The Rise and Fall Of Folk Music: Positively 4th Street – David Hajdu

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard FariñaPositively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu

A confession: I may have a slight Bob Dylan obsession. I own a bunch of his albums, have written a bunch of pieces about him and own a handful of books about him and his music. Dylan’s a fascinating guy: how did this awkward, mumbling guy from Minnesota take the folk world by storm, explode into rock music and revolutionize music in less than five years?

Those questions were part of the attraction for David Hajdu’s book positively 4th Street. His four-headed biography also covers Richard Farina and the Baez sisters, Mimi and Joan. And Hajdu’s book more than delivers. He covers the rapid rise of Joan Baez, the emergence of Dylan and the long incubation period for Farina’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (previously reviewed here!). It’s not always pretty, sometimes not even nice. If I’m being honest, it’s why I enjoyed this so much.

At the book’s centre are the two Baez sisters, Joan and Mimi. They grew up on the west coast with Quakers for parents and learned guitar early. As a musician, Joan was prodigiously talented: before she turned 19, she performed in coffeehouses, popped up on compilation albums and debuted at the Newport Folk Festival. She was also driven to succeed: Hajdu recounts how she hustled her way backstage at Newport, hung just off to the side and asked just about every performer if she could duet with them.

Joan didn’t let people get in her way, even if they were family. Hajdu writes how Joan shut her sister Mimi’s career down almost before it started, telling Mimi she couldn’t sing to protect her own career: “I didn’t want any competition,” said Joan, “and I felt my success would overshadow her.” (pg 25) Indeed, this dismissive attitude comes through at various points; later, upon hearing “Blowin’ In the Wind”, she remarks how she didn’t think Dylan “had it in him.” (pg 120)

Is it insecurity? I don’t think so, especially when compared to Hajdu’s portrait of Richard Farina. While Farina comes off occasionally as a fun guy, prone to throwing parties and generous with praise and adventure, he also appears as insecure as jealous husbands get: opening (and answering!) his wife’s mail, telling his first wife Carolyn Hester what to eat and how to dress and convincing other people to sneak his pistol across international borders.

He does not come off as a nice guy at all. Prone to flattery and lying, Farina would tell people either what they wanted to hear or wild half-truths: he had ties to the IRA, a metal plate in his head, he fought in the Cuban revolution. For all the fun parties he threw, for all his innovations to folk music – Hajdu makes an interesting case for him revolutionizing the way the people play the dulcimer  – he never comes off as someone who’d be fun to be around for any length of time.

It’s interesting to compare him to Dylan, though. They share some traits, especially one for reinvention. But where Farina comes off seeming like a self-promoting liar at times, Dylan comes off like an enigma: he tells so many blatant falsehoods about himself – he raced motorcycles! Ran away to join the circus! Played on early Elvis albums! – he almost dares you to realize he’s fucking with you; Farina just seems to crave attention.

And once Dylan enters the book, his personality dominates it. Hajdu covers his early years and especially his relationship with manager Albert Grossman. It was Grossman’s pushy management style that led to his songs being covered by artists like Peter, Paul and Mary even as his first LP stalled on the charts, but Hajdu alleges cash payoffs to club owners and reporters helped ensure Dylan found stage time and notice in the press.

But if he needed a push to get started, he quickly shot off like a rocket. Before long, Joan and Bob were on top of the folk world. Hajdu covers some of the breathless coverage from the trade papers of the day, who write about them in gushing terms. While they each influenced the other, he’s also careful to show how wide apart they were even at their closest; politically, musically and even in terms of personality, they were ill-matched.

Dylan’s quick sense of reinvention keeps the book moving. While Farina and Mimi became a married folk duo, experimenting with incorporating rock into folk and as Joan’s music took a more direct, anti-establishment bent, Dylan was jumping headlong into rock, playing with The Hawks and writing in wild, pot-fuelled bursts. It couldn’t last.

Throughout the book, Hajdu never lets Dylan get one over on him: Dylan was capable of writing great music, but he was capable of being vicious and cruel, too. Hajdu never shies away from Dylan cheating on Joan, from his ever-increasing drug use or from him eviscerating Joan in songs like “She Belongs To Me.” Here’s his take on “Positively 4th Street”:

“The subject of (the song) is prey to a twisted psychology close to sadism… Once he establishes himself as a wounded victim, Dylan uses this justification to rip his opponent apart.” (pg 279).

Hajdu mixes this criticism throughout the book, providing background for songs and explaining technical points about the music, but it’s never as outspoken as Clinton Heylin’s books on Dylan. It’s well researched, with a nice bibliography and background notes and he’s interviewed just about everyone involved (even Thomas Pynchon!). While only Dylan refused interviews, Hajdu had access to a trove of unpublished interviews from the Experience Music Project.

Rating: 8/10. I enjoyed this one a bunch, plowing through it in only a few days. It’s a compulsive, informative read on an interesting time in music. While nobody really comes off too nicely in this, that’s part of the appeal for me: it’s not an exercise in mythologizing, another book about how great Dylan or Baez are. It’s a book about four young people, each of them flawed in their own way, who broke into folk before breaking it apart. Recommended.




%d bloggers like this: