THE WHISPER OF A HUNDRED THOUSAND WINGS
In memory of Mimi and Richard Farina
By Thomas Curren. When Christmas comes to the farm, we have responsibility not only for the turkey, the garden vegetables, and the fireplaces, but also for the music that plays in the background. I take full advantage of my seniority to assert my tastes and associations over the course of the holidays, stretching the conventional idea of “Christmas carols” out from Crosby and Fred Waring to Emmylou Harris, the Drifters, the Golden Ring. and the Band. There is a comfort to sharing these old friends during the holidays, and, truth be told, in the opportunity to attempt to graft our musical affections on to the younger generations as well.
I remember a few years ago, in particular, when, in the midst of the gravy and the stuffing, my step-daughter Casey put down her fork, gestured towards the record-player, and exclaimed “What is that? It is so beautiful!” I got up, proudly grabbed an album cover, and brought it to the table A handsome young couple, composed, graceful, inspired, and confident, posed with guitar and dulcimer over the legend: “Celebrations for a Gray Day.”
It is now just 50 years since Richard Farina fell in a motorcycle accident in Carmel, California at the tail end of a party celebrating the publication of his first book, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.” The crash was on a Saturday, and I remember waiting on the platform of a B&M train station in Melrose the next day and having a friend walk up and tell me: “Hey. Did you hear? Richard Farina died last night.” As had happened with the news of John Kennedy before, and would happen with the tragic passings of Martin Luther King, Otis Redding, and Bobby Kennedy afterwards, the combination of shock, disbelief, and instant mortality dropped out of the sky like a boulder onto our emotional landscape, a glacial erratic, sudden, huge, hard, and immutable..
No one knows what to do with death, least of all the young on the occasion of the sudden passing of one of their own. On WBZ’s folk show that night, in coffeehouses in ensuing weeks, in the pages of “Broadside,” we did our best to express our grief and our loss, sometimes crying, sometimes numb, sometimes fifteen year-old guys like me who had never been on a motorcycle dragging on a Winston and saying things like “Yeah, that Harley is a tricky bike, man” to each other.
Richard Farina had cultivated a legend in his own time, and he achieved that status, one might say in the hardest way possible. Over the years his story, or, rather, perennial versions of it, are told: Brooklyn, Cornell, the Village, Ireland, Cuba, California, Paris, London: Michael Collins, Ernest Hemingway, Garcia de Lorca, James Dean and Robert Johnson rolled up into one irresistible and storied personality. As in the case with most American legends, we ask the easy questions and all too often we settle for the easy lies.
Richard Farina’s first visits to Boston coffeehouses were around 1961, in the company of his wife Carolyn, a talented, graceful, and poised folksinger from Buddy Holly country in West Texas. She was an up and coming performer in the early days of the folk revival, and a good one. It was never really clear what her husband’s role was; he sometimes accompanied her on harmonica but mostly just seemed like just another ambitious cat; if he stood out it was maybe because he wasn’t playing a guitar. Carolyn and Richard were fleetingly in and out of Boston and Cambridge; she played the Yana and the 47; he hobnobbed with Eric Von Schmidt on both sides of the Atlantic; but for the most part their compass seemed pointed to the Village, and it was in New York that Carolyn made most of her appearances and cut her first records, first for Tradition and then two for Columbia.
Most of us only heard of their divorce and the course of their separate ways in 1964, when Richard and Mimi Farina arrived on the Cambridge folk scene as a newly married couple and freshly minted folk music duo. They had made a few “test flight” performances in California, but now were staking their claim on the banks of the Charles, where Mimi’s sister Joan had begun her meteoric rise a scant but eventful five or six years before. Richard was, then and always, clearly a magnetic guy who was on the make, but on stage he modulated his persona into a common denominator with his young wife: poised, uncertain, a little stage-fraught, but ready to take flight into the alchemy that was folk music back in that time and place. When we applauded, they seemed pleased and a little relieved, a little proud. Together with their music, they came to us with an irresistible presence and conviction.
The Boston-Cambridge folk scene was bifurcated not only by the Charles River but also by the somewhat rarified atmosphere surrounding Harvard Square. A number performers managed to move freely between the two: Bonnie Dobson, Jack Landron (Jackie Washington), Peter Childs, and Tom Rush seemed to have dual citizenship, and so did Mimi and Richard Farina. By 1964, New York was asserting itself as the top of the old folk Smoky; all the record companies were there, the biggest of the coffeehouses were located in the Village, and the combination of Sing Out magazine, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan in residence tipped the balance of fame clearly towards the Hudson and away from the Charles. But Bostonians are nothing if not patriots, besides, our players were damned good: Fritz Richmond, Bill Keith, Ed Freeman, Jeff Gutcheon, Jim Kweskin and Mitch Greenhill had developed pretty impressive chops. Joan Baez might have gone off to California but Dayle Stanley, Leonda, and Buffy Ste. Marie were worthy inheritors, and, as someone later said, if there were only three good white male blues singers, Geoff Muldaur was two of them. Then came Mimi and Richard, coming into their own like a couple of prospects called up from the minor leagues at mid season.
Their music was magic. “The Golden Ring,” “Kathy and Carol,” and Celebrations for a Gray Day” were three record albums that, then and now, seem to capture and amplify the old Anglo-Irish tradition best amongst a welter of whack-fols that were making the rounds at the time. The combination of dulcimer and guitar provided a novel and riveting background to Richard’s compelling lyrics and the wonderful mixture of the couple’s voices. Harmony was a bit of a rare bird in a time of the presumed “ethnicity” and “authenticity” of the solo, rough-hewn voice, and in the work of Mimi and Richard (as in that of Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker, among others) it found beautiful expression.
Mimi and Richard’s emergence on the Boston-Cambridge folk scene brought a new level of excitement to the entire community. Theirs was the perfect medium for the coffeehouse of the day: the Club 47, the Unicorn, the King’s Rook up in Ipswich, or the Loft on Charles Street, where the couple did their longest single residence. In performance they seemed genuinely surprised and gratified by enthusiastic reaction to “The Falcon,” “Reno, Nevada,” and the simple gift of “Pack Up Your Sorrows.” They were not the only ones who achieved a kid of stunned silence after the last chord was sounded and before the applause began, but this was a phenomenon that happened a good deal of the time in their performances. It seemed to move them as much as it did the folks who crowded in around small tables in the candlelit coffeehouses of Boston and Cambridge. Back when we were young and hopeful, in the midst of fretful times, they gave us reason to believe.
Had the fates allowed, what would Richard and Mimi Farina have gone on to? Who’s to say? Why ask the question? Their combination of fetching personality, literary ambition, ability to write a compelling song, and an engaging mixture of influences had brought them to occupy a unique place in all of our lives. Within a matter of months after Richard’s passing, we would be inundated in an avalanche of Strawberry Alarm Clocks, Sopwith Camels, and Electric Prunes. Most of us have a hard enough time reclaiming what we actually did in the 1970’s without trying to figure out what Richard and Mimi might have done. So perhaps all we can say is thank you to Richard and Mimi Farina, for your muse, for your partnership and for your love. We hope that you both are resting in peace, brave souls and true.
Now, in this time of confusion, we have need of your company.
c 2016 Thomas Curren. All rights reserved by the author in all media, not be be reproduced, excerpted, or disseminated in any form without written permission of the author. Used by single permission on Folk New England website.