It hardly seems possible now but 50 years ago tomorrow, April 30, 1966 Richard Fariña hopped on the back of a friend’s motorcycle for a quick joy ride in the middle of a party celebrating the publication of his first novel and his wife’s birthday. Only 29 years old, he was one of the most promising young writers and musicians in America. A few minutes later he was dead.
That kind of tragic early death has made legends and cultural icons out of figures like James Dean. But despite a devoted cult following, mostly associated with the fans of his sister in law Joan Baez and wife Mimi Fariña, his star has faded. Which is too bad. He was a very talented man who led the sort of swashbuckling life that should have attracted a lot of attention.
Partly his obscurity lies in his own vagueness on the details of his biography. As an artist, he felt free to invent himself and he often confabulated real experiences with romantic extrapolations from their possibilities. He was not the first to do so. Ernest Hemingway built a Nobel Prize winning career convincing his readers that he was really the hero of some of his most famous novels. Woody Guthrie’s “autobiography” Bound for Glory was really a novel about a character named Woody Guthrie. Fariña’s friend and contemporary Bob Dylan re-created himself chameleon like until there was almost no remaining connection to Bobby Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota.
This is what we think we know.
Fariña was born on March 8, 1937 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, a stew of ethnicities. His father was Cuban and his mother Irish. He would build a mythos on both of these heritages. In childhood he spent some summers with his father’s family in Cuba. He made his first trip the British Isles, and his mother’s Ulster in 1953 while still in high school.
Back in Brooklyn, the boy was a star pupil in the Catholic and public schools he attended. In January of 1955 he graduated from the elite Brooklyn Technical High School, where he was President of the General Organization which directed all extra-curricular activities at the school, Chief Justice of the Student Court, and had his own column in the school newspaper.
Returning to Northern Ireland Fariña became in some way involved—and may have even joined—the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He may, or may not, have taken part in active operations in the IRA’s low level guerilla warfare against the British “occupation” of the North. He incorporated the experience in short stories he promoted as autobiographical.
With the help of a prestigious Regent’s Scholarship—a full ride—he attended Cornell University. At the urging of his father he began engineering studies but quickly grew bored and switched to an English major. He was crafting short stories and poems as an undergraduate as well as being a part of a thriving literary community on campus that included his closest friend, the future novelist Thomas Pynchon.
In his junior year Fariña made national headlines when he was charged with riot in a student protest against restrictions on female students led by his friend Kilpatrick Sale. Despite what Sale considered peripheral involvement, he became the face of a minor cause célèbre when 22 students were placed on trial by the school. Eventually he and Sale were “paroled” and allowed to remain in school.
Although Fariña returned to Cornell for his senior year, he dropped out in 1959 before graduation. His college life, however, became the fodder for the novel Been Down So Long it Looks like Up to Me.
After leaving school, he took another trip to his ancestral Cuba, then on the cusp of revolution. He soaked up the atmosphere and aura of intrigue in Havana and may have even made contact with and done some minor collaboration with revolutionary cells in the city.
Soon back in New York he took a job offer as a copywriter at the top advertising agency in the city, J. Walter Thompson. Was he “selling out” or just following the familiar career path of some of his literary heroes like F. Scott Fitzgerald? No matter. He was soon bored, restless, and alienated. He started to submit his stories and poems to literary magazines.
Previously a jazz aficionado, Farina began to haunt bohemian Greenwich Village and particularly the rich, socially conscious folk music scene that seemed to be staking out a new cutting edge in American culture. The legendary White Horse Tavern was a special haunt. There he fell in with the Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. He was particularly close to the Northern Irishman Makem, with who he would drink and sing all of the old rebel songs.
Within a very short period of time he was drawn into the world, if only on its periphery. He gave up the lucrative advertising agency job and was soon scrounging with the rest of the Village Beats.
In 1960 he re-connected with beautiful folk singer Carolyn Hester, then a leading star of the folk-revival scene who he had first encountered during a drunken evening of rebel song with Makem at the White Horse the year before. After an intense 17 day courtship the two married.
Without a job Fariña appointed himself Hester’s manager. What many saw as a loving collaboration, others viewed as his crude cashing in on a meal ticket. Although not previously a performer, he soon put himself of stage between her sets reading his poetry with a brooding intensity. He was present in the studio when Hester recorded her third album with the then virtually unknown Bob Dylan sitting in on mouth harp. It was the beginning of a close personal relationship with Dylan and his set.
Legendary Appalachian traditional folk artist Jean Ritchie introduced him to the simplest of all folk instruments, the three string mountain dulcimer. When he and Hester briefly took up residence in Charlottesville, Virginia to study traditional music, Ritchie gave him a dulcimer of his own. Soon he was sitting up on stage with Hester accompanying her on the instrument and occasionally singing harmonies.
The couple toured widely in the United States and then in Europe, particularly Scotland and the British Isles. He got himself co-billed with Hester at the Edinburgh Folk Festival and separately recorded a four song EP with the popular Scottish duo Rory and Alex McEwen despite having barely mastered his new instrument. Hester grew increasingly resentful of his relentless self-promotion and intrusion into her career.
After he met the beautiful 16 year Mimi Baez, sister of rising folk star Joan and openly flirting with her at a summer picnic with fellow musicians in the French countryside, Carolyn abandoned her husband in Europe, returned to the states to record a new album without him, and filed for a hasty divorce.
The affair between Fariña and Mimi blossomed despite an eight year age difference. Mimi’s stunning beauty and the Latin/Celtic heritage they shared—her father was Mexican and mother Scottish—had him hooked on her. His charm, intensity, and way with words won her heart. The couple was secretly married in Paris, without the knowledge of her family because of her youth.
|Mimi and Richard on their wedding day.|
They publicly married in April of 1963 with Pynchon as Fariña’s best man and Joan and the Baez family in attendance. By that time Mimi was just 17. They set-up housekeeping in California’s Big Sur in picturesque Carmel near Joan and began on collaborating on new songs for a stage act and recordings. Mimi wrote the melodies, sometimes with her sister, and he wrote the words, some of them adapted from previous poems.
This time spent in California, along with frequent trips back to New York where the couple immersed themselves in the circle around Dylan and Joan, was filled with hours of music. Jamming regularly with friends and honing his craft. Fariña was becoming the musician he only pretended to be with Carolyn Hester.
All this time he had also been working his novel and getting his stories published in increasingly prestigious magazines.
The young couple debuted their act as Richard and Mimi Fariña at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1964. Their ecstatic reception there won a contract with Joan’s record label Vanguard. They recorded their first album that fall with the help of old friend, guitarist Bruce Langhorne who had worked with Dylan.
Awaiting the album release they played the folk circuit around Cambridge and Boston that winter where they became favorites for their unique blend of Appalachian inspired songs, lyrical expressions of ecstatic joy, death obsessions, and strong protest music.
|Celebrations for a Grey Day, Richard and Mimi's first album.|
The album, Celebrations for a Grey Day, was released in April of 1965. Surprisingly, almost half the songs on the album were instrumentals which showed off how he had advanced on his simple instrument and learned to weave it with Mimi’s supple guitar work with unique rhythms. Songs on the album include their most familiar tune, Pack Up Your Sorrows, the more complex Reno, Nevada, Richard’s ballad of Civil Rights martyrs Michael, Andrew, and James, and the title song.
Although folk music was being eclipsed on the radio and in many college dormitories by the British Invasion and rise of a new, sophisticated form of rock and roll, Celebrations for a Grey Day was a solid hit among folk fans. I owned a copy and it was among half a dozen albums that I nearly wore out.
Richard and Mimi became true folk music super stars with their appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. They won awards in a Broadside magazine poll in three categories—Best Group, Best Newcomers, and Best Female Vocalist.
Those were heady days. Richard felt he had finally won recognition after years of struggling in artistic obscurity.
They quickly began work on a second album, Reflections in a Crystal Wind. This album was even more ambitious, and featured much more of Richard lyrics. Memorable songs included Chrysanthemum, Sell-Out Agitation Waltz, Hard-Loving Loser, House Un-American Blues Dream, Miles, and Children of Darkness. It was, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Fariña announced a reduction of public performance to concentrate on writing, both music and finally finishing the manuscript of Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me with which he had been struggling intermittently since 1961. But he had new-found confidence in himself as a writer, not just a character in the role of a writer. His new fame also assured that major publishers would be interested in the manuscript. He completed a final draft in six intense months of work and Random House picked it up.