Richard & Mimi Fariña - Biography
Richard Fariña is one of the great unsung heroes of the 60s singer/songwriter movement. The two albums he cut with his wife Mimi (younger sister of folk goddess Joan Baez) encapsulate the entire history of the folk revival. Celebrations for a Gray Day (1965 Vanguard/1995 Vanguard) is a contemplative acoustic meditation with a quiet folky soul and Reflections in a Crystal Wind (1965 Vanguard/1995 Vanguard) is a forgotten masterpiece of psychedelic folk rock featuring a smoking electric band and some of the strongest songwriting of the 60s. That they were both cut in the same year is astounding, and Fariña’s death less than six months after the release of Crystal Wind gives every note an added poignancy.
Richard Fariña “coulda been a contenda.” His two albums with Mimi show a writer of astounding depth with a dark humor and a surrealistic lyric sense unmatched by any other 60s songwriter, save Bob Dylan. Had he lived, he might have given Dylan some real songwriting competition. Fariña, like Dylan, was a man of mystery, offering contradictory accounts of his life, both charming and alienating people with his ambition.
Fariña grew up in Brooklyn a few blocks away from the apartment of Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. His mother was Irish, his father Cuban and he spent time on both islands during his childhood. (He later told friends that he ran guns for the IRA and sired a child by a woman whose identity could not be revealed.) Fariña’s work at Brooklyn Technical High School won him a scholarship to Cornell University where he majored in English. He wrote for the college literary magazine, became friends with one of its editors, Thomas Pynchon, and dropped out in his senior year. He worked briefly at an ad agency in 1959, and hung out in the Village with the Clancy Brothers. He met and married folksinger Carolyn Hester, became her manager and after becoming enamored with the droning qualities of the dulcimer, began playing with her onstage. He took dulcimer lessons from Paul Clayton and A.W. Jeffries and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa with Hester working on his novel Been Down So long It looks Like Up to Me.
When Hester made an album for Columbia, Fariña met Dylan who played harmonica on several tracks, as well as Bruce Langhorne, who later played with the Fariñas. Fariña could barely play dulcimer and Hester, perhaps feeling his on stage presence was dragging her career down, left him in 1962. Fariña had already met Mimi Baez, Joan’s younger sister, and they were having an affair. They secretly married in Paris where Fariña also made an album with blues guitarist Eric von Schmidt (Bob Dylan sat in on some tracks) finally released in 2006 as Emma’s Waltz (Folklore).
Mimi Baez Fariña was born in 1945 and lived with her family in Baghdad when she was 6 where she taught herself to speak Arabic. She took dance lessons and played violin as a child and went to high school in Belmont, MA, after her father got a job at MIT. Joan and Mimi both took guitar lessons with Debbie Green and they were soon performing, separately, in Cambridge coffee houses. Joan’s career took off immediately. She was invited to sing at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 by Bob Gibson and got signed by Vanguard Records. Mimi was left in the dust. In 1961, when her father got a job in Paris, she moved with the family to the City of Light. In 1962, she met Richard Fariña, fell in love and got married.
In 1963 the couple married officially in the US, and rented a cabin in Carmel, CA near the Baez family. It was there that the Fariñas developed their guitar/dulcimer act. They had their professional debut two years later at the Big Sur Folk Festival of 1964. Vanguard signed them and they cut Celebrations for a Gray Day (1965 Vanguard/1995 Vanguard) with the help of Langhorne on second guitar. Seven of the 13 tracks were instrumentals marked by Richard’s rippling dulcimer drone and Mimi’s expert picking. The songs included “Pack Up Your Sorrows” which became an immediate folk hit, “Reno Nevada,” a dark folk rock tune that prefigured the attack of Crystal Wind, and “Michael, Andrew and James” a stark, droning poetic eulogy for Michael Schwrener, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, three young civil rights workers who had recently been murdered by the Klan in Mississippi.
Vanguard held up the release of the album until 1965, but the duo, now known as Mimi & Richard Fariña started performing and wowing audiences with their unique sound. They won Best Group, Best Newcomers, and Best Female Vocalist from Broadside magazine, the folk bible, and their set at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965 made them stars. Fariña had been working on his novel Been Down So long It looks Like Up to Me since 1960 and it was accepted for publication by Random House shortly before the Fariñas appeared at Newport. While he was waiting for the book to come out, he went back into the studio and cut Reflections in a Crystal Wind (1965 Vanguard/1995 Vanguard). There’s not a weak song on Crystal Wind, a hallucinogenic romp though the turmoil of 1960s America delivered with savage wit and a driving musicality. The keening harmonies of the Fariñas, Langhone’s sparkling guitar lines and Richard Fariña’s snide vocal delivery are stunning. War, love, hate, madness, passion, and righteous anger bubble through the music all stamped by Fariña’s bold poetry and witty wordplay. It’s an unjustly forgotten psychedelic masterpiece.
With an album and new novel on store shelves, everything looked rosy for the Fariñas, but on April 30, 1966, (Mimi’s 21st birthday) after a book signing at a Carmel Valley bookstore, Richard and his friend Willie Hinds took a motorcycle ride that ended in a fatal crash. Fariña died instantly.
Mimi took it hard. She moved to San Francisco and played briefly as a solo act, but soon put music aside. She joined The Committee, the groundbreaking San Francisco improvisational group, and considered making a solo album for Vanguard. It never happened, but a collection of live recordings, studio outtakes, singles, Mimi’s renditions of two unrecorded songs, “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood” and “Morgan the Pirate,” and Joan Baez singing “A Swallow Song” and “All the World Has gone By” a Fariña lyric she set to music, was released as Memories (1968 Vanguard/1995 Vanguard). Mimi appears alone on the cover with a grief stricken look on her face. Despite its haphazard nature, it’s a fine record that serves to drive home the tragedy of Richard’s death.
In 1970 Mimi met songwriter Tom Jans and formed a brief musical partnership that resulted in one album Take Heart (1972 A&M), but Mimi was dedicated to keeping her husband’s legacy alive, and the duo broke up. In 1971, she helped produce Richard Fariña: Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone for the stage in Boston and New York. In 1973 she founded Bread & Roses, a non-profit organization that brings music to hospitals, convalescent homes, prisons, psychiatric wards, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers. In 1978 she cut a solo album for Bill Graham’s Wolfgang label, but it was never released. In 1985 she released Solo (Rounder) and tour behind it for three years, but eventually left the road to concentrate on raising funds for Bread & Roses. In 1999 she was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer and after a valiant battle with the disease passed away on July 18, 2001.