The Ballad of
Mimi Fariña
A biography of the great guitarist,
singer, songwriter & humanitarian

Chapters:
Travelin' Blues * Dazzling Stranger
Folk Duo * Widowhood
Sweet Sir Galahad * Folk Duo, Part Deux
Bread & Roses * More Than a Marginal Act


Travelin' Blues


Mimi with her parents,
from Time Magazine, Nov. 1962.
Margarita Mimi Baez was born in Palo Alto, California on April 30, 1945, the third daughter of Albert and Joan Bridge Baez. The oldest daughter, Pauline, was six years older than Mimi, and Joan was four years older than Mimi. Both parents were first-generation immigrants, her father coming from Mexico and her mother from Scotland. The family moved frequently while Albert pursued a career in physics, first as a graduate student then as a professor. They ran a boarding house for two years while Albert studied at Stanford, then they moved to Redlands when he took a job as a teaching assistant there.

In 1949 Albert accepted his first professional post as an experimental physicist at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. The family moved across the country to the small town of Clarence Center, halfway between Ithaca and Buffalo. It was here that Mrs. Baez introduced the family to the Quaker religion and they began attending meetings at the Religious Society of Friends. Mrs. Baez had no great faith in organized religion, having attended a Quaker school in her childhood, she felt that their ethical teachings, specifically their abnegation of violence, would help guide Albert's struggle with the moral dilemmas of his chosen field as the United States began developing nuclear weapons.

In 1951 Unesco offered Albert a one-year position in Baghdad teaching physics, building a laboratory, and initiating research. Off they went to the land of a Thousand and One Nights. Their year in Baghdad proved to be an unforgettable ordeal of squalor and poverty and unbearable heat. It was a trial for the entire family but was particularly traumatic for Mimi, who was only six at the time. She was placed in a one-room school of the Catholic Convent with Pauline (Joan was sick with hepatitis and did not have to attend) and was expected to perform at the level of the older children. Although she learned to speak Arabic on her own, she had not yet learned to read and write in English. She was humiliated by a cruel teacher named Sister Rose, who, Albert Baez believes, choked the joy of reading out of Mimi. It was an immense relief when his year-long assignment ended the family moved back to California, though years later they would all agree that the experience had a profound impact on their lives.

Mrs. Baez compensated for their frequent moving and irregular education by making sure that, no matter where they lived, Mimi was always connected to creativity through music or dance lessons. Mimi's earliest enthusiasm was for dancing. "She learned to dance almost before she learned to walk," Joan recalled. All three Baez sisters learned instruments as children. Joan and Pauline took up the ukelele and Mimi played violin.

"I was good at the violin and I was a good dancer and I knew it....Which was such a relief from feeling incompetent. When I danced or played music I could be who I really was."
After Joan graduated high school in 1958, Albert took a position at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so the family moved east again and settled in Belmont, a suburb near Cambridge. Pauline was already on the east coast attending Drew University in New Jersey. Mimi entered Belmont High School, and Joan enrolled in Boston University's School of Drama, where she met Debbie Green. Debbie was an accomplished guitarist and performed at the Cafe Yana once a week for five dollars. She taught both Joan and Mimi, who had each dropped their old instruments for the guitar. Both sisters began to explore the collegiate coffeehouse scene, where the Folk Music Revival was brewing, and befriended Eric von Schmidt, John Cooke, Geno Foreman, and other legends in the making.
.
Mimi recalled in Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, a collective memoir of the Cambridge folk scene,
"I know precisely the moment when I got drawn into wanting to play folk music. I was thirteen. I got a call from Joanie who was at Harvard Square. I was at home and she said, 'Get on a bus and get down here. There's a group here I know you'll enjoy.' It was the Charles River Valley Boys at Lowell House in one of their first times playing."

Abandoning her studies, Joan soaked up the traditional Appalachian ballads and began performing at the local coffee houses: Club 47, The Ballad Room, and the Golden Vanity. Joan had always been the natural performer of the family, entertaining friends with her quick wit and talent for mimickry and winning school prizes for her ukelele performances. In Cambridge she continued to seek the stage, and quickly gained a reputation for her angelic soprano. Her voice and image somehow managed to be both earthy and ethereal at once, ideally suited to the tragic and spooky mountain ballads she sang. Although Joan occasionally invited Mimi to join her for a duet at some of her gigs, the rising star was clearly Joan. The Baez family watched in amazement as Joan gained one impressive victory after another: she filled the Cambridge coffeehouses, outgrew them in a year, sang with Odetta and Bob Gibson at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, and performed for an audience of thousands at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. In November of 1960 Joan crowned this series of victories with an album released by Vanguard Recording Society. The younger sister was astonished, awe-struck, eclipsed.

Dazzling Stranger


Richard Fariña


Chartres Cathedral

In 1961 Albert accepted another assignment from Unesco, to lead their Division of Science Teaching in Paris. Off they went to Paris, Mr. and Mrs. Baez and Mimi. Pauline had married, and Joan had her singing career, so only Mimi still lived with her parents. In Paris she all but gave up public education and was finishing up high school through correspondence courses, which left her time to enjoy Paris. She starred in an experimental film by Peter Robinson, a friend of her father, and the soundtrack was recorded by Rolf Cahn, a guitarist they knew from Cambridge. She also continued to study dance, and even toured with a ballet troupe in Germany.

In the Spring of 1962 many folksingers happened to be in Paris for an overseas stomp--there was a brief vogue of expatriatism--so one day in early April they all went on a picnic together in the countryside and visited Chartres Cathedral. In attendance were Mimi, her friend Todd Stuart, John Cooke of the Charles River Valley Boys, English guitarist Alex Campbell, Texas folksinger Carolyn Hester, and Carolyn's husband Richard Fariña, who had planned the picnic. Mimi was to learn later that Richard Fariña planned many picnics, parties, and happenings. He was a writer and poet, eight years older than Mimi, and like herself, he was half Hispanic and half Celtic: son of a Cuban father and Irish mother. Handsome, charming, and learned, Richard dazzled Mimi with stories about the saints and demons depicted in the Cathedral. Mimi, feeling very sophisticated at sixteen, celebrated with wine and cigarettes. She got drunk for the first time in her life and threw her up sandwich on Richard's face. Soon they were in love. Days later, Fariña sent her a poem, "The Field Near the Cathedral at Chartres," which he had written about their meeting--though with poetic license he tactfully omitted the part about Mimi throwing up on his face.

Young girl, you chose the amber coil of a wish,
unlocked it with the cocking of a heel
and stepped away. While in the lunge of flight
I know the tale in your dark body's book.

Richard and Carolyn then went to England, since she was scheduled to perform at the Edinburgh Folk Festival in Scotland. By coincidence, Mimi was also going to England to visit a Quaker work camp in Newcastle. Richard schemed to get Mimi to Edinburgh so he could see her again. As the relationship between Richard and Mimi sweetened, his marriage with Carolyn soured. After the Edinburgh Festival Carolyn returned to the U.S. and expedited a swift divorce.

Richard and Mimi carried on an epistolary courtship for several months until both were living in Paris again. In April of 1963, a year after the Chartres picnic, they were secretly married under the Napoleonic Code at the courthouse of the First Arrondissement. The witnesses at the ceremony were Tom Costner and Yves Chaix, friends of Richard. Later that summer they rejoined the Baez family in California, whereJoan had also resettled. Protective of their youngest daughter, the Baezes were suspicious of Richard, an unemployed "poet" who had dumped one folksinger to marry the sister of another. But somehow Richard ingratiated himself with the family, either through charm or sheer determination, and after asking Mr. Baez for his daughter's hand in marriage, the newlyweds wed once more.

Folk Duo


Carmel Valley, CA
Mimi and Richard moved in a one-room cabin near Joan's home in Carmel Valley. Richard worked on his novel during the day, and at night they would entertain themselves by making music. They began composing songs based on a unique, polyrythmic and improvisational interplay of guitar and dulcimer, an unusual combination that opened up unknown musical territory as wild and beautiful as the Carmel countryside. No doubt their music drew its uniqueness from the extensive travelling they had done individually, each being exposed to a diversity of styles that gave them an eclectic sophistication uncommon in American folk artists of the day. Although their collaboration began only for their own entertainment, their sound was so unique and infectious that everyone encouraged them to share it with the world. Richard began writing lyrics, and Joan submitted some of them to Vanguard's publishing company, Ryerson, who offered him a publishing contract.

In June of 1964 Nancy Carlen, a friend of Joan, organized a weekend seminar on "The New Folk Music" at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

"Well, any time you found Joan Baez, Richard and Mimi Fariña, and me in the same place there had to be singing, so instead of meetings and lectures, sing we did, in the sulphur baths, on the lawns, even during meals sitting at long wooden tables in the lodge. Sunday afternoon we invited the neighborhood in general to join us, turned the deck of the Esalen swimming pool into a stage, and sang to everyone."
Thus Nancy Carlen describes the first Big Sur Folk Festival. It was here that Mimi and Dick Fariña debuted as a folk duo, playing the only three songs they had practiced well enough to perform in public. But their short set was a hit: the audience begged for more, and three different record companies, including folk giants Vanguard and Elektra, offered them recording contracts. Since Richard already had a publishing contract with Vanguard, they signed with Vanguard, which had done so well for Joan.


Mimi makes the cover of
Broadside of Boston
That fall Mimi and Dick recorded their first album in Olmstead Studios in Manhattan, with the aid of studio sessionman Bruce Langhorne, a guitar wizard and multi-instrumentalist whom Richard had befriended during the recording of Carolyn Hester's album two years earlier. Mimi and Dick were considering going back to Europe after recording the album, but instead they moved to Cambridge, where each of them had lived before. They rejoined old friends and met newcomers to the still growing folk boom--Eric Andersen, Tom Rush, Paul Arnoldi, and others. Mimi and Dick, newcomers themselves as a performing duo, began to play the myriad folk houses, The Rook, the Loft, Club 47. But even among the increasing competition of the Cambridge scene, their music rang out its unique charm, and they won several categories in the Broadside of Boston annual readers poll.

Celebrations for a Grey Day was finally released in April of 1965. It was a stunningly original album with poetic lyrics and exuberant instrumentals. That summer they brought their fresh new sound to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where they rocked the house and won a standing ovation in the pouring rain, just hours before Bob Dylan's electric set. Though eclipsed in mainstream rock history by Dylan's controversial performance, the Fariñas' concert became legendary in the history of the urban folk revival. Years later, Pete Seeger, Theo Bikel, and many others would remember Richard and Mimi's drenched performance as a prefiguration of Woodstock, with people taking off their clothes and dancing in the mud to the ecstatic rhythms of the Fariñas.

Although Richard wrote almost all the songs for the duo, Mimi was noted for her creative style of guitar playing, which danced nimbly around Richard's percussive attack on the dulcimer. Even Joan, an excellent guitarist herself, acknowledged in her autobiography And a Voice to Sing With that Mimi was the better guitarist. Elektra producer Jac Holzman recalled Mimi as "hypnotic and immensely musical." Rick Turner of Acoustic Guitar magazine described Mimi's guitar playing as "innovative," "fully formed and very original," "sophisticated and driving." Mimi learned much of her technique while living in Paris and hanging out by the Seine River listening to French and Algerian street singers. She also learned a great deal from Bruce Langhorne: "We were both highly influenced by the guitar of Bruce Langhorne," she said. "His whole concept of rhythm added a vitality that we wouldn't have had otherwise." Nevertheless, Mimi forged her own distinctive style. She developed a version of the Travis style with a thumb pick and two fingers, and employed unusual combinations of strums and arpeggios, smoothly integrated into the flow of the music. She also used modal tunings that created a strange alchemy with the diatonic structure of the dulcimer. Yet her style was somewhat self-effacing, never calling attention to itself but rather complementing and blending with the dulcimer. Perhaps Richard said it best when he described the dreamy, evocative style of her playing as "weaving modal memories." David Hajdu, in an interview with Fresh Air, emphasized the importance of Mimi's influence upon Richard:

"She contributed mightily to his development as a musician, and if it weren't for Mimi and her knowledge of music theory and her understanding of chords and her own creativity Richard Fariña would never have emerged a half-decent songwriter as he did, he would never have had a moderately successful career as half of a performing folk duo as he did with Mimi."

Richard and Mimi released a second album, Reflections in a Crystal Wind, in December of 1965, on which Mimi contributed her first original composition, "Miles," a shimmering instrumental dedicated to Miles Davis. In February of 1966 they made an appearance on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest TV show. It would be the first of many film appearances for Mimi, but at the time she seemed a bit shy in her brief conversations with Seeger. Nevertheless, they played splendidly and created such infectious rhythms that Seeger was inspired to jump in with a pair of maracas. Seeger was clearly moved by the duo and predicted that their eclectic style would soon be influential all over the world.

Widowhood

But the extraordinary success of Richard and Mimi ended abruptly in tragedy. April 30, 1966 was to be a joyous day for them both. Richard's novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, had just been published, and in the afternoon the Fariñas attended an autograph party at Thunderbird Bookshop. They then went to Pauline's house, where a surprise birthday party awaited Mimi. It was during this party that Richard took off with Willie Hinds, a friend of Pauline's, who had arrived on a Harley. They zoomed off into the rolling highways of the Carmel Highlands--and never came back. Hours later, when Mimi and others heard sirens in the distance, they found the scene of the accident, and learned that Richard had been thrown from the motorcycle and instantly killed. Following the triumph of two albums and a published novel, his seemingly unquenchable spirit was wrenched from his body. Mimi was a widow on her 21st birthday. This ironic meeting of celebration and death was eerily appropos of that strange mixture of joy and gloom that roamed throughout Richard's songs and writings.

It was a severe blow to the identity of the young Mimi. She had grown up in the shadow of the Queen of Folk Music, then was tempted by a fleeting success cruelly curtailed--a widow at 21, cast again into the shadows, this time of a husband whose death made him something of a cult figure like James Dean. "I didn't grow in many ways," she recalled in a 1986 interview with Pete Fornatale. "I think I was stunted. I closed myself off."

In June of 1966 Mimi moved to San Francisco to resume dancing. She rented an apartment on Telegraph Hill, and also got involved with the music scene there, attempting to make a new start. But the swirling acceleration of the mid-sixties music scene added confusion to her attempt to strike out on her own. She was struggling to establish an identity as a solo artist just as folk music was waning and rock music was charging ahead, moving and metamorphosing faster than anyone had ever dreamed. Various concert posters from those heady times announce Mimi appearing with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The billings seem jarring now, as so many do from that eclectic era. Yet Mimi seemed to be excited about it. A San Francisco Chronicle article from September 1966 reported, "Rock music is what she is doing now, and she feels closer to it." Mimi is quoted:

"Probably rock hits me now because I relate to it in a 'dancey' way, and can be more moved." She says, "My singing now is really much more a part of me," but she also feels that she is more "sound and rhythm and music oriented than voice oriented."

In May of 1967 Mimi joined Judy Collins, Bruce Langhorne, and newcomer Arlo Guthrie on a tour of Japan. Mimi danced rather than sang on this tour--an intriguing approach that reminds one of Richard's mixed-media experiments. That summer Mimi returned to the Newport Folk Festival and joined Joan and Judy in a lovely rendition of Donovan's "Legend of a Girl Child Linda," which was recorded for Judy's anti-war record, Save the Children. She also appeared on television in a one-hour, black-and-white special, "Music in Golden Gate Park," which also featured Quicksilver Messenger Service.


Mimi performs a skit with
The Committee
Late in 1967 Mimi joined an improvisational comedy troupe, The Committee. Founded by Alan Myerson and Irene Riordan, who had been members of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, The Committee was based in San Francisco and lasted from 1963 to 1973. Key Magazine described their act as "ingeniously clever barbed wit and satirical lampooning of sacred cows, fetishes, political issues and timely topics." Mimi started as a fan in The Committee's audience, but then,

"I laughed so hard they asked me to join them.... Dick loved the Committee and I think I was testing being him, as if I had gained some of his energy when he died. I just thought, 'This is what I'm supposed to be doing now.'"
Through The Committee Mimi made many friends, some of whom she would remained connected to for years to come: Julia Payne, with whom she toured briefly (there is a short clip of them playing together in Celebration at Big Sur); Chris Ross, to whom she later dedicated the song "Reach Out;" and several others who later dedicated their time to Bread & Roses, such as Carl Gottlieb, Gary Goodrow, and David Ogden Steirs (later of M*A*S*H fame).

Mimi stayed with The Committee for about a year. She later regarded them as "my own little grieving group." The description is revealing: despite all the activity and experimentation, her fling with the psychedelic scene, and her optimism in the press, this was still a difficult period of adjustment as Mimi struggled with her career and her public image.

There was also talk of recording a solo album with Vanguard. This may have been to fulfill a contract, as Vanguard typically signed their artists for three albums, and she and Richard had only recorded two. The album was to be called Quiet Joys, and Mimi recorded a couple of Richard's songs that they had not recorded before he died--"Quiet Joys of Brotherhood" and "Morgan the Pirate." But the solo album never emerged, for reasons unknown. What finally appeared in April of 1968 was Memories, a gathering of live recordings, studio outtakes, and singles, plus the two solo tracks mentioned above. Despite the pell-mell format, it was a fine collection of songs that reaffirmed the duo's artistic reputation. However, it also affirmed Mimi's role as a tragic figure. The cover featured Jim Marshall's lovely photo of Mimi standing alone in a field. She smiles ever so slightly, and yet her eyes are infinitely sad. It was a powerful image that resonated with fans for years to come: Mimi, alone, tragic, as if her duty heretofore were to mourn the death of Richard, like a Madonna statue that sheds everlasting tears. Mimi came to resent the image--"the sad-eyed widow bit," as she called it.

Another unwelcome contribution to this image was the song "Meagan's Gypsy Eyes" on Blood, Sweat & Tears' first album, Child is Father to the Man, released in February of 1968. The song was written by Steve Katz, with whom Mimi had had a relationship about a year before. They had met in December of 1966, when Katz was with his first group, The Blues Project, playing at The Matrix in San Francisco. "I wound up staying with her for a couple of weeks before going back to New York," Katz recalled, "and Mimi eventually came to stay with me." The relationship didn't last long, but one outcome of it was the "Meagan's Gypsy Eyes," which Katz wrote and recorded when the Blues Project evolved into Blood, Sweat & Tears. "I was very young and very much in love, and when Mimi left me, I went through the typical romantic withdrawal routine: hurt, self-pity, anger, reconstruction. 'Meagan's Gypsy Eyes', unfortunately was written and recorded during the angry period." The lyrics are indeed spiteful:

"Death that clouds her life will be forever
She is loved yet cannot love, not never."
I do not know whether Mimi ever heard the song, but if she did she must have perceived the references to her: the similarity of "Meagan" and "Mimi" and a host of other personal allusions would have made it obvious. It was yet another contribution to the hagiography of Mimi as the perpetual widow.

Sweet Sir Galahad

A major step in the reversal of this image came in the fall of 1968, when Mimi married Milan Melvin. Melvin was a producer at Mercury Records and a radio announcer for KSAN-FM. He was tall and gaunt, almost Abraham-Lincoln-like, with long black hair. Before meeting Mimi, he had been in a relationship with Janis Joplin. The connection with Janis apparently caused some bad blood between the two singers. Mimi also began to hang out with some of Janis' friends, including Linda Gravenites, a designer who roomed with Janis and also made dresses for Janis' stage act. The last straw, for Janis, came when Mimi asked Linda Gravenites to make her wedding dress. Linda created the appliquéd lace with a beaded lace train that is seen in all the photos of Mimi's wedding with Melvin.

Their wedding took place at the Big Sur Folk Festival on September 7. Inspired by the sight of Mimi in her wedding dress, Joan wrote one of her first and best songs, "Sweet Sir Galahad," about their courtship and marriage. Home-movie footage of the wedding appears in Celebration at Big Sur, with Joan's performance of the song (from the next fest, in 1969) providing the soundtrack as Mimi and Milan prance in the grass.

During her second marriage Mimi settled into the role of housewife and was not active musically--only one credit to "Mimi Fariña Melvin" appears on record, on Joan's David's Album, where the sisters sing "Poor Wayfaring Stranger." The marriage did not last. Many sources say Mimi and Milan separated after two years, while Mimi stated that they were married three years and broke up when she was 25. Milan moved to England in the summer of 1970, so perhaps that marked the end of the relationship. Mimi later came to regard the marriage as "a cop-out:" "I was rescuing myself from having to face life alone again.... It was just at that time that my life finally began developing on its own. Suddenly, and miraculously, I began writing songs and finally got a driver's license and started to get around." She also returned to the surname Fariña--perhaps a symbolic act. "I'll always love Dick," she recalled years later. "He was an impossible act to follow."

Folk Duo, Part Deux

In 1970 Joan introduced Mimi to an aspiring singer-songwriter named Tom Jans. Both had been writing songs and looking for a partner to perform with. They first experimented as a trio including Julie Payne, with whom Mimi had been performing. But Julie then decided to spend all her time acting, and Mimi and Tom struck out as a duo. As luck would have it, they blended beautifully as musicians and singers. As Tom reported in an interview,

"I was singing by myself in California, and Mimi was looking for someone to sing with.... I was singing at a little club, and some people from the Institute of Nonviolence asked me to come up and have dinner. That's when I met Joan and through Joan I met Mimi... Mimi and I just started singing, just at home kind of singing for friends, and suddenly...we were getting calls from clubs--so we worked out a couple of songs."
Their first gig was at The Matrix in San Francisco, but their appearance at the Big Sur Festival was regarded as their formal debut. They signed with a relatively new independent label, A&M Records, whither Joan had migrated after her ten-year run with Vanguard. Mimi and Tom recorded a splendid album, Take Heart, which included her most famous song, "In The Quiet Morning," a requiem for Janis Joplin. Many feel that Take Heart features some of Mimi's finest work. Mimi and Tom toured extensively in the United States and Europe, and appeared on the Dick Cavett Show. They were a class act-- great singers and great guitarists who blended well and even wrote songs together. But around May or June of 1972 they split up, for reasons never clearly documented.

We might guess, judging from Jans' subsequent career, that he was interested in going in a more mainstream direction as a rock artist. But it is also likely that he was tired of laboring under the shadow of the legendary Richard Fariña. A 1972 interview suggests the uneasy relationship Tom had with his predecessor:

"I don't think I've ever listened to an entire Dick and Mimi Fariña album... I guess I resent the whole thing sometimes." "I don't feel that way at all," said Mimi, staring intently at Tom. "Well, I'm not related to him," said Jans in a restrained way. "I mean he's not my brother or anything."
As if the challenge of living up to Dick's larger-than-life persona were not daunting enough to begin with, Tom's partnership with Mimi also coincided with something of a Richard Fariña Revival. During 1971, the year of Mimi and Tom's debut, Vanguard released The Best of Mimi & Richard Fariña; Paramount released a film adaptation of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me; and a musical celebrating his life and art, Richard Fariña: Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone, ran in Boston and New York. Mimi herself was involved with the musical, collaborating with Joan, Judy Collins, and Richard's father. There were even plans for Mimi and Mr. Farina to write a biography of Richard. Amid all this attention to a deceased legend, it's not surprising that Tom Jans felt the need to strike out on his own, lest the shadow that seemed to loom over Mimi should overtake him as well. Tom released a solo album of thoughtful rock music with A&M in 1974, and a few more albums followed on Columbia in a fairly successful career.

Mimi, on the other hand, struggled against commercialism. She began to record a solo album with CBS Records, which reportedly cost $10,000 to make, but she was turned off by the bottom-line priorities of the music industry. Her producer said to her, "Just tell me you want to have a hit and we can work together." She recalled in an interview years later,

"For me, that was an example of how somebody didn't treat someone else like a human. I was looked on as a product.... I told him that I'd love to hear myself on the radio, but it's not the aim of my life. I don't think they wanted me. They wanted something they could package. If things got really difficult I don't know how far I would bend. I've got to make a living. But this time I wouldn't bend far enough."
In the end, Mimi was released from her contract and the album disappeared into oblivion. Or, as she good-humoredly described it, "I was released and the album wasn't." Mimi salvaged a couple of the songs she had written, and recorded them again with Joan for her 1973 album, Where Are You Now, My Son? But the irony could not have been lost on Mimi: Joan had the freedom to record her most controversial album ever, while Mimi's career was faltering. The CBS memo releasing Mimi from her contract had described her as "a marginal act," a label that enraged Mimi for years to come. She became increasingly bitter about the music industry. With the growth of the "arena rock" phenomenon in the early seventies, record companies began to cast their greedy eyes on bigger and bigger profits, squeezing out "smaller" artists and turning rock stars into rich moguls who became disconnected from their fans, their community, and their roots.

Bread & Roses


Poster for the second
Bread & Roses festival, 1978
On Thanksgiving of 1972 Mimi had joined Joan and B.B. King in a concert at Sing Sing Prison in New York. It was a scary undertaking, and yet she marveled at the humanizing effect that the music had on the inmates. A while later Mimi performed a free concert at a hospital where her cousin, Skipper Henderson, worked. Once again, she was struck by the effect that the music produced in an intimate environment, in contrast to the sometimes unappreciative responses of the boisterous, drunken audiences she encountered in some of the nightclubs she had played in.

Inspired by these experiences, Mimi founded Bread & Roses, a non-profit organization which would provide free music to shut-ins at hospitals, convalescent homes, prisons, psychiatric wards, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers in the Bay area. By the late seventies, Bread & Roses had become well-known and successful enough that they were able to organize a three-day benefit festival to raise money and awareness for their mission. Featuring Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, and dozens of others, the festival was a huge success, both financially and artistically, Mimi was praised not only for her organizational skills but also for the respect she gave to the artists donating their talent, who were given free massages. The festival became an annual event, and two albums were released, one from the first (1977) festival and one from the third (1979). By the eighties, Bread & Roses was providing hundreds of free concerts a year and had inspired other organizations around the country.

Explaining the purpose of Bread & Roses, Mimi once recalled how she witnessed "a man who had had a stroke and hadn't spoken for weeks, and when the performer sang a hymn which he must have known, he suddenly began singing along, in key, knowing all the words. He stunned the nurses....These are the very miraculous treatments that are proof to us that the music gets through on a level where the talking and the teaching and the medication may not have the same capability."

But Bread & Roses had a two-fold benefit for both the audience and the performers. Being friends with many musical "stars," Mimi saw firsthand how fame often isolated them, uprooting them from the fellow-feeling that had inspired their music in the first place. In a 1978 interview in CoEvolution Quarterly, Mimi described the predicament of famous musicians:

"They are kept away from society, kept away from community life, family life, a kind of normal home life that most people have to deal with. Being on the road, in planes, in elevators, in hotel rooms, in backstages, you really are hidden, just the way an institutionalized person is hidden from society. Having watched one entertainer after another come out of an institution saying, "Boy, there but for fortune..." I can't help but think some of those creative minds will have to respond, maybe not now, maybe twenty years from now....

It really pains me to see people who were inspired when they were young, who got chills all over at the sound of music or a piece of art, something that inspired them to want to do it themselves...it made them excited and made them gleeful and happy and energized and vital, and to watch that go down the drain for the sake of the industry, for the sake of money, for the sake of receiving future funds that'll enable them to live until eternity in a happy house with a pool and a sauna, that is uninspiring to me and takes away from the value of the art."

More Than a Marginal Act

The valiant work of Bread & Roses occupied most of Mimi's time from 1974 onwards, though she continue to appeared at folk festivals and made guest appearances on various albums by friends of hers. But she never entirely let go of an ambition to validate herself as a solo performer with a solo album. By the late seventies Bread & Roses had earned Mimi a reputation independent of Richard Fariña, Tom Jans, or her big sister Joan. She had made a name for herself, and with renewed confidence she started shopping around for a record contract again. She recorded an album for Wolfgang, a label led by Bill Graham. An article in CoEvolution Quarterly in 1978 announced that it would be out in September under the title More Than A Charitable Act. Unfortunately, the album never materialized, for reasons unknown.

A few years later, Mimi recorded a demo for the Cambridge folk label Rounder Records. Rounder rejected the demo at first, but by the mid-eighties there was a resurgence of interest in the folkie generation, as evidenced by the restoration of the Newport Folk Festival in 1985 (the first since 1969). No doubt many people were turned off by the decadence of MTV and sought the palpable humanity of a more home-spun music. At any rate, Rounder Records became interested in Mimi again. She began recording around June of 1985, and Solo was released at the end of the year. In her "Mimi Sez" column of the Bread & Roses newsletter she explained her album thus:

"After many years of putting my music career in second place and choosing to devote most of my time to the non-profit world, I am pleased to announce that soon I will be releasing my first solo album. No, I won't be leaving Bread & Roses; it still brings joy and purpose to the lives of many, including my own. But I do intend to share more of my time between music and what Tom Paxton refers to as one's "day gig". An office structure provides a stability for me that is often missing in an entertainer's lifestyle. But don't misunderstand: I'd never refuse a limo ride, or a standing ovation.

The lure of the stage remains compelling. For me it's not the glamour of show biz so much as a marvelous means with which to communicate. A song can relate emotions which reach the poet in all of us, and can tap a common ground we often forget to tread. It's those feelings that inspire me to write and sing."

Mimi toured extensively in the mid-eighties but seems to have stopped around 1988. She must have realized at some point that Bread & Roses was her true calling, her life's work. In retrospect it seems as if her entire life uniquely prepared her for this mission: her Quaker upbringing, her parents' politics, her early experiences as a young child in Baghdad, which inspired her passion for social justice; her constant moving, which gave her a distaste for travel and a fondness for the creature comforts of home; her deeply conflicted feelings toward the musician's life, which bred her cynicism for the industry yet also a fervent belief in music's healing power. Perhaps the most determining factor of all was her role as the youngest daughter in the family. Perhaps I am biased because I too am the youngest child, but it seems to me that her little-sister relationship with Joan patterned her relationship with Richard and to a lesser extent her entire approach to life. She never sought fame, had no interest in it; and yet Joan Baez and Richard Fariña were the dazzling sun and mysterious moon that brought such strange and ironic experiences upon her. The unique path she walked deepened her compassion for the marginalized, the outcast, the left behind, and sparked a desire to make their world a little brighter.

In the late nineties, after years of hard work and a flotilla of honors and awards for her achievements, Mimi began to plan her retirement, and launched a three-million dollar funding campaign that would ensure Bread & Roses' enduring legacy. But in November of 1999, following a bout with Hepatitis C, Mimi was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. She had no choice but to take an early retirement to begin chemotherapy as well as alternative healing approaches. She was still able to participate in a gala 25th anniversary celebration in March of 2000, fearlessly appearing with a scarf wrapped around her head, the unmistakable sign of her condition. "I don't have bad hair days anymore," she joked, "I have bad scarf days."

Mimi struggled on for another year and a half, sought alternative medicine in Switzerland, all to no avail. In June of 2001 an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, "friends are asking everyone to pray for a miracle." No miracle came. Mimi died in the quiet morning of July 18, 2001, at her hilltop cottage in Mill Valley.

Mimi Fariña forged a purposeful life out of senseless tragedy, and her legacy lives on in the work of Bread & Roses and the people who have been touched by her music.

--Douglas Cooke
doug@richardandmimi.com


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