone old enough to recall the original “folk scare” or the 1960s revival can rustle up a quartet with far more influence on that era than Hajdu’s questionable selections.

Make no mistake, though: this book is well worth reading. Hajdu is an entertaining storyteller and introduces us in these 328 pages to most of the major and minor personalities associated with the early days of the folk revival.

Sadly, some names whose promise faltered or died will bring a nostalgic tear to the eyes of older readers, while younger ones will wonder why the pages are thus cluttered. — MC

COPYRIGHT 2001 Sing Out Corporation

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group