Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The part of my life I miss the most is when I was fearless. Not necessarily intelligent or insightful, just fearless. To be righteously fearless one must have a cause, and mine was the mountain dulcimer. My partner Sally and I wrote Life Is Like A Mountain Dulcimer while squatting in a hikers’ cabin in Squamish, British Columbia. Under the dim but warm glow of an oil lamp we scratched out forty arrangements in crayon and colored pencil. A few weeks after finishing my first draft, I was deported from Canada for working without a visa. Ten days later my little blue Volkswagen bug threw a rod in Winnemucca, Nevada. But I was not one to be stopped by legalities and expired automobiles, for I had a folio full of mountain dulcimer arrangements, and I was going to New York to get it published. I had no doubt that I would succeed.
The publishing industry in my hometown did not greet me as I’d expected. My first three rejections were a sobering experience, and my financial conditions dictated that I obtain some form of work. So I did as many unemployed actors, poets, musicians did—I drove a cab. And I soon concocted a plan to use the cab to help me find a publisher.
A few nights a week I’d put my dulcimer in a case and take it to work with me. I’d then sit the case up on the front seat. On any given night I’d have between 25 and 40 fares, which meant as many as 240 fares in a six-day week. During a given evening many folks in the back seat would ask, “Hey, what’s in the case?” And I’d reply, “ It’s a dulcimer, and I’ve just written a book for this instrument, would you know a publisher who might be looking for a dulcimer book?”
Sometime during my third month of rolling up and down New York in a checker, an attorney who specialized in books gave me a number to call. Within two weeks I signed my first contract with the Richmond Organization for my aptly named book Life Is Like A Mountain Dulcimer. I was now part of the little remembered dulcimer “boom” of the midseventies, which was sparked by the album Blue by songwriter Joni Mitchell.
I was fearless and confident, which basically made me into a mountain dulcimer zealot. And like any inspired zealot I had to keep creating. While driving a cab and living upstairs in my parents’ house in Brooklyn, I decided to write a book of arrangements based on my dulcimer hero, Richard Fariña. This project would be both my homage to the departed bard and a big money-making idea. Who wouldn’t (I thought) want to own a book of Fariña’s dulcimer arrangement and his poetry?
Richard George Fariña was born in 1937 and brought up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, on Linden Boulevard less then a mile from my parents’ house. His father, Liborio Ricardo, was from Cuba, and his mother, Theresa Crozier, was from Northern Ireland. He went to high school at Brooklyn Tech and won a regent scholarship to Cornell University.
While at Cornell he quickly changed his major from engineering to English and began writing poems and stories for the college literary magazine, The Cornell Writer. The junior editor for the magazine was Thomas Pynchon. Fariña and Pynchon soon became close friends and drinking buddies and influenced each other’s work. In time Fariña would dedicate his instrumental composition V to Pynchon, and Pynchon would dedicate his novel Gravity’s Rainbow to Fariña. In 1959 Fariña dropped out of Cornell, went to New York, and worked for a short time in advertising, but he was soon drawn into the folk scene happening in Lower Manhattan.
One evening he saw the Kentucky folk singer Jean Ritchie perform at folk club in Greenwich Village and became smitten by the mountain dulcimer. This, he decided, would be the perfect vehicle for his poetry. He soon married and toured with Carolyn Hester, but the relationship proved a disaster and ended in 1962. Folk legend has it that Carolyn pulled a gun on Richard in their Paris apartment shortly after he flirted with a young girl in a café. There are many stories like that surrounding the short life of Richard Fariña, all of which only added to his mystique.
In the spring of 1962 while still in Paris he met a sixteen-year-old dancer named Mimi Baez, and within a year they were married. The Baez family was skeptical of Richard at first, but in time his charm and wit won them over. Mimi and Richard composed music together on guitar and dulcimer, and by 1964 they were becoming a well-known folk duo. They recorded two wonderfully inspired and well-produced recordings for Vanguard Records—Celebrations for A Gray Day (April 1965) and Reflections in a Crystal Wind (December 1965). Their music consisted of Richard’s songs of political and social commentary as well as instrumentals he created for the mountain dulcimer. Mimi added her soprano harmony and played guitar and autoharp. They reached their peak at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where even a massive thunderstorm could not keep the crowds from dancing to their music, all in various forms of undress.
Shortly after the Newport Festival Fariña completed his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which was published by Random House. In just four years Fariña became a recording artist and a published author with a cabin in Big Sur, and was touring the folk scene with his beautiful young wife, Mimi. Fariña was a contemporary of Bob Dylan, who was living just down the road with Mimi’s sister, Joan.
As with most brilliant souls Fariña had his demons as well. One of them took hold of him on April 30 1966. Shortly after signing books at the Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel Valley, he jumped on the back of a Harley motorcycle driven by his friend Willie Hinds. Somewhere on Carmel Valley Road Hinds lost control of the bike, and Fariña died instantly while the driver survived. Fariña hadn’t lived to see thirty.
He took the dulcimer out of the Appalachians and made it accessible to city kids like me. To anyone over forty who plays the dulcimer, Richard Fariña has earned patriarchal status. The publisher of my first book was not interested in my Fariña idea, nor was any other music publisher in New York. Being the eager fan that I was I decided to publish the book myself. In order to do so I had to license the rights from Warner Brothers. I can still remember the man at WB smirking the entire time we discussed, or rather he dictated the terms to me. He asked me a number of times why I didn’t want to license someone like Joni Mitchell or Neil Young as it would be the same price. “No,” I would reply, “I’ll pay the 12.5 percent per book for the music of Richard Fariña since I have a handle on the dulcimer world.”
“Suit yourself, kid,” he replied as I signed off on the deal and handed over $750 in advance. I then borrowed $1,000 from my folks and threw in $2,000 from my cab-driving career. I had an artist friend (Jude Brae) from Vancouver do all the illustrations, which were based on Fariña’s liner notes from his recordings.
After having the music engraved, Sally and I took all the music and illustrations over to Faculty Press in Brooklyn. They were an old New York socialist printer who printed Sing Out, The Pete Seeger Banjo Book, and a number of other political journals. The staff at Faculty Press appreciated the fact that we were putting out a book on Richard and Mimi’s music and treated us like kindred spirits. They never charged us for all the prepress work they did. I’m sure it was due to the fact that so many of the songs in the book were political. I printed up 5,000 copies and quickly became aware of how little I knew about book distribution. I soon realized that most dulcimer players were not interested in Fariña. When I left New York City I loaded up all the books and took them back to Canada. Two years latter I loaded them up again for my migration to Santa Cruz.
Shortly after moving to Santa Cruz I made an appointment with Mimi Fariña and drove up to Mill Valley to present her with a copy of the book. As she scanned through the work, I noticed she stopped on the page that had an illustration of a woman in a cabin in Big Sur cooking on an old wood stove. As this image was based on Richard’s liner notes I realized it was she.Mimi stared at the picture for minute and I could tell she was moved by it. She thanked me for producing the book but told me it was really all his music. “I was nineteen when we recorded these albums, it seems like a different life ago,” she said as we shook hands before I left her office.
By 1997 I still had over 3,000 of my inspired creation living under my bed and in various closets around my home. Then a few small miracles happened.
Shorty after hearing a Richard and Mimi recording of “Reno Nevada,” Douglass Cooke (yet another Brooklyn native) created a Fariña web page and a book on his life. Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In December 2009, I sold my last copy.
Due to the fact that Warner Brothers still owned the material, and there were quite a number of mistakes in the book, I decided to let it go. I now get from ten to twenty requests for it a month.
This April 30 will mark the forty-fourth anniversary of Richard Fariña’s death, and on that day I will liberate Richard. I’ve scanned the entire book into PDF files and intend to give them away both to the Fariña web site and to anyone who wants them.
We were both from Brooklyn, and we ended up in the same area of California playing the dulcimer. We also both broke down in Winnemucca, Nevada. What better zealot is there than I to digitally give to the world some of the classic arrangements of Richard Fariña, which will include “Another Country,” “Bold Marauder,” “One Way Ticket,” “Tuileries,” “A Swallow Song,” “Chrysanthemum,” “Raven Girl,” and “Joy Round My Brain”?