Richard George Fariña ( March 8, 1937 – April 30, 1966 ) was an American writer and folksinger. He was a figure in both the counterculture scene of the early- to mid-sixties as well as the budding folk rock scene of the same era.
Fariña was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Cuban and Irish descent. He grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn Technical High School. He earned an academic scholarship to Cornell University, starting as an Engineering major, but later switching to English. While at Cornell he published short stories for some of the local literary magazines as well as for magazines such as The Transatlantic Review and Mademoiselle. He became close friends with Thomas Pynchon and Peter Yarrow while at Cornell. He was suspended for alleged participation in a student demonstration against repressive campus regulations, and though he returned to campus, he ultimately dropped out just before graduation in 1959.
Back in New York City, Fariña wrote and mixed with the bohemians at the White Horse Tavern, the legendary Greenwich Village haunt frequented by poets, artists, folksingers, and wayfarers, where he befriended Tommy Makem. It was there that he met Carolyn Hester, a successful folksinger. They had a whirlwind courtship and married eighteen days later. Fariña appointed himself Hester's agent; they toured worldwide while Fariña worked on his novel and Carolyn performed gigs. Fariña was present when Hester recorded her third album at Columbia studios in September 1961, where a then-unknown Bob Dylan played harmonica on several tracks. Fariña became a close friend of Dylan's; their friendship is a central topic of David Hajdu's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Positively 4th Street.
In Europe in the spring of 1962, Fariña met Mimi Baez, the teenage sister of Joan Baez. Hester divorced Fariña shortly thereafter, and Fariña married 17-year-old Mimi in April 1963. They moved to a tiny cabin in Carmel, California, where they composed songs on a guitar and dulcimer. They debuted their act as "Richard & Mimi Fariña" at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1964 and were signed to Vanguard Records. They recorded their first album, Celebrations For a Grey Day, with the help of Bruce Langhorne, who had previously played for Dylan.
Due to his short life, Fariña's musical output was limited. The Fariñas released three albums, one posthumously. Fariña, like Dylan and others of this time, was considered a protest singer, and a number of his songs are overtly political. Several critics have considered Fariña to be one of the top talents to emerge from the 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene. ("If Richard had survived that motorcycle accident, he would have easily given Dylan a run for his money." -- Ed Ward). His best-known songs is probably "Pack Up Your Sorrows" and "Birmingham Sunday", the latter of which was recorded by Joan Baez and has become more well-known after it became the theme song to 4 Little Girls, a film documentary directed by Spike Lee. At the time of his death, Fariña was also producing an album for his sister-in-law, Joan (which Baez would ultimately decide not to release, though two of the songs were included on Fariña's third, posthumous album, and another, a cover of Farina's "Pack up Your Sorrows", co-written by Fariña with the third Baez sister, Pauline Marden, was released as a single in 1966).
Fariña is perhaps best known for his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (originally published by Random House, 1966). The novel, based largely on his college experiences and travels, is a comic picaresque story of Gnossos Pappadopoulis which takes place in the American West, in Cuba during the Cuban Revolution, and at an upstate New York university. The book has become something of a cult classic among those who follow sixties and counterculture literature. Thomas Pynchon, who later dedicated his most well-known book Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to his friend, described Fariña's novel as "coming on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch... hilarious, chilling, sexy, profound, maniacal, beautiful and outrageous all at the same time." Pynchon also wrote an introduction to a recent paperback version of Been Down....
On April 30, 1966, two days after the publication of his book, Fariña attended a book-signing at a Carmel Valley Village bookstore, the Thunderbird. Later that day, while at a party to celebrate Mimi's 21st birthday, Fariña saw a guest with a motorcycle and hitched a ride up Carmel Valley Road east toward Cachagua. The bike crashed within a mile or so. According to Pynchon's preface to Been Down..., the police said the motorcycle must have been traveling at 90 miles per hour, even though "a prudent speed" would have been 30 miles per hour. He was thrown from the back of the bike and killed instantly.
Un'esauriente biografia di Richard Fariña dal bel sito dedicato a lui e alla seconda moglie Mimi Baez, sorella minore di Joan Baez:
March 8, 1937, Midwood Hospital, Brooklyn
April 30, 1966, Carmel, California
Theresa Crozier, of Moortown, Northern Ireland
Liborio Ricardo Fariña (né Fariñas), of Matanzas, Cuba
Carolyn Hester (New York City, June 17, 1960)
Mimi Baez (Paris, April 1963; Portola, CA, August 24, 1963)
mustard, cabbage, brussel sprouts, peanut butter, oil paints.
"Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night."
Information on Richard Fariña is scattered, sparse, tantalizing. We can only get at him indirectly. We have the music, the novel, the early poems and stories, a few liner notes. We have the anecdotes of his many friends. Over the years, many people have attempted to capture some fleeting essence of the artist for posterity: his musician friends, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Eric von Schmidt have all written eloquently on Fariña. Various researchers have collected information on him from Mimi, Carolyn Hester, Richard Farina senior, and his Cornell friends, including Thomas Pynchon, C. Michael Curtis, and Kirkpatrick Sale. But none of these efforts found a widespread audience until David Hajdu's "group portrait" in Positively 4th Street. This book brilliantly and affectionately conveys Richard's unique character, but more work remains to be done. Aspects of Fariña's life remain unclear, because of his own self-fabrications, the brevity of his life, and the timing of his death, which coincided with the eclipse of folk music and the ascendance of rock. This shift in trends, while exciting for music, had the effect of entombing his reputation in a premature obscurity, enclosing in cultish secrecy the originality, energy, and verve of Fariña's music, the boldness of his songwriting, the poetic power of his lyrics.
Here are a few things we know about Fariña:
Some Favorite Writers:
Dylan Thomas, William Butler Yeats, Hemingway, Nabokov, Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Federico García Lorca, Oakley Hall (author of Warlock).
The Beatles, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Mose Allison, Leadbelly, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Dionne Warwick, Weill & Brecht's Threepenny Opera, The Chambers Brothers.
A Favorite Painting:
Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Lagrand Jatte.
Red Cap Ale
Favorite Comic Book:
Shares a birthday with:
Oliver Wendell Holmes (Supreme Court Justice) b. 1841
Allen Hale (The Skipper from Gilligan's Island) b. 1911
Gabor Szabo (Hungarian folk-jazz guitarist) b. 1936
Mickey Dolenz (from The Monkees) b. 1945
Freddie Prinze, Jr. (actor) b. 1976
Where he lived...
Richard Fariña grew up in Brooklyn, in the neighborhood of Flatbush. He lived in an apartment building at 353 Linden Boulevard, on the corner of Positively East 34th Street. (Elliott Adnopoz, later Ramblin' Jack Elliot, lived just a few blocks away at 102 Linden. I don't know if they knew each other back then).
He also stayed with his father's family in Cuba when he was six years old.
Fariña attended Holy Cross Catholic Elementary School (he briefly considered becoming a priest as a child), and Public School #181, then enrolled in the highly selective Brooklyn Technical High School (shown at left). Despite the academic standards and competition, Fariña excelled, finishing 14th in a class of 197. He was president of the General Organization (which directed all extra-curricular activities at the school), Chief Justice of the Student Court, and had his own column in the school newspaper.
He traveled in the British Isles in the summer of 1953. After graduating in January 1955, he again visited his mother's family in Northern Ireland. Travel would always be a central occupation in the restless life of Fariña, providing him many opportunities to create stories about himself. The Irish expedition furnished tales of his involvement with the IRA, which made good copy for the jacket blurb of his first novel, and also a tale that he had a child by a woman whose identity could never be revealed.
His hard work at Brooklyn Tech work paid off: Richard won a regents scholarship to Cornell University, where he enrolled in the Engineering program at the advice of his father, who was a machinist. But he soon lost interest in Engineering and switched to English, in a decision that he echoed years later in the liner notes of his album with Eric von Schmidt: "Statistics are hardly as much fun as stories." Creativity had won.
He began writing stories and poems for the college literary magazine, Cornell Writer, where Thomas Pynchon was junior editor. Fariña and Pynchon became friends, and shared many ideas that they would later use in their writings. They often hung out at Johnny's Big Red Grill, which may have been the model for Guido's Grill in Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. He also wrote and acted in plays.
Toward the end of his third year, Fariña participated in a student protest against the repressive regulation of co-eds on campus. Kirkpatrick Sale, a friend of Richard and leader of the protest, says that Fariña was actually indifferent to campus politics and exaggerated his involvement in the protest. All to good effect, however, for he managed to get himself suspended for the incident, and his name appeared in newspapers across the country. Years later the incident became a Cornell legend, and Fariña used the events for the climax of his novel. He returned to Cornell in the Fall, but he dropped out toward the end of his senior year in 1959.
Moving back to New York City, Fariña took a job he had lined up at an advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson. Considering the counter-culture sentiments that Fariña later expressed in his lyrics and his novel, it may be surprising that he took such a job in the very center of modern American commercialism. In later years Pynchon remarked that he respected him for actually giving it a try instead of disdaining the job entirely (see Positively 4th Street, p. 47). Perhaps Fariña saw the potential for a creative outlet in the world of advertising (F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom Fariña shares a number of traits, also worked for an advertising agency in New York after dropping out of college, and drew from the experience to give his writings a sense of modernity). The long list of brand-name products that appears in the liner notes of Celebrations for a Grey Day (and reappears almost verbatim in the novel) reads like a case of postmodern indigestion from his advertising job. It may be that Fariña's counter-culture sentiments had not yet fully formed when he took the job, or it may be that the job itself was so stifling and boring that it drove him to that revulsion toward conformity that later fuelled his lyrics:
They'll buy you a suit of clothes
and pay to get another nose
so no one will turn you away.
You'll wear a tie and hope to die
if anymore you try to fly
from people with nothing to say.
So cut your hair and never stare
at people who ain't aware
that every morning they wake up dead.
Take off your boots and find your roots
and join the ranks of young recruits
who have a collectivized head.
At any rate, working in Manhattan not far from the burgeoning folk music scene in Greenwich Village, Fariña soon made a conscious decision not to sell out, not to throw his creative life away for the dull security of a nine-to-five job. He began publishing stories in magazines and mixed with the bohemians at The White Horse Tavern, the legendary Greenwich Village haunt visited by poets, artists, folksingers and wayfarers--most notably Dylan Thomas, who overdosed on whiskey there in 1954, and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, whom Fariña befriended.
It was at the White Horse that he met the radiant Carolyn Hester in 1959. Carolyn was a successful folksinger who had recorded an album the previous year. She saw Richard singing an old Irish song and was impressed by his intensity and his handsome Latin looks. Months later Richard and Kirk Sale attended a concert of hers at Gerde's Folk City. Richard in turn was smitten with her, and pursued her relentlessly. After a whirlwind courtship they married on June 17 at the Cathedral Chuch of St. John the Divine. Having quit his job at the advertising agency, Richard had no income and gradually wiggled himself into Carolyn's career, appointing himself her agent. Soon he began to insinuate himself onto the stage, reading his poetry between her sets.
Perhaps one of the most important moments in Fariña's life was when he and Carolyn visited Kentucky-born folksinger Jean Ritchie at a party in New York City and he became fascinated with her dulcimer. Charmed by the eerie sound of the folk instrument, he took lessons from Paul Clayton and A.W. Jeffries when he and Carolyn moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. Carolyn gave him a dulcimer made by her friend George Emerson, and gradually Fariña promoted himself from agent to sideman on stage with Carolyn. They travelled across the U.S. and wandered through Europe and North Africa as Richard began working on his novel and Carolyn performed her gigs.
This period begins a splitting of Fariña's tremendous energies. His interest in writing dated at least as far back as his satirical "Dick's Dilemma" columns in the Brooklyn Tech newspaper, and he had also begun a novel set in Cuba. While living in Mahnattan after Cornell he had attempted to start a literary magazine called Boo! and continued to publish stories and poems in literary journals, which was probably more difficult than publishing in the student publications at Cornell. The musician's life must have seemed more and more alluring to him as he perched on the periphery of Carolyn's career. The instant gratification of applause and the more direct contact with the audience no doubt appealed to the gregarious Fariña (years later, in 1965, he wrote an essay proclaiming folk music as the new poetry of his generation, which could reach audiences far more extensively and immediately than printed poems ever could).
As is now well-known, Richard was present when Carolyn recorded her third album at Columbia studios in September of 1961, a moment made legendary for the presence of Bob Dylan (playing harmonica on several tracks) and also important for the presence of back-up studio guitarist Bruce Langhorne, who would be instrumental (pun intended) in Richard's later career. However, Richard's early entries into the music world smatter of fraudery. Barely able to play anything as yet, he managed to appear onstage with Carolyn Hester at the Edinburgh Folk Festival in 1962, make a BBC television appearance with her, and record an EP of four songs with the Scottish duet Rory and Alex McEwen, strumming almost inaudibly on the dulcimer while appearing on the cover of the EP with a more respectable guitar. Carolyn began to resent this instrusion into her career. She left him in the fall of 1962 to return to the U.S. to record her fourth album, and she expedited a swift divorce.
Another development that had precipitated the divorce was a bucolic picnic in the French countryside in the spring of 1962 that involved a chance meeting with Mimi Baez. Mimi was a 16-year-old American living in Paris, of Mexican and Scottish ancestry and entrancing beauty. She was also the little sister of Joan Baez, the latest luminary of the growing folk music revival, who had recorded two albums and swayed an entire generation with her stunning voice. The countryside picnic was a gathering of folkies, including the Scottish folksinger Alex Campbell and John Cooke of the Charles River Valley Boys. Richard flirted with Mimi at this picnic, and began writing to her shortly afterwards. They arranged to meet again at the Edinburgh Folk Festival. After Carolyn left Europe in frustration, Richard and Mimi's surreptitious relationship began.
At this time Richard was living in Paris in the apartment of Tom Costner, an entrepreneur who had considered managing Carolyn Hester's career. He also arranged for Richard to record an album with blues guitarist Eric von Schmidt, whom he had met in Cambridge. Dick Farina & Eric von Schmidt documents Richard's growth as a musician, giving a taste his later achievements.
That spring Richard and Mimi were married secretly in Paris, unbeknownst to the Baez family. Following Mimi's graduation from high school, they moved Carmel, California to live in a cabin near Joan. They had an official wedding in August for the Baez family, with Thomas Pynchon as best man. Despite the Baezes' initial mistrust, Fariña soon won them over with his humor and charm. In their little cabin Richard and Mimi began playing together, and developed the unique guitar-dulcimer duet that made them absolutely unique in the folk music world.
My theory is that, in his collaborations with Mimi, Richard finally felt vindicated as an artist. His attempts to collaborate with Carolyn caused friction in their marriage because she was already an established musician, and Richard at that time had little to contribute on that level. By the time he met Mimi, he was a better musician, and, more importantly, I suspect that they identified with each other as unacknowledged people who had something to contribute. Mimi had been entirely eclipsed by her sister's sudden fame, and Richard had been struggling since Cornell to make a name for himself, to achieve a "victory," as he called it. He too had been eclipsed, by his friend Pynchon, who had published his first novel, V., in 1963 to critical acclaim. Richard and Mimi came together as underappreciated novices who each had something to contribute to the other. Mimi was the superior musician, while Richard had literary talent for writing original songs. They debuted at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1964 and soon won a recording contract with Vanguard, Joan's label. They recorded their first album that fall, joined by Bruce Langhorne, whom Richard had met in 1961 at Carolyn's recording sessions. Langhorne added further dimensions to their music--a rhythmic excitement and exotic mystery that made the album an intoxicating feast of fresh new sounds. Victory at last!
Though the album's release was delayed until April of the next year, the achievement gave the new folk duo the confidence to brave the Cambridge folk scene and began making club appearances in December of 1964. Just as Joan had set Cambridge aflame in the early days of the movement, Mimi & Dick Fariña, as they were now called, made a splash amid the more eclectic, vibrant, and increasingly competitive folk scene of 1964-65. They won awards in a Broadside magazine poll, winning in three categories--Best Group, Best Newcomers, and Best Female Vocalist. They befriended Eric Andersen, Debbie Green, Judy Collins, Geoff & Maria Muldaur and many others. In July they performed at the Newport Folk Festival, leading a songwriting workshop and a dulcimer workshop. Their reputation seemed to grow with each performance, and by the time they headlined the Newcomers Concert on the third day of festival, they were superstars. Even the violent thunderstorm that broke out at the beginning of their set was not enough to restrain the fans, who danced and took of their clothes in the rain. When one watches this moment in the film Festival, a documentary of the Newport Folk Festivals of 1963, 1965, and 1966, and sees the ecstatic look on Richard's face, one imagines that this must have been one of the happiest moments of his life, an undisputable victory after years of searching and laboring in anonymity.
For amid those years lay the agonizing self-definition that always goes into a first novel, and behind that charming smile lurked haunting doubts and demons. Richard had begun the novel in 1960, based largely on the experiences of his college years and his travels. Widely dismissed today as an amateurish tour-de-force or a distubing reminder of hipster chauvinism, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me is most illuminating not as a document of social history but as a haunted-house ride into the mind of a great folk artist and songwriter, a frightening Freudian-slippery slide into the soul that once cried out, "Sing a mad and joyous song, and leave me with the dead." A death-wish roams throughout that novel and throughout many of Fariña's songs and stories in counterpoint to the joyous, sponteneous, celebration that was his life. "Celebration for a Grey Day" served not only as the title of a poem, song and album, but was also a fitting description of his complex dual nature.
In the last six months or so of his life, Fariña completed his novel with an agonizing effort that left his hand paralyzed. He also recorded a second LP with Mimi, a more electric set that many feel is their best album. They returned to Carmel, California to help Joan Baez found the Institute for the Study of Non-Violent Action, returned briefly to New York to perform on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest TV show and celebrate his 29th birthday with his family in Brooklyn, and have a publication party for the novel at the Random House offices. They returned again to California, performed at the San Francisco Folk Festival, and also simply relaxed in anticipation of the long-awaited, hard-won publication of the novel. Although they were committed to appear at the next Newport festival in the summer, Fariña stated in an interview on April 28, 1966, that he wanted to ease up on live performances in order to work on their new songs and sit in the sun.
As all the world knows, Richard and Mimi attended an autograph party on April 30, 1966, at Thunderbird Bookstore in Carmel Valley, then went to the home of Mimi's sister, Pauline, for a surprise party for Mimi's 21st birthday. At this party Pauline's friend, Willie Hinds, pulled up on a Harley. Hinds took Richard for a ride on the bike on the rolling hills of Carmel, and they wiped out, throwing Richard across two fences and into an embankment. Hinds survived; Richard was killed instantly.
We will never know why Richard left the party to go on that motorcycle ride, or why he gave Mimi his car keys and wallet before he left. We will never know whether his deathwish was the yearning of his soul or an invention of his art.
"Sweet mortality, I love to tease your scythe."
Further details of Richard's high school years may be found on the Brooklyn Tech page, and his Cornell friends are having a reunion on the Cornell page. Further probings are attempted in my essay on the novel, and sundry facts are strewn all over the website in a madcap attempt to grasp, approximate, comprehend, capture, record for posterity this fascinating individual. Perhaps Richard Fariña's greatest creation was his own enigmatic, beguiling, bullshitting, charming self. He re-invented his own life as radically as he re-invented the art of the dulcimer. But his stories and poems, his novel, and above all, that marvelous music, reveal his inner spirit's song better than this poor narrative can, and it is there I bid you go. Olé.
"In life itself, apart from the beliefs in what comes before or after it, there is something magnificent. There is something to be found in life that can give so much to a person that he feels that he could swell up and then just burst. That 'something' is simply the act of living life to the fullest."
--Richard Fariña, letter to his father