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[whitespace] Joan Baez Folk Hero: The world still reveres Dylan, but Joan Baez's role in the folk movement--which was far more important--has long been forgotten.

Photograph by Dana Tynan

University Avenue to 4th Street

A new book looks at the birth of the modern folk era, with an emphasis on Palo Alto's Joan Baez

By Gina Arnold

WHEN I WAS growing up in Palo Alto in the 1970s, the city felt like the farthest place from hipville in the entire universe. So I read books like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and On the Road and coveted more Bohemian locales--Paris in the '20s and New York City in the '50s--and despised my environs accordingly.

The only famous person from Palo Alto was Joan Baez, and by 1978 she seemed pretty old-fashioned and funky, her achievements as an artist long since dissipated in a haze of (what I considered) dreadful hippie activities. That didn't stop me from buying for my prom dress an outfit she'd tried on in front of me at a dusty little boutique on University Avenue one afternoon, but nevertheless, I thought of her as utterly passé.

It would be almost 30 years until University Avenue would start seeming hip (to some people) and almost the same amount of time until Joan Baez started seeming hip to me. But a few years ago, I saw her sing in the courtyard of a Radisson Hotel in Sacramento, and her mesmerizing performance--evoking as it did a childhood full of concerts by her and her cohorts at Frost Amphitheater and Searsville Lake--suddenly imbued my own past with a romance and cultural influence I hadn't understood before.

That romance is rampant in early chapters of the new book Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, by David Hajdu. The book's release coincides with Bob Dylan's 60th birthday, an event that has gained an undue amount of reverent media coverage, although Hajdu concentrates almost more on Farina and the Baez sisters and the "bohemian" milieu they helped inform.

I have recently read some snide comments by critics about the book, and I can see why. Unlike most Dylan books, it treats our Bobby like a lesser mortal, one who is not untalented, but one whose act loses some luster when seen against the backdrop of the times. According to Hadju, Dylan was only one aspect of those heady days, the guy who, for whatever reason, managed to take them furthest.

THE TIME FRAME of Positively 4th Street is 1959-1965. It ends with the death of Farina, and Dylan's cycle accident and ascension to sainthood. Hadju puts a somewhat negative slant on many things (although not, alas, on Farina's sick misogyny and sexism), but he nonetheless has put together a book that captures the prehippie era and what made it great.

Joan Baez moved to Cambridge in 1958, became famous via the Harvard Square folk scene and the Newport Folk Festival, then moved back to California (Carmel, to be exact) in 1961. But those three years were crucial in the development of folk music as an incredibly powerful and relevant force in American pop music. The folk movement--as preached by people like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott--was an attempt to regain some autonomy in a culture that had been plasticized and merchandized to death.

Thus, when Seeger, Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and various other folksingers of the time took the stage at Newport in 1963 and sang "We Shall Overcome," Seeger was, Hajdu writes, "proclaiming the triumph of the political folk diaspora. It had overcome the blacklist, television, The Hit Parade, Tin Pan Alley and rock & roll."

Soon after, Dylan went electric, and the rest of the story has been told time and again from his perspective, because history, as we know, is told by the winners. But that's what makes Positively 4th Street's thesis a little more interesting, even if some of its conclusions (that, for instance, Richard Farina was responsible for giving folk music a beat) are a bit farfetched.

The world still reveres Dylan, but Joan Baez's role in the folk movement--which was far more important--has long been forgotten, possibly because she voluntarily (if briefly) relegated herself to the public status of "girlfriend," always a bad move. Popularitywise, she's never recovered ground, and that seems a little unfair. True, Dylan has written a ton of great songs and Joan has written about two--but I think there's more to it than that.

Diamonds and Rust

MEANWHILE, as Hadju states, the social relevance of folk music--its purity and its power--stemmed from the fact that "the '50s were fucked up." So, too, were the '70s, when punk rock emerged (with incredibly similar goals and even a similar battle plan) and so, of course, is now.

The prehippie era was not a very enlightened one, but with their music and their movements and their motorcycles and their sincerity, the Baez sisters and Dylan and all their folksinging friends single-handedly created a sensibility that fought back.

All we need now is someone to do it again. But that idea is what makes Positively 4th Street so interesting to me: the similarities between American punk and folk, which I am only now coming to realize.

Both groups were antiestablishment, both looked to roots music to reinvigorate their own, both believed in "doing it themselves," both were made up of upper-middle-class college kids who had to pretend a solidarity with the working class.

Of course, Palo Alto was full of people like that, since in both the '50s and in the '70s it was a bastion of liberal thought. More so in the '50s, though--that era formed Joan Baez's sensibility, which then infected Cambridge, Greenwich Village and, finally, Dylan (who of course did miraculous and unique things with the genre). Sadly, I don't think Palo Alto is anything like that anymore: a walk down University Avenue, with its high-end rug stores and parking lots full of SUVs, shows an entirely different population. The revolution isn't going to start here, that's for sure. But that doesn't mean it isn't going to happen somewhere--and the sooner the better.

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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