Book Review: Positively 4th Street, by David Hajdu
Originally published at Blogcritics.org.
Marking the tenth anniversary of its publication, Picador is issuing a new edition of David Hajdu’s delicious portrait of the 60’s folk scene as it was embodied in two of its greatest lights and two of its lesser luminaries — Positively 4th Street. In some sense this is the story of a quartet of unusual people, the queen of folk, Joan Baez, the prince, soon to become king, Bob Dylan, the queen’s little sister, Mimi, and the court jester, Richard Farina. But in their story, there is the story of a decade of social and cultural mutations that were to make a shambles of the Leave it to Beaver picture of the country. This is the story of four people who were right for the time, a time that was right for them.
Although Hajdu does pay some attention to their earlier lives, it is the 60’s that is the focus of the book. Folk music which had long been thought of as a niche music form for a limited audience of folklorists and socialists had begun finding a broader audience in the fifties. A group like The Weavers was finding its way onto the pop charts. Harry Belafonte was singing calypso. The Kingston Trio’s first album came out in 1958. People were singing “Irene,” “The Banana Boat Song,” and “Tom Dooley.” The scene was set—all that was needed was some fresh blood to take advantage of it.
And along came Joan. Come from California with her family to Belmont, Massachusetts, she quickly gravitated to the Cambridge coffee house scene, at first joining with the singers from the audience and then moving up to the stage, captivating audiences with her shy soulful soprano. At times she sang duets with her sister, but Mimi was still in high school and not yet ready to compete for attention. Besides it was likely, Joan had little desire to share the stage. There was Farina, a student at Cornell, not really a musician, but ambitious and filled with youthful confidence and braggadocio. He wasn’t yet but could be a writer, novels, essays, poems, songs—name it, he knew he could write it. Then there was Dylan, up from Minnesota with a “jones” for Woody Guthrie looking to make a name for himself in Greenwich Village. Hadju discusses at length the arcs of their careers, their inter-connections both professional and personal. It’s all there: Joan’s championship of Dylan’s music, their love affair, Dylan’s transition to the electric guitar, Farina’s novel and his instrument of choice, the dulcimer, his secret marriage to Mimi in Paris and their emergence as a musical duo. And this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. He talks about their appearances at everything from Gerde’s Folk City to the Newport Folk Festivals. He talks about their tours and their records. He discusses Joan’s commitment to social and political activism, and Dylan’s movement away from political protest. He describes Farina’s poetry and his song writing. He shows how Mimi was relegated to a back seat in their professional relationship, despite her superiority as a musician. He summarizes some of the critical reaction to their work and does some evaluation of his own.
The book is filled with juicy gossip. Joan may have stolen her original material from the act of a friend she had teamed up with for awhile. Farina liked to tell people that he had been a gun runner for Castro, that he had fought with the IRA, that he had an steel plate in his head. Mimi was dyslexic. Joan was jealous of her beauty. The first time Dylan met the Baez sisters, he was more interested in Mimi. Dylan picks all the meat out of a stew Joan has made for a dinner party. And on, and on—plenty of little tidbits for all appetites.
He is not particularly interested in writing hagiography. They are not always portrayed as very nice people. Dylan is moody and is not beyond humiliating those around him. He seems to feel no obligation to anyone. Baez is jealous and controlling. Farina is boastful and reckless. Mimi, perhaps the nicest of the bunch, comes across as a naïve romantic, still she is all of 21 when the book concludes, so what can one expect. Perhaps these are the sins of youth, perhaps it is simply the self centeredness necessary for success in the music world, whatever it is, it can be disturbing to see that one’s saints may well have those proverbial clay feet.
Now ten years old, the book is still a compelling read. But it is ten years old, and it is filled with references to people, places and events that could use some explanation. Even for those of us around at the time, a little help from our friends jogging our memories would be nice. For younger readers, the addition of explanatory footnotes couldn’t hurt. If you’re going to do a new edition, why not do a little editing. Sure it’s only ten years, but memories are short.