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Positively 4th Street

by  Richard Schiff

n account of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Fariña – and how they helped give rise to a modern-day bohemia, passed on from the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie bunch. These four lent much to what became an enduring sound and style of the 1960s.

The story of the transformation of folk music from antiquarian pursuit to era-defining art form has never been fully told. Writer David Hajdu, whose bio of Billy Strayhorn set a new standard for books about popular music, tells it as the story of a colorful foursome who were drawn together in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s and inspired a generation to gather around them.

Here is the 1950s folk music revival that brought on the 1960s counterculture. By the end of 1959, American folk music ( by such performers as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie ) had established a small but loyal following. Entertainment Weekly editor Hajdu ( Lush Life ) believes that young people became interested in folk because of "its antihero mythos—a sense of the music as the property of outcasts."

College students who frequented the coffeehouses where folk began to flourish "were seeking something anti-intellectual" and would-be performers (including the Baez sisters, Richard Fariña, and Bob Dylan) flocked to the music because of its simple (and anti-commercial) approach.

The charismatic Fariña was a promising writer who married folk singer Carolyn Hester and tried to hitch his wagon to her star (with little success), whereas Joan Baez (the "virgin princess") haunted the Greenwich Village coffeehouses on 4th Street, shamelessly stole other singers' material, and went on to fame.

Mimi Baez coveted—and never came anywhere near—her sister Joan's success.

And Dylan (who came to New York in search of direction and found his model in Woody Guthrie) got his big break from Joan, who fell in love with him. Although the naked ambition of each these characters presents an unedifying spectacle throughout, Hadju saves his censure for Dylan, writing that the "irony of Robert Zimmerman's metamorphosis into Bob Dylan lies in the application of so much elusion and artifice in the name of truth and authenticity."

Even so, Dylan appears more deluded than mendacious—a man who hid his identity because he was more confused than his audience about who he was. A strong and vivid portrait of some remarkable characters—and one that manages against the odds to get to the people behind the egos.

Positively Fourth Street gives life to an era long gone, whose stars are still played and vilified. It is an enjoyable read, and visually effective. Mr. Hadju delivers wonderful quotes from people we had heard of and many who went unknown to fans of this foursome. It fills in the blanks about the rise of coffeehouse culture and walks you romantically down MacDougal Street in 1963. For Aging Hipsters this is a promise of fun, and for those who want to know more about that grisly old guy with the twisted teeth, Dylan is painted as the fresh faced boy he was at the beginning of his magical career. It’s funny reading this to think that Bob Dylan is now a living version of his own "Mr. Jones!"

"Something is happening here, and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"

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Jazz, Rock, Folk, Clubs and more..
Jazz, Rock, Folk, Clubs and more..