Saturday, April 30, 2011

Richard Fariña -- "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" (1965)

It was the red, white and blue 
Making war on the poor
Blind Mother Justice 
On a pile of manure
Say your prayers and 
The Pledge of Allegiance every night
And tomorrow
You'll be feeling all right 

On April 30, 1966 -- exactly 45 years ago today -- 29-year-old Richard Fariña attended a book-signing at a bookstore in Carmel.  It was two days after the publication of his novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

That evening, Fariña left his wife's 21st birthday party to take a ride with another guest who had a motorcycle.  Police later said that the pair must have been going at least 90 mph on twisty Carmel Valley Road when they crashed.  The driver survived, but Fariña was killed instantly.  

The Fariñas
Fariña and his wife Mimi (who was the younger sister of Joan Baez) had quarreled earlier that day because he seemed to have forgotten it was her birthday.  When she finally returned to their home several days after his death, Mimi found a bouquet of roses -- now dead -- and other gifts.  He had intended the gifts to be a surprise for her when they arrived home after her party. 

Sometimes, I let my magic iPod decide what song I'm going to post about next -- I get on my bike, set my iPod to "shuffle" and take off.  Sooner or later my iPod will find the right song for me.  That's why you're reading about Richard Fariña's "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" today.

I discovered this song about a year ago on a 5-CD compilation album titled Forever Changing:  The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973, which I found at my public library.  Most of that album consists of folk songs -- the artists who recorded for Elektra in those days included Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, and Phil Ochs.  But the album also includes songs by the Doors, Arthur Lee and Love, Carly Simon, Queen, Harry Chapin, and Bread.  (The title of the album is taken from Forever Changes, Love's third studio album for Elektra -- which is a work of genius.)

I was familiar with very few of the songs on the Elektra compilation.  It's a very "eclectic" -- by which I mean to say "weird" -- collection of songs.  But I did discover some very intriguing songs on Forever Changing.  So consider this the first post in yet another 2 or 3 lines series.

Richard Fariña grew up in Brooklyn -- his mother was Irish, his father was Cuban.  He won an academic scholarship to Cornell, where he published several short stories and poems, and became friends with fellow student Thomas Pynchon, who published his first novel, V, in 1963.  Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, taught at Cornell in the late 1950s, when both Pynchon and Fariña were students there -- it was quite the little literary hotbed.

Carolyn Hester
Fariña was suspended for participating in a student demonstration, and eventually dropped out of Cornell before graduating.  He went to work for the famous J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City in 1959, but spent more and more time at bohemian hangouts like the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.

After quitting his advertising job, he met folksinger Carolyn Hester (a native of Waco, Texas, of all places) and married her only 18 days later.    

Fariña with Dylan
Fariña wasn't much of a musician then, but faked his way through some live appearances and recording sessions with Hester.  (Hester had turned down an offer to form a trio with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, or we might remember her as a member of  "Peter, Paul, and Carolyn" today.)  Bob Dylan played harmonica on one of her studio albums in 1961, and he and Fariña became friends as a result. 

Here's Carolyn Hester singing the old gospel song, "I'll Fly Away":

Fariña met Mimi Baez while picnicking at Chartres Cathedral, which is about an hour's drive southwest of Paris, in the spring of 1962, when she was just 16.  (By the way, did you know that "picnicking" was spelled with a "k"?  That word tripped up a friend of mine in the 4th-grade spelling bee.)

Carolyn Hester was unhappy at the way Fariña had insinuated himself into her musical career, and left him later that year.  That cleared the way for Fariña and Mimi to be secretly married in Paris shortly thereafter -- Mimi was just 17.

David Hadju's book Positively 4th Street explores the lives and times of Fariña, Dylan, and the Baez sisters in considerable detail -- it's worth reading if you are interested in any or all of them.

The couple began to perform together in 1964, and were major folk music stars by the time they performed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.  Fariña kept writing fiction and poetry, and finished Been Down So Long shortly after he and Mimi issued their second LP, Reflections in a Crystal Wind.  That LP includes "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream."

Thomas Pynchon (who dedicated his 1973 novel, Gravity's Rainbow, to Fariña, and wrote this introduction to a recent edition of Farina's book) described Been Down So Long 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."

The original paperback edition
I admire Pynchon's loyalty to his old friend, but I can't agree with his judgment of the book's merits.  I tried to read Been Down So Long again a couple of years ago, but I didn't finish it.  It certainly has its moments, but it's a bit of a mess.  Time magazine dismissed it (as well as Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which was published about the same time) as "gibberish literature."

Here's a link to a website that contains an essay that thoroughly discusses the novel (including its many, many allusions to Ulysses and The Odyssey) and also provides a detailed bibliography of contemporary reviews and literary criticism relating to Fariña's book.

"House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" shares certain elements with Been Down So Long.  For one thing, both exhibit the political paranoia that reached epidemic proportions in the 1960s, and the protagonist in both travels to Cuba, a place that was off-limits to Americans after Castro's takeover.

(Fariña told people that he had once travelled to Cuba and been a gun-runner for Castro.  He also claimed that he helped sink a British submarine as a member of the Irish Republican Army, killed a bear by inserting the barrel of his shotgun into the animal's rectum and pulling the trigger, and had a metal plate in his head.)

This song is certainly far-left in its politics, which I am not.  But some of my favorite songs are rebellious and anti-establishment and generally pissed off at parents and teachers and other authority figures.  This song is all that, although folk singers like Fariña rarely sound all that angry.  (The song also has some drug references, which hardly distinguishes it from most other songs of that era.)

Here's a video featuring a live television performance of "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream."  (That's a dulcimer that Richard is playing.  At the very end, he switches briefly to a kazoo.)  The quality of the video is horrible, but the sound is good and the brief shots of Richard and Mimi performing are priceless:

Here is the original recording of the song by the Fariñas.  This version (which is flawed by its very poorly mixed vocal tracks) appears on the Reflections in a Crystal Wind album, as well as on several subsequent "greatest hits"-type compilation albums, but is quite different from the version on the Elektra compilation (which is credited solely to Richard, not to Richard and Mimi):

Here's a link to use if you'd like to buy the Forever Changing version of this song from iTunes:

House Un-American Blues Activity Dream - Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records - 1963-1973 (Audio Version)

Here's a link to use if you prefer Amazon:

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