Cover art by Eric Von Schmidt
As a teenager I was a folk music fan. I started playing guitar at around age 14, and tried to pick up both rock and folk songs I heard on the radio. Occasionally I’d buy printed sheet music, but more often I’d get the trade paperback collections by folk artists that were a better bargain, including those by The Weavers and Peter Paul and Mary. My friend Tim, who I played with, had a few more, and we heard folk music on TV or occasionally on the radio on small FM stations that were popping up then. I lived in New Jersey, about a 1.5 hour ride to New York’s concert scene, but as I got a little older, I headed for the Fillmore East more often than to any folk concerts. After reading this book, I regret that, I missed a lot.
I don’t often read biographies, but when I do, musician ones are often a good choice, and this book covers four artists whose lives and careers were intertwined for several years during their heyday. Joan Baez came first, one of the earliest “girls with a guitar,” and a truly amazing natural voice that came out of her without training. Joan’s sister Mimi also sang and played, but always took a back seat to her famous sister until she met the poet and rogue Richard Fariña in Paris, and they fell in love. Richard had begun getting into the folk scene as well, and with Mimi as a partner, they became a duo that made a big hit on the folk scene for a few years, and two albums, until Richard was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident just as his first novel was released. Bob Dylan’s story is familiar to many, but as this book details, the truth about his background was hidden during his early years on the folk scene, and he posed as someone more folksy than he really was, with a variety of back stories. Dylan’s music and voice were harder on the ears and minds than many folksingers of the time, and at first he got little traction, but the help of an ambitious manger, Albert Grossman, and the championing of his music by his eventual lover Joan Baez, helped put Dylan on the front ranks of the folk scene. A few years later he surpassed them all by attracting the general music audience with hits such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” even as he turned away from the early protest music that had made him famous.
David Hajdu’s book is excellently written, full of fascinating details, and insightful views of these four musicians from their early beginnings until the peak of the folk movement had passed, and with it some of their glory, though Joan and Bob remain on the music scene to this day, and their complex relationship continued for years.
If the people and times interest you, I can’t recommend this book enough. Thanks to my friend Tim for making sure I got a copy.