Positively Fourth St.: Wonderful narrative, questionable thesis
David A. Bede
7/14/2002 3:18:46 PM

From 1961-66, the Baez sisters, Bob Dylan and Richard Farina came of age, befriended one another, fell in and out of love, raised hell, traipsed the globe on a shoestring budget like college students, drank, got high...and produced some of the most durable music (and, in Farina's case, one of the most under-appreciated novels) of their generation, Positively Fourth Street, [Farrar Straus & Giroux] by David Hajdu.

Hajdu captures that half-decade in 300 pages of remarkably seamless prose, painting a vivid picture of four young artists whose intertwining paths left an indelible mark on the work they produced.

Although he appears most interested in Joan Baez and her family, Hajdu produces an impressive amount of information on all four of his subjects. Dylan fans especially are likely to be surprised at some of the details of their hero's early career, such as his first appearance on a studio recording (it wasn't Harry Belafonte's "Midnight Special," as has often been reported) and the somewhat disputed origin of his stage name. Baez, meanwhile, is portrayed for once as a human being with strengths and weaknesses of her own, rather than strictly as a victim of Dylan's misogyny (though this too is acknowledged, as well it should be). Best of all, Richard and Mimi Farina are both researched and profiled just as carefully as Baez and Dylan despite being far less famous outside the realm of hardcore folk music fans.

The book, like its subjects, is not without its shortcomings. For one thing, Hajdu's vision of the four and their importance is a bit sweeping. Baez may have been the first protegee of the folk revival to achieve commercial success, but she was hardly the first folk artist to have a hit record (or even the first of the rock era).

Dylan was the movement's biggest name in songwriting, but hardly the only one; Hajdu sprinkles the names of others throughout the book (Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Eric Andersen and a list too long to complete here) without really acknowledging their place relative to those of his four subjects. His sly allusions to their works (i.e. "Dylan acted as if he and the social activists in the folk community never had met") are by turns amusing and tiresome. Also, his practice of phrasing all quotations in the past tense makes it impossible to differentiate between contemporary interview material and decades-old remarks without consulting the endnotes, unless the speaker is a person the reader knows to be dead. Speaking of which, Hajdu tells his nonfiction story novel-style, not revealing the post-1966 fate of his subjects until the end of the book. For those of us who already know why any story of this quartet would have to stop that year, the efforts at suspense can be slightly off-putting.

These, of course, are minor criticisms. For any fan of the folk music of the 1960s - especially those who weren't lucky enough to have been in Cambridge or Greenwich Village at the time - this book is a fascinating and welcome look inside a place and time that left a great mark on music history.


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