American folksinger and activist Mimi Farina (1945–2001) was perhaps best known for her recordings with her late husband, Richard Farina, in the 1960s. After his death in 1966 she recreated herself variously as a dancer, comedienne, and rock musician. But Farina's most enduring work began in 1974, when she founded Bread and Roses, a charitable organization that provided live music to those confined to institutions in the San Francisco Bay Area. Bread and Roses spawned similar groups across the United States and celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2000.
Farina was born Margarita Mimi Baez on April 30, 1945, in Palo Alto, California. She was the third daughter of Mexican immigrant Albert Baez and Scottish immigrant Joan Bridge. Her parents ran a boarding house while her father was studying for his doctorate in physics at Stanford University, and the family was a nomadic one as he pursued his career.
After her father earned his Ph.D., the family moved to Redlands, California, so that he could take a job as a teaching assistant. In 1949 he accepted a position as an experimental physicist at Cornell University and the clan headed east to New York. It was about this time that Farina's mother drew upon her childhood education at a Quaker school to introduce her family to the Religious Society of Friends. This Quaker upbringing, especially with its emphasis on nonviolence, made a lasting impression on her daughters and would be often reflected in the choices and stands they made as adults.
One of the family's most unhappy relocations was to Baghdad, Iraq, where Farina's father spent a year teaching and conducting research in 1951. All of them found it a trial on some level, but it was the six-year-old Farina who particularly suffered. She had her first bout with organized education at a convent school there, and the harsh manner of the nuns was an ongoing torment to her. Indeed, she and her father remained convinced later in life that the experience had nipped any untapped love of academics in the bud. The family was tremendously pleased to return to the United States and move back to California.
Throughout their travels, Farina's mother was diligent about exposing her children to the arts, and they were all given music and dance lessons early on. Farina gravitated toward dance as a toddler, and soon joined her older sisters, Pauline and Joan, playing piano and strings as well. The outlet was a godsend to the little girl who felt so out of place in school, as she recalled on the website Richard and Mimi.com. "I was good at the violin and I was a good dancer and I knew it…. Which was such a relief from feeling incompetent. When I danced or played music I could be who I really was." Her sister Joan, who later became the world-famous folk star Joan Baez and was a natural performer even as a child, also had an enormous influence on Farina. The two saw the legendary Pete Seeger perform when Farina was just nine, and both promptly decided that singing would become their careers. They began to make good on those plans after the family relocated, this time to Massachusetts, in 1958.
Richard and Mimi
As Farina's father started a new job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the family settled into the Cambridge suburb of Belmont and Farina enrolled in Belmont High School. Folk music was becoming fashionable in the college coffeehouses, and the younger Baez sisters took up guitar and became immersed in the scene. They often performed as a duo, but it was clear that Joan was the rising star. The London Times quoted Farina's recollection of the time as, "It was really Joanie's show. She let me be part of it which was really very nice of her. But I knew she didn't really want anybody else up there." And, in truth, Baez's career took off in short order: By 1959 she was singing at the Newport Folk Festival, and a year later her first album was released by Vanguard. Farina, still in high school, remained on the sidelines.
In 1961 Farina's father accepted a position with UNESCO in Paris, taking his wife and Farina (the only one still at home) with him. At this point, Farina had all but abandoned formal education, continuing instead to focus on dance and music. Then in 1962 she met aspiring novelist and folk singer Richard Farina. He was married at the time, and eight years her senior, much to the disapproval of her parents, but the pair soon became a couple. They secretly married in Paris in 1963, as was disclosed in the liner notes of their first album together, and then had an official ceremony in California later that year with up-and-coming novelist Thomas Pynchon in attendance as best man. Although still a teenager, Farina had discovered the love of her life.
Farina and her new husband set up housekeeping in a small cabin close to Baez's home in California's Carmel Valley. He began work on his first novel, and the two of them composed and played music together. Using guitar and dulcimer, they forged a somewhat unique sound for the time, drawing on a variety of styles and genres likely picked up from their travels. Whatever the different spin, however, their music was still folk music and they made their debut as a duo at the Big Sur Folk Festival in the summer of 1964. The audience liked what it heard, and the couple was in the recording studio for Vanguard by that autumn.
American folk music was a powerful popular force in the early 1960s, and for a time Baez and Bob Dylan were the anointed darlings of the folk world. The Farinas, naturally, were intimately connected with the prince and princess, and that extraordinary period was eventually chronicled by David Hajdu in the book, Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina (2001). In 1964 the players could hardly have known how great their impact would be, but excitement was surely in the air.
The Farinas released their first album, Celebrations for a Grey Day, in April of 1965. The original material included such enduring folk classics as Pack Up Your Sorrows, and the album became a big hit. They performed at the Newport Folk Festival that summer, where they won a standing ovation in spite of the torrential rain. In December, Reflections in a Crystal Wind was released. On it, Farina debuted her own composition, Miles, which was an instrumental tribute to jazz great Miles Davis. The couple may not have been certifiable folk royalty quite yet, but they were most certainly stars.
Life appeared to be looking up even further in the spring of 1966. Farina's husband had just had his first novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, published, and book signings were the order of the day. But the couple's optimism and joy was rudely cut short on April 30, when Richard was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was Farina's 21st birthday.
Explored and Reinvented
Understandably devastated by her loss, Farina moved to San Francisco to attempt to regroup. She took up dancing once again and tried to keep her hand in music. The ever-mercurial music business, however, was then in the process of exchanging the folk phenomenon for that of rock 'n roll. Gamely, she dove into the new waters with an acid-rock band called "The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities," but it was a short-lived fling. In 1967 she toured Japan with Judy Collins, Bruce Langhorne, and Arlo Guthrie, but as a dancer, not a singer. Later that year, Farina took a turn as a comedienne, joining the San Francisco improvisational group The Committee. Her year with the troupe proved a more productive venture, as she made lifelong friends and honed her stage skills in the process. A compilation of the Farina's work called Memories was released in 1968, but Farina had gone through sufficient professional reincarnations by that time to hazard one more on a personal level.
On September 7, 1968, Farina married record producer and radio personality Milan Melvin at the Big Sur Folk Festival. For the next two years, she appeared content to stay close to home, although she did record one song with Baez on the latter's David's Album. The second marriage ended in divorce in 1970, however, and Farina headed back into music.
In 1971 Farina teamed up with singer-songwriter Tom Jans to record Take Heart, which included one of her most famous songs, In the Quiet Morning. The duo toured extensively and made television appearances, but ongoing comparisons to Baez and the commercialism of the music business were getting Farina down. She and Jans split up in 1972, and although she toured as a solo act for a time, Farina began casting about for a new way to make a contribution to the world.
Bread and Roses
Inspiration struck after Farina attended a concert given by eminent bluesman B. B. King at New York's Sing Sing Prison. Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle quoted her recollection of the event as, "It was phenomenal to watch the place go silent, which doesn't happen that much in prison." This experience, coupled with her own appearance at a halfway house, gave rise to the idea of an organization that would provide music, free of charge, to people confined to institutions from convalescent homes to prisons to psychiatric facilities. So in 1974, Farina founded what would prove to be her true life's work and legacy.
Farina called her new creation "Bread and Roses," after a poem for woman laborers and their men by James Oppenheim. First funded by annual benefit concerts, it began to draw upon corporate and private donations by the early 1980s. Still, volunteers were its lifeblood and Farina had no compunction about tapping the talents of such famous friends as Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Huey Lewis, and Neil Young to help out. Nor, as Steve Uhler of the Austin American-Stateman pointed out, could anyone resist her pleas. "Mimi could bewitch anyone from age 7 to age 70 with her wit, beauty and energy, and she always picked up the tab for the post-performance pizza."
In 2000, Bread and Roses celebrated its 25th anniversary and had spawned at least 15 similar organizations across the United States. Its humanitarian mission, as well as its founder, had received myriad accolades and awards. Farina had finally combined her talents to carve a lasting niche for herself on her own terms.
The youngest of the Baez family died on July 18, 2001, of lung cancer, surrounded by the others. Only 56 years old, Farina was yet again ahead of her time. Fittingly, her funeral service was filled with friends and music and tributes. But perhaps most telling of all was the tape Baez played after all the eulogizing was finished. It held the sound of Farina's laughter.
Austin American-Statesman, July 26, 2001.
Billboard, August 4, 2001.
Boston Herald, July 20, 2001.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), August 1, 2001.
Hollywood Reporter, July 20, 2001.
Independent (London, England), May 22, 2001; July 20, 2001.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 2001; July 21, 2001; August 8, 2001; August 17, 2001.
Time, July 30, 2001.
Times (London, England), July 21, 2001.
"Awards and Honors Bestowed to Mimi Farina," Richard and Mimi, http://www.richardandmimi.com/mimi-awards.html (November 24, 2006).
"The Ballad of Mimi Farina," Richard and Mimi, http://www.richardandmimi.com/mimi-bio.html (December 15, 2006).
"Mimi Farina," Marin Women's Hall of Fame, http://www.marinwomen.org/farina_bio.htm (November 24, 2006).
"Mimi Farina," Richard and Mimi, http://www.richardandmimi.com/mimi.html (November 24, 2006).