Richard Farina remains a marginal figure for most contemporary folk fans, even as his notoriety rose with the 2011 publication of Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina David Hajdu’s bestselling, intimate biography of the early Greenwich Village scene. Described by those who knew him in his time, including his college roommate Thomas Pynchon, as a tireless front of creative energy, Farina was a poet, author, and songwriter of such promise that it soured his friendship with a jealous young Bob Dylan. He recorded two albums with his young wife, Mimi, Joan Baez’s younger sister, and wrote the beatnik classic novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me only to die in a motorcycle accident days after that book’s release while on a joyride taken in the midst of Mimi’s 21st birthday party in April 1966. Farina was himself only 29 when he died.
The two albums the Farinas recorded together, Celebrations for a Gray Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind, both released in 1965 by Vanguard, have remained in print, along with the posthumously released Memories and have spawned several best-of collections and other anthologies. But while cherished by fans of the 1960s folk revival, their work has never crossed over into general acceptance. Part of this is due to the unfortunate timing of Richard’s tragic passing. Farina seems forever captured in amber, perhaps one of popular cultures’ most vivid “What if?” puzzles. He died just before the tremors he was signaling in his work turned into a ground-shaking cultural schism. His lyrical sensibility was formed by the beatnik movement, as showcased by such anti-conformity anthems as “Sell-Out Agitation Waltz” and “Hard Loving Loser”. His novel captures adolescent angst and the passage from sexual innocence towards maturity, but he was never, himself, allowed to grow with the times into the kind of cultural guidepost that he showed such promise in becoming.
Enter Iain Matthews, Andy Roberts, and Mark Griffiths, recording for one final time under the Plainsong moniker, to provide the great cultural service of translating Richard Farina’s musical vision for a contemporary audience on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of his death. On Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina, the master musicians of Plainsong bring empathy and finesse to a project that restores their subject’s unique voice by making his inspirational music their own.
Richard and Mimi Farina’s music, while progressive for its time, sounds dated to contemporary ears. Their records resonate with the rougher edges of the early folk revival before slicker production smoothed out the sound; they were more Almanac Singers than Peter, Paul & Mary. Even Farina’s rock-inflected dulcimer strumming, so influential and central to their sound, locates the music in an era disconnected from our own, the instrument itself having been relegated to little more than curio status for most contemporary musicians. Matthews, Roberts, and Griffiths smartly hone in on Farina’s lyrics while creating new sonic arrangements, the “reinventing” of the title, that honor the originals but update them for contemporary listeners. Even Roberts, so heavily influenced by Farina that he made the dulcimer a definitive element of Plainsong’s sound, swore at the start of these recordings that he’d leave the instrument at home. By the recording’s completion, he’d changed his mind, but the instrument provides only flourishes here, subtle nods to the past. The band’s intuitive and progressive arrangements give the songs a collective rebirth.
Plainsong have been called “Fairport Convention goes to Nashville” and “the closest thing the UK has produced to rivaling the Flying Burrito Brothers.” Both quips work as effective shorthand for the uninitiated, but as with anything under Iain Matthews’ imprimatur, such oversimplifications obscure a willful complexity and an always striving artistic spirit. In Richard Farina, Matthews and partners Andy Roberts and Mark Griffiths have found a brethren spirit. Opening and closing the record with the aptly titled and felt instrumental “The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood”, the album spotlights 13 of Farina’s songs, including what was probably his best-known song “Pack Up Your Sorrows”. Plainsong’s version of this song could become the definitive version for a new generation of listeners to Farina’s lyrical mastery. Their exhumation of the brilliant “The Falcon”, Farina’s own reinvention of the classic American ballad “The Cuckoo” is an inspirational reintroduction of the work to the folk song canon. It should inspire numerous additional covers.
For any fan of American folk music, this collection will be a true revelation. Through Plainsong’s masterful reinvention, the songs and spirit of Richard Farina are reborn.