Negatively 4th Street - Book Review - Part II

David Hajdu
Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina
Farrar Straus & Giroux

A Talk With Carolyn Hester

Carolyn Hester was five years older than Joan Baez and was already widely known for her renditions of traditional songs when Joan hit the Cambridge scene. With her golden voice, Hester was dubbed "The Texas Songbird," but she was also politically active, being close to Pete Seeger and spearheading the controversial boycott of TV's "Hootenanny" when Pete was blacklisted from it. She figures in this story mainly as Richard Farina's first wife, and Hajdu tries to portray their relationship as one that was cultivated and exploited by Farina in a calculated attempt to gain fame and notoreity.

When I asked her about her reaction to the book she said she had "Very mixed emotions about it." She said she had been led to believe that it would be more about the Sixties."I was looking forward to it - I thought it would be the last time I'd have to talk about certain things."

"What concerned me was that although there are many many things to discover by reading the book, I feel that the real story of the sixties is not just those four people - or the five, six, seven of us - but the people who were going to the concerts and absorbing this new idea: Do we have to go to Vietnam? Civil Rights - shouldn't everyone get a vote? The people who went down south - the guys who went to Canada - that's the real story of the sixties. When I got a hold of the book - the twist on it came out like a soap opera."

For Hester the real story is not the incestuous scheming and stealing and influencing that went on between the book's protagonists but "how those artists were influenced by those audiences.... They were the ones with the guts. Maybe some of us got to be up on stage or lead a march, and maybe through us some message was synthesized or sent out, but that generation wanted something different and they were different and they gave -oh my God." To me, this reciprocal relationship between the artists and the audiences is a key insight. It has the kind of generosity of spirit that's missing from Hajdu's account.

As for the facts themselves, Hester is troubled by the treatment Hajdu gives to much of the material they talked about. For instance, in his description of the trip to the beach where Hester offered Dylan his first chance to record in the studio - which, as it turned out, was how John Hammond met and eventually signed him. Hajdu, apparently basing his story on Eric Von Schmidt's version of the story, implies that Dylan was begging and it was Farina's idea to invite him into the studio. Hester insists that this is an "absolute error." Von Schmidt was there that day, but, says Hester, he got his spin on their exchange from Farina (who's self-aggrandizing portrait in the book is pretty much on the mark). Hester maintains that Dylan, new to the Boston scene, was simply asking Carolyn about getting gigs and that she offered him the studio opportunity without any prompting from Richard.

On the other hand, while Richard might be a man of doubtful character, she also insists that her relationship with him did not begin as one of exploitation. Although the marriage was "really shaky" from the start - not surprising, considering how precipitous it was - she told me that for the first year, Richard was not opportunistic. However, her success began to rankle with Farina, who was having trouble with his book (the same book -Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me - he finally finished years later, then died on the eve of publication). He got jealous, forbidding her to practice during the day because he needed quiet in order to write, and then started wanting to perform with her. The book makes it seems like they were a duo, virtually from the beginning (an early version of the later Richard-Mimi combination), but Hester says that Richard performed with her maybe five or six times.

She was also troubled by Hajdu's treatment of the infamous episode where Hester, fed up with Farina, ousted him from their hotel room at gunpoint. While this did in fact happen, Richard had instructed Carolyn very thoroughly in the use of his handgun and the safety was on, a detail which Hajdu omits, presumably to increase the drama. Also, she said, the break-up following this event was less abrupt than the book makes it seem. Hajdu's tendency to exaggerate may also apply to his implication that Richard invented Dylan when he suggested that they "sing poetry" and folk rock when he planned to go electric a day before Dylan did at Newport (a thunderstorm prevented it). In general, Hester doesn't think Bob was that close to Richard and Mimi. There was "a lot of antipathy" between Bob and Richard, she said. When I asked her straight out if she thought Farina in any way helped"make" Dylan, as Hajdu insinuates, she said no, flat out.

As for her relationship with Joan Baez, Hester says that she didn't - and doesn't - know Joan very well. She remembers that Joan came on stage and sang with her on "The Golden Vanity" when Joan was just 16. She also noted that Debbi Green, the young Cambridge singer from whom Baez is supposed to have stolen her entire early repertoire and technique, was not the musical ingenue Hajdu allows us to picture by failing to mention that she married Eric Andersen. Hester may have paved the way for Baez, but she never felt that they were rivals. She thinks that fundamentally, they were doing different things. Besides singing different (though similar) material, especially at first, she saw both Joan and Dylan asking themselves 'I think my audience wants so and so.' "What I was in it for, she says, "was the music, the melodies, the haunting melodies and the poetry of the lyrics." Her hero remained Pete Seeger. The other two were increasingly caught up in the groundswell of social protest they helped create, and a lot of their energy and creativity came from responding to that. She is emphatic in her view that they did not approach this in an opportunistic way, but as artists. Their gift, in her view, was to use their art and fame to help give shape to this wave they were all riding. When it came to the media and the manipulation of careers, it was Grossman, she says, who was the "guiding genius" of it all. "The truth is that Al Grossman gave Dylan the idea of not going on TV - 'they'll hear your records and you'll be mysterious.'" Dylan himself was selling - but not selling out. "His song for Woody made a whole lot of people buy a Woody Guthrie record."

Hester wonders: with so many problems and omissions in the details of her part of the story - and she's just a minor character - what is one to think about the rest|?

Conclusion: A lot of information, but a lack of synthesis. "A work still waiting to be done."


Hugh Blumenfeld, Editor
hugh@balladtree.com

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