Fariña, Richard George

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FARIÑA, Richard George

(b. 8 March 1937 in New York City; d. 30 April 1966 near Carmel, California), songwriter, singer, poet, and novelist who had a major influence on folk and protest music in the 1960s.

Fariña was born to an Irish mother, Theresa Crozier, and a Cuban father, Liborio Ricardo Fariñas, a toolmaker who later changed his name to Fariña. The younger Fariña attended Public School 181 and Holy Cross Catholic Elementary School before going on to Brooklyn Technical High School. There he was a member of the Aristas, a musical group comprising top students. Fariña majored in electrical engineering and graduated in February 1955, winning a Regents Scholarship to Cornell University, where he was a contemporary of the writer Thomas Pynchon. Although he began at Cornell studying electrical engineering, he was soon majoring in English literature, declaring that stories are more fun than statistics. Pynchon, who dedicated his novel Gravity's Rainbow (1973) to Fariña, recalls him as a charismatic presence on campus. Fariña eventually dropped out of college without finishing his senior year, in 1959.

Fariña's time at Cornell was interrupted by foreign travel. Proud of his Irish ancestry, he joined and fought with the Irish Republican Army and was forced to leave Ireland. He also fought on the side of the revolution in Cuba. When he returned to Cornell, Fariña was involved in protests to relax the curfews that prevented women students from being outside of their dormitories after eleven o'clock. In 1958 Fariña was one of four students suspended after eggs and rocks were thrown at the house of the university president, though he was reinstated when new demonstrations were threatened. After leaving college to work in advertising in New York City, Fariña married the folk singer Carolyn Hester on 17 June 1960. Besides working as Carolyn's agent, he began writing short stories and poems, some of which appeared in Atlantic Monthly. Carolyn taught Fariña to play the dulcimer, the instrument for which he later became famous, and the couple performed together at the Edinburgh Folk Festival in 1962. They divorced in 1963, and Fariña married Mimi Baez, sister of the singer Joan Baez, secretly in Paris, France, in spring of that year. They were married officially on 24 August 1963 in Carmel, California.

Almost immediately, Fariña and his new wife began a creative partnership that would make them among the most influential folk musicians of the time, boasting Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger as admirers. With Fariña writing the songs and accompanying on the dulcimer and Mimi singing, the pair debuted at the Big Sur Folk Festival in June 1964 as Mimi and Richard Fariña. They became regular performers at the famous Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and released their first album, Celebrations for a Grey Day, in April 1965. With their mix of rock and idealistic folk music, they helped initiate the "folk rock" style, a powerful force in popular music until the mid-1970s. At the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1965 they were a huge success, appearing shortly before Dylan's performance, when he alienated his fans with his infamous electric set. In September they took part in the "Sing-In for Peace in Viet Nam" at Carnegie Hall. Celebrations for a Grey Day appeared in the New York Times' critics' choice top ten folk albums of the year in December 1965, at about the same time as they released their second recording on the Vanguard label, Reflections in a Crystal Wind.

Fariña's enthusiasm for new projects and people meant that he was often seen as unreliable or inconsistent. But he managed to produce hundreds of poems and song lyrics, even while he was touring the country as a singer. As his fame as a folk musician and songwriter grew, he was also working hard on other forms of writing. His first and best-known novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966), is set at the end of the 1950s at Cornell and includes descriptions of protests similar to the ones in which Fariña had been involved. By the time it appeared student protests were taking place across the United States, ensuring an audience for a work described by a review in Time as "fashionably incoherent." Though reviews were mixed, the kindest have compared Fariña with Thomas Pynchon and Richard Brautigan. He shares with them a vision of an America peopled by lonely individuals pursuing happiness and fulfillment in a comically absurd cultural landscape. Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me acquired a cult following in the mid-1960s. Its honest and personal voice spoke to the post-Beat generation. The novel's fame was further enhanced by the author's death just two days after publication. But Fariña's reputation as a novelist has fared less well than those of his postmodern contemporaries. By the end of the twentieth century he had all but disappeared from the map of American literature. His second book, a collection of shorter pieces titled Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone, was published with a foreword by Joan Baez. It appeared posthumously in 1969 but did not have the impact of his first book.

Despite the success of Mimi and Richard Fariña as performers and recording artists, Fariña's long-term influence on folk music is difficult to judge. His blending of several folk styles and his effort to merge folk and rock were daring and dramatic in the early 1960s. Within a few years he became an accomplished dulcimer player, boosting the instrument's popularity. Fariña was at the heart of a folk music scene that has become synonymous with the turbulent politics of the 1960s. An energetic man, Fariña's restless style emerges in his music, his novel, and in his lifelong passion for travel. While his greatest success during his lifetime came as a musician, his ambitious but flawed novel demonstrates the breadth of his imaginative vision and creative drive. Fariña was killed in a motorcycle accident near Carmel, California, just a few hours after attending the launch party for his novel.

Very little information about Fariña is available, and there is no full-length biography. David Hadju, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña (2001), gives a useful overview of the period and key personalities in the folk music scene. An article about Fariña is in Time (6 May 1966), and the problems of writing a biography about Fariña are outlined in William N. Flanagan, "Been Gone So Long: The Life of Richard Fariña," Broadside (Sept. 1986). An obituary is in the New York Times (9 May 1966).

Chris Routledge