Swans Commentary » swans.com June 19, 2006  



A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA., 2005, ISBN 0-306-81407-2, 246 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-374-28199-8, 328 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)


(Swans - June 19, 2006)   The publication of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One invites further explorations into the folk revival. In preparing a review of Dylan's luminous memoir for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html), I read two other books to understand the backdrop. They will now be reviewed here as a follow-up.

One is Elijah Wald's The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an 'as told to' memoir by Dave Van Ronk, a pioneer of the folk music revival who was dying of cancer while the memoir was being written. Despite approaching mortality, Van Ronk's good humor and vitality suffuses the entire book. A life-long socialist, Van Ronk nearly never wrote or sang topical songs. But his memoir reveals him to be an astute surveyor both of American society and of his own modest but important role in catalyzing social change through folk music.

The other is David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street, a study of the relationships between Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and between Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan's younger sister. Fariña died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his wife died of cancer in 2001. Hajdu's first book, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, demonstrated an uncommon ability to place a musician into his or her cultural and social context. While all the portraits drawn by Hajdu are compelling, I will focus on that of Richard Fariña, who is an interesting contrast to Dave Van Ronk.

Although Hajdu's Dylan is the sneering, hostile figure made familiar in the Pennebaker Cinéma vérité "Don't Look Back," the Chronicles reflects a mellower and wiser figure generous to a fault to everybody who he encountered on the way up, most especially Van Ronk:

Dave Van Ronk, he was the one performer I burned to learn particulars from. He was great on records, but in person he was greater. Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman's papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece -- suspenseful, down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some . . . couldn't do without it. Van Ronk seemed ancient, battle tested. Every night I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a timeworn monument. Dave sang folk songs, jazz standards, Dixieland stuff and blues ballads, not in any particular order and not a superfluous nuance in his entire repertoire. Songs that were delicate, expansive, personal, historical, or ethereal, you name it. He put everything into a hat and -- presto -- put a new thing out in the sun. I was greatly influence by Dave. Later, when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It's not like I planned it, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine.

Van Ronk was born in 1936, an age that gave him some proximity to the tumultuous changes wrought by the Great Depression, including a labor movement that remained restive until the late 1940s. His initial musical affinities, however, were not with the social protest music of a Woody Guthrie or a Josh White but with traditional or Dixieland jazz. Despite lacking a golden throat, his first gigs were as a singer. It was sheer volume that opened up doors, especially in low-rent clubs lacking a sound system. As some wit put it, to quote Van Ronk, "When Van Ronk takes a vocal, the hogs are restless for miles around."

Of course, the folk revival was in itself an attempt to redefine what was beautiful. For every singer with an angelic voice like Joan Baez's, there were others who got by on sheer personality, like Bob Dylan. For a generation that had become jaded by white rock-and-rollers like Pat Boone, having a raspy but genuine instrument was more than adequate. Although there are very few sound tracks on the Internet (other than the 20-second clips at amazon.com) that capture Van Ronk in performance, author Elijah Wald does include Take A Whiff on Me, (http://www.elijahwald.com/whiff.ram) which he describes as a "taste of how Dave sounded in his formative years, around the time he was recording his first Folkways album." It is essential Van Ronk, combining superior guitar technique, unabashed enthusiasm and a keen sense of phrasing -- essential for any vocalist.

Van Ronk was a master of a technique called "fingerpicking" that employed the thumb for the bass line while the fingers played melody. He first heard it being used in 1954 or '55 in Washington Square Park, the site of folk revival then taking shape. Once he mastered this technique and learned how it could be exploited for blues and old-timey music, he decided to put jazz behind, especially since he was "sick to death of performing the music of King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton for drunken undergraduates who wanted us to put on funny hats and sing 'Yes Sir, That's My Baby.'"

Unlike many of the aspiring folk singers of the 1950s who emulated figures such as Woody Guthrie and Peter Seeger, Van Ronk was politically sophisticated. Although he was a leftist, he disdained the politics of the Communist Party. As part of application of the Popular Front turn in the 1930s, the party promoted folk singing as a way to connect with indigenous culture. In classical music, the folk-inspired ballets of CP sympathizer Aaron Copland followed the same path. Van Ronk, like beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, identified more strongly with anarchist and other left-libertarian currents that maintained a modest but separate identity during the period of CP hegemony, and later on evolved toward a Trotskyist outlook. Van Ronk summed up the role of the CP this way:

While the Communist Party played a notable role in midwifing this musical movement -- Guthrie even had a regular column for a while in the Daily Worker -- it also presented a few problems. For one thing, there were the political shifts that found the Almanacs singing things like "Plow Under Every Fourth American Boy" and the other songs they recorded opposing U.S. entry into World War II during the Hitler-Stalin pact, then having to throw those songs out the window and replace them with "It's that UAW-CIO that makes the army roll and go," once Germany invaded the Soviet Union. However, I do not want to overstate the old bugaboo about "singing the 'party line.'" While the folksingers were certainly responsive to party positions, the Central Committee not only failed to exercise tight control over them but showed a discouraging lack of interest in the whole business. The main obstacle to musical growth presented by the CP was not a matter of committee directives or party discipline but a matter of attitude. Among Progressives of the time, personal expression in music was discouraged. Art was considered to be a tool. (Or a weapon: the famous sign on Woody's guitar, "This machine kills fascists," is a perfect example.) As odd as it may seem to us now, many of these people were embarrassed to write a love song, because the Spanish Civil War was going on, or the steelworkers were on strike, or Mussolini was invading Ethiopia. Thus, while the songwriters around the CP had some magnificent moments, they were unable to exploit the full range of their experience, and their compositions ended up being as obsessively focused on one subject (politics) as the commercial music they despised was on another (romantic love).

As mentioned above, Van Ronk rarely projected politics into his songs but was content to stick with classic material out of the African-American blues and Scotch-Irish ballad books. He had a real talent for digging up new material, like "House of the Rising Sun," which Bob Dylan confesses to having robbed from Van Ronk for his premier recording. Unlike Dylan, Van Ronk was never that interested in fame and fortune but was far more content to develop a more journeyman approach to his career. In page after page in this delightful memoir, his self-deprecating humor shines through, as the final paragraph reveals:

I had to tour a little more than I liked, but between the concerts and some teaching I was making a reasonable living playing the music I loved, and that was a hell of a lot more than I had expected when I started out in this business, or than my education or my family background would have led anyone to predict. So for the last thirty years I have been fighting a reasonably successful holding action, and as the Irishman who fell off the Empire State Building said as he passed the forty-first floor, "So far, so good." I am still making my own musical choices, and people have kept coming to the shows and buying the records. There are perhaps two hundred people in the country whose musical opinions I really care about, and most of them like my work, and that was the object of the exercise from the get-go. Being a musician -- even a good musician -- is not a ticket to ride. It's a job, and at times it can be very hard work. But then someone will come up and say, "Hey, Dave, I heard you in 1962 in Samarkand," and that's nice. I never made a fortune -- as a matter of fact, I have often been deeply in debt -- but dammit, this is what I wanted to do, and I have been able to do it for almost fifty years, and I haven't had to do anything else, and what more can I ask? I wanted to be a musician, and I am a musician, and that's what it's all about.




The protagonists of David Hajdu's Positively West 4th Street, except for Mimi Fariña, were far more driven by ambition than Dave Van Ronk. It is to Hajdu's credit that he can make you care deeply about them despite behavior that could not be more contrary to the conventional virtues of folk singing, most especially humility.

The careers of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are well known. For all practical purposes, Richard Fariña was a footnote to the 1960s. By unearthing his early years and his artistic evolution, Hajdu turns this relatively obscure figure into an apt symbol of the irresistible forces that led to a synthesis between folk and rock. Like Dylan, Fariña saw performance as a means to an end. It was a way to gain immortality. Ironically, this extremely ambitious young man died just as his career was taking off.

Born into a working-class family in Brooklyn like Van Ronk, Fariña was as much as a fabulist as his friend Bob Dylan. While Dylan represented himself as being raised in a New Mexico orphanage, playing piano for Elvis Presley on his early records, etc., Fariña was more interested in spinning out tales of international intrigue. He claimed that he ran guns to the Castroite guerrillas (his father was Cuban-American) and the IRA (his mother was Irish), and that he had a steel plate in his head. In reality, both Dylan and Fariña came from utterly conventional backgrounds and both hoped to use music and or writing to help them refashion themselves as rebels.

As a better than average student, Fariña was accepted on a scholarship to Cornell in 1956 to study engineering. Not soon after arriving, he discovered that he was much more interested in writing. When he took the final exam for his first-term engineering class in December 1957, he used 2 ½ hours of test time to write a free-verse poem about why he should not be majoring in engineering!

At Cornell, he developed a close friendship with Thomas Pynchon, who would become famous for writing V, a picaresque novel that clearly had an influence on Fariña's own "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me." The two were friendly with Kirkpatrick Sale, another Cornell student who would go on to write memorable histories of SDS and the European conquest of the American Indian.

After graduating Cornell, Fariña moved back to New York City where he held down an advertising job by day and wrote poems and fiction by night. Through a combination of early success in small-circulation magazines and his own combination of charisma and pushiness, he managed to become part of the literary set that made the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village a meeting place. This was where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death and where Fariña was introduced to folk singer Carolyn Hester by Robert Shelton, who covered folk music beat for the New York Times. Hester was widely viewed as a contender to Joan Baez. She had the same sort of liquid vibrato and good looks, as well as a penchant for singing distressed damsel classics such as "Silver Dagger."

Within no time at all, Hester and Fariña were married. Although Hajdu strives to emphasize the genuine feelings that he had for her, the reader cannot but help suspect that he considered this as a kind of career move that would open up doors for him in the burgeoning folk world. When the two visited London in 1962, Fariña kept pressuring his wife to get gigs as a husband-and-wife duo. His argument was that they would get double the money. But Hester wondered if something else was going on: "We needed all the money we could get, so I went along with it. But I had just about had it with his hogging in on my thing."

Always on shaky grounds, the marriage came to an end after Fariña met and fell madly in love with the seventeen-year-old Mimi Baez, who was even more beautiful than her sister. The force of his personality and the difference in their ages allowed him to dominate her completely. This does not mean that he was solely interested in exploiting her, as he tried unsuccessfully to do with Hester. It appears that he was sincerely looking for a partner whose talents meshed more seamlessly with his own.

The two went on to make two classic recordings, "Celebrations of a Gray Day" and "Reflections in a Crystal Wind." Like Dylan, Fariña was never much of a vocalist in conventional terms but managed to become something of a virtuoso with the dulcimer, an instrument that traditionally been used to accompany Scotch-Irish ballads of the sort sung by Jean Ritchie. The music that they created was some of the most forward looking and exciting of the period and appeared at almost exactly the same time that Dylan was evolving his own folk-rock style. It can also be said that the lyrics to "Mainline Prosperity Blues" probably summed up the alienation that young people, including me, felt in 1965 that no other song could convey:

(Richard Fariña)

Good morning, teaspoon
Teaspoon give me back my brain
Hello, reflection—
You don't look the same
And good morning, sweet companion
Pardon me if I've forgotten your name.

Well I know the sun is shining
I believe it 'cause the shades are down
And I know the nighttime's over
Honey, nothing else could make that sound
And I know you won't be moving
Pardon me if I just hang around.

Well, society is rolling
Got to drive above a certain speed
Population's exploding
Gonna get you in a wild stampede
Well, companion, you'll forgive me
If I seem unwilling to succeed.

Now efficiency's the by-word
Everybody get to work on time
There ain't no unemployment
I believe I'm going to lose my mind
I'm listed on the census
But I think I'm going to just resign.

Well, I'm only just a pillow, honey
And I belong in bed
I need a little soothing
Something soothing, kind of mellow for my head
They say I could be productive
But I think I'll just recline right here instead.

Positively 4th Street makes Richard Fariña come alive, with all his strengths and weaknesses. It does the same for Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, whose lives are obviously more familiar to us.

Dylan, who nearly lost his own life in a motorcycle accident three months after Fariña's death, took a long leave of absence from music and with the exception of a couple of albums never returned to his past glory. We are fortunate that Dylan continued to make music, even if of a diminished quality. We are also fortunate that his writing abilities are greater than ever based on the evidence of the Chronicles.

David Hajdu's book invites us to take a second look at the music of Richard and Mimi Fariña and as well at his writings, which are cataloged at http://www.richardandmimi.com/. "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me" is still in print and well worth reading. Although it was panned by mainstream reviewers at the time, I read and loved the book, which has an introduction by Thomas Pynchon. Along with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," it helped to define the counter-culture of the 1960s and serves as a permanent reminder of a different way to look at and escape the condition described in "Mainline Prosperity Blues."


· · · · · ·
Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA., 2005, ISBN 0-306-81407-2, 246 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-374-28199-8, 328 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html
Published June 19, 2006