by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
August 9, 2001
FRAIL MY HEART: FOLK MUSIC AND ME (PART I)
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In my neck of the woods, New England, last week was folk music heaven. The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival was held on the green rolling hills of Long Hill Farm in Hillsdale, N.Y., the weekend of July 27-29, followed right afterward, on the same site, by the Winterhawk Festival, dedicated to "bluegrass and beyond."
I could only make it to Winterhawk, where a friend and I camped at the top of a hill, braving steep climbs four or five times a day, strong winds that tipped over lines of Port-o-Potties (an ugly image, that) and also spun our tent around and brought it down, buckets of rain that soaked our sheets, pillows and down comforters and poured on us as we sat on muddy grass listening to music, and steaming hot sun that seared through our sunblock 40, fried our brains, and sweated out so much salt that I would have maimed someone for a bag of potato chips.
And such is the power of folk music, that we had a wonderful, wonderful time.
Back when I was a girl, which seems like about a hundred years ago, folk music was everything to me. The pure and piercing voice of Joan Baez stirred my young-girl soul; Sure, rock 'n' roll made my body move, but my heart belonged to songs like "Silver Dagger" and "The Great Sulkie." Minor keys, wandering men, forever-thwarted true love, tragedy in high places and glorious melodies seemed to do it to me about the same way that today, fans of Eminem seem to like hearing about wife-beating and mother-killing. Life is tough when you're young; it seems like it's full of tragedy and despair.
I replayed some of my early Baez albums a few weeks ago, and found that they still have a strong effect on me. Even though I'm a little wiser now, my heart still soars along with her voice, and the young-girl Joyce still identifies with all that innocence and purity, my eyes wide and misty with the deepest feelings of love and longing.
But the times they are always a'-changing, as some poet once said (we'll get to him in a minute), and folk music now thrives not as hillbilly music or English ballad, but as a vast and brilliant array of talented and witty performing songwriters (John Hiatt, Greg Brown, Patty Larkin, Ellis Paul, John Gorka, Vance Gilbert and newcomers Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, to name but a few).
Then there are the great outlaw Texas-styled types (Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jimmie LaFave, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rambling Jack Elliot), country-rock legends (John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Nancy Griffiths), neo-hicks (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Kelly Willis), hard-rocking boogie and rockabilly bands (Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, Dave Alvin), and a plethora of dance bands (Zydeco, Cajun, square contra, and swing).
In fact, you hardly ever hear "Wild Mountain Thyme" at a folk festival these days. There's an old saying that the only way to make a million dollars in folk music is to start with two million, but that doesn't mean that the music has died. It just means that the sheer gorgeousness of all this music is happening completely under the radar of the great American monoculture of surface and glitz.
Almost every American magazine that tries to cover this music -sometimes called Americana or acoustic - sinks like a stone within a year or two. The one that does the best job is No Depression out of Nashville. The record companies that record and distribute this music are so small that they're still honest (we have a great one, Signature Sounds, in Whately, Mass.).
Only a handful of radio stations play this music (we have WRSI in Northampton, Mass.). The performers are still mostly friendly and helpful to each other, and the clubs where they play are still small enough for the audience to feel like friends. (We have one of those too, Northampton's Iron Horse.)
In the early days of folk - as a cultural movement instead of as something played with neighbors on the cabin porch at night - in the 1960s, Baez was the Virgin Queen, and her fragile, long-haired, lovely sister, Mimi Farina, who sadly died last month at the age of 56 of lung cancer, was the Princess Fair.
In a very small way, even Mimi Farina became a part of my life. Her husband was Richard Farina, one of the great early hipsters who come along on the heels of the Beats and started the counter-culture that gave rise to, for better and/or for worse, the hippies.
A writer, songwriter and singer, but mostly a virile presence, Farina spotted his future wife running down the central aisle of Chartres Cathedral in France and determined to marry her then and there. She was, I believe, 16; they married when she was 18. How do I know? Because few years after Richard Farina crashed his motorcycle and died in 1966, someone wrote a biographical play about the star-crossed lovers.
I was the play's costume designer when it was produced Off-Off-Broadway, and a "poetic" line about Mimi running gracefully down the center aisle of the church, her long hair flying out behind her, was the punch line of a lot of mordant backstage jokes.
The play wasn't very good, by the way, and it wasn't a hit. It was notable mainly because it starred a very young Richard Gere. (He's very short, girls, and back then he was arrogant, mean-spirited and surly, too; I think fame and access to the Dalai Lama may have changed some things about him, but I'll bet he's still short.)
Then, after two great records with Mimi, "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" and "Celebrations for a Gray Day," both of which manage - if you can imagine such a thing - to make the dulcimer sound hip, and one book with a title taken from an old blues song, "Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me," Richard was gone.
But not before - according to the new book "Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina" by David Hogtie - telling Dylan that if he really wanted to be famous, he should try getting into bed with Baez. If that story is true, it was advice that changed the world. (And also my life, and I'll be talking about that next week.)
This is the first of a two-part article by Joyce Marcel, a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.