Monday, May 17, 2010

Canary


With her long thin black fingers wrapped around her Kools she’d draw down hard on her cigarette enabling the smoke to quickly disappear through her lips and into her narrow frame. She’d then lift up her head and with one lengthy exhale she’d release it all out of our ninth story window. I was fascinated by how much paper she would burn on her smoke with just one inhale. It was magic to me. She would continue this ritual and as she did she would sometimes bob her head as if she was listening to a distant melody. I would sit near her and wonder as she stared out the window.

Sometimes when she would catch me peaking at her she would shake her head and say “don’t get any dumb ideas like stealing some of my smokes. I count em’ everyday honey and I would know if you took some. And I don’t think your parents would be too happy with their seven year old son if they know he was stealing their house cleaners smokes, now would they? When she would address me she would always point her long and bony index finger right at my eye level. She could be somewhat scary but I’m sure she never thought of herself that way. I would never disagree with Canary, I’d always shake my head yes and promised I would never put a cigarette in my mouth or adhere to whatever law she was laying down.

Canary would come twice a week to our red brick apartment on New York’s lower east side, to wash the floors, take out the laundry, do the dishes and vacuum the house. Her presence was always a welcomed sight to me as both my parents worked every day. When I’d arrive home from school she always had a sandwich ready and some milk. I loved how she greeted me “how you doing sugar, everything alright in the fourth grade? Did you learn something important today? Hey maybe someday you can help change this old mean world.”

I’d sit up on the table and she would keep working and talk to me as I ate. I only knew her as Canary and at that time in my life I imagined it was her first name. She was very long and very thin and had lines that told many stories as they ran up and down her face. The only thing I really knew about her was that she was around forty, had grown up in Alabama, had two children and lived in Brooklyn.

After setting out a little snack for me she would then draw up a chair in the living room and have her smoke while gazing out at the East River. I would quickly devour my sandwich and take my glass of milk and sit in front of the other window and we would both look out at the ships on the river and all the cars rolling across the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.

In between drags we would talk a little, never about anything too important. Canary would sometimes say “this is some kind of view you have here, just look at all those cars going across the bridge.” We’d both enjoy seeing the Brighten Line subway make it’s way along the Manhattan Bridge. I’d would say “Canary the subway looks like a rolling snake as it rolls across the bridge, don’t you think?” She’d laugh and as she was drawing on her smoke reply “no honey it looks more like a big old dirty worm, you know what I mean?” And we’d both laugh. In the two years that Canary would come to clean my parents apartment that’s about as close as we would get.

Occasionally we would talk about television. Canary’s favorite show was the $64,000 question. “You know” she would always start as she pulled on her smoke “ I don’t think some of those questions are so hard, I mean I know some of them and so does my husband, do you watch that show?’ I’d nod and reply “oh yeah I think your right but it’s still a little hard for me.” “I know honey, it’s tricky but you’ll see when you get older it won’t seem that difficult. I’ll tell you though, I think something’s really funny about that show, I think they might be telling some of those contestants the answers before the show.” She would tell me that every week and every week I would just nod. She was somewhat disturbed when I told her that I wasn’t allowed to watch Disneyland. She would shake her head and laugh and ask me if my mother thought Mickey Mouse was too scary for me. “No” I’d reply “she says Walt Disney was unfair to working people and he never hired any Jews so we were not allowed to watch the show. “Well I never heard anyone say that before honey and anyway who cares what he thinks you just want to have fun, ain’t that right? I mean you just can’t stop people from thinking, it would be like trying to push a river uphill?” I somehow knew that Canary’s logic made sense but at the same time I knew it wouldn’t change my parents mind. The conversation would always end with Canary letting me know that if I wanted to come to Brooklyn I could watch Walt Disney at her house.

One day just a few months before my family moved away from the lower east side there was a crisis. I would sometimes allow my parakeets out of their cage and let them fly around my room. That afternoon I made the mistake of leaving my bedroom door open just enough to allow a little blue and white bird to escape into the living room. It landed on the couch in the living room and fortunately all the windows were closed. I could hear Canary in the kitchen washing dishes in the sink. I thought of calling to her to help me catch my bird but I was sure I could catch it myself. I crept ever so slowly to my pet and just as I put my hands on the sofa she took off and headed into the kitchen.

I quickly ran over to the entrance to the kitchen and as I did the bird flew around Canary and headed for the window, which was open at the bottom at least five inches. As the bird approached the glass it somehow flew up and then managed to get itself stuck between the lower window, which was raised up, and the rear window, which was lowered down a few inches. And there it struggled, frantically flapping its wings, trapped by a pane of glass on each side of it’s trembling body. If it were to make it’s way down it would fly away and if the rear window were moved up the bird would be crushed.

I started to cry and I grabbed Canary’s forearm and pleaded her to help save my parakeet. It was the first time I had ever touched her. “Please Canary” I said over and over again in a voice that was somewhere between panic and despair “please help, please help Sylvester to get out of the window.”

Canary then said “the first thing you got to do is let go of my arm. You’re not going to help your little bird by squeezing me half to death. The second thing is that you need to do is calm down. The bird is scared enough, look just look over there at the poor thing. Look at it struggle, don’t make it any more nervous by you being crazy ok, you hear what I’m saying?”
I nodded in the affirmative, let go of her arm and backed away from the window. Canary slowly approached the glass, put her long thin hand and arm down through the top and as she did she pulled the front window towards herself as best as she could. Fortunately the entire window and frame were very old and there was just enough give for Canary to perform her miracle. She managed to get her hand under the now exasperated bird and in one smooth motion lift it to the top of the window and back into the kitchen.

She quickly shut the window and in a few minutes I managed to catch Sylvester and place her back in the cage. When I came back into the living room I was still crying. Canary bent down on her knees and said “come here baby and let Canary give you a hug” I made my way over to her and as she held me she said “just be careful with that bird, their so small and so delicate, you know what I mean, baby, you know what I mean?” All I could do was to cry and hold on.

It was the only time that I could remember anyone holding me in that apartment.

In the last few months before we moved, Canary and I assumed our usual places. She would take her break and look out the window and while she smoked and I would sit in the big brown cozy chair read my book, look out the window and talk about school with Canary. I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if she was my mother. Although she always remained a mystery to me I always felt safe around her.

My mother would give her clothes to take home for her children and sometimes offer her food as well. Canary was always polite about the food, but I could tell that the dishes my mother created somehow disagreed with her southern sensibilities.

One morning my mother and I took the subway to Brooklyn. Since my mom didn’t drive we had to leave very early to meet my aunt in Bayridge for lunch. As the express train sped through Hoyt Street Station I looked through the window and noticed the platform was filled with at least a hundred woman and they were almost all black. Many of them wore those white stockings, just as Canary did when she would come to our house. I asked my mother if the women on the Hoyt Street platform were on their way to clean houses. She nodded yes and then I wondered if Canary had been standing there as well. They all stood there so motionless, except for their clothes, which moved ever so slightly from the wind of the speeding express train.

In July of 1958 my parents, my brother and I packed up our things in preparation for our move to Brooklyn. My mother told me to leave anything I didn’t want and she’d give it to Canary for her children. Along with some shirts and pants I put my old tattered baseball glove in the box as an uncle of mine had just bought me a new one. I then realized I might not see Canary before we moved so I wrote her a short note, which read: Dear Canary, thank you for saving Sylvester we will both miss you I hope you son like the baseball mitt. I then put the note in an envelope and placed it in the box with the clothes and my old glove.

I would always look for her when I was on the subway passing through the Hoyt Street station. I never saw her again.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Liberating Richard




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”?