David Hajdu's forthcoming book about Bob Dylan, Richard Farina, and the Baez sisters, "Positively 4th Street" has some terrific reporting on Cambridge's old Club 47, now Club Passim. (Tom Rush bought the rights to the old name, and has used it to promote his "Club 47" concerts at Symphony Hall and Sanders Theatre.)
The story starts in Boston, because Joan Baez was the first of the four to break through. Her father, Albert, had just moved the family from Palo Alto, Calif., to Belmont, and Joan was briefly enrolled at Boston University. But mostly she was singing, while her more beautiful sister - the future Mimi Farina - was attending Belmont High School and driving Albert nuts by luring hordes of suitors to the family living room. "Poor Al would come home and there were his gorgeous girls just surrounded by men," his wife told Hajdu. "He couldn't bear it, and he didn't care much for the music, either." Joan won her first published praise from a February 1959 Harvard Crimson reviewer: "Without trying to define just what it is that makes a folksinger better than the usual, finer than professional, suffice it to say that she can communicate a rare and beautiful sadness."
Boston characters abound: there is folkie Eric von Schmidt and Bob Siggins, Clay Jackson, John Cooke, and Ethan Signer of the Charles River Valley Boys bluegrass band; also promoter George Wein, who organized the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals. The late Robert J. Lurtsema is on the scene, covering the festival for WBCN. Also present in the book: C. Michael Curtis, now a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, then editor of the Cornell literary magazine, Richard Farina's roommate and friend and editor to Thomas Pynchon, Cornell's rising literary star. (Hajdu bagged a rare interview with Pynchon for this book.) Curtis was best man at Farina's first wedding, to Carolyn Hester, the folk singer whom everyone assumed was destined for superstardom. Until Joan Baez came on the scene.
By the early 1960s, the action shifts to New York. The ambitious Joan hooks up with the moody, solipsistic Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan, a.k.a. Elston Gunn. The equally ambitious Richard Farina - trading up, Hajdu hints - leaves Hester and her flagging career to marry Mimi and join the charmed Dylan-Baez circle. By 1965, the increasingly famous Dylan was edging away from Baez, reluctant to appear onstage with her, even though she had helped bring him into the limelight. "I rode on Joan, man," he admitted to rock writer Robert Shelton. "You know? I'm not proud of it."
"Fourth Street" is an excellent book, related with a finely tuned ear for the fantasies and foibles of talented young people on the make. When Richard Farina perishes in a motorcycle crash on April 30, 1966 - Mimi's twenty-first birthday - the reader feels: This is the day the music died.
Back to the Positively 4th Street page.