It’s been all too easy to romanticize the folk scene of the early ’60s, with its earnest proto-hippies enamored of music well-steeped in history and politics. Appealing as the idea of a world without irony may be, David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street knows better: His meticulous and riveting reconstruction of the era offers a heartfelt but unsentimental view of the ambitions, the betrayals, and even the careerism of folk’s greatest talents.
Hajdu, a former EW editor, characterizes folk as a movement of misfits and loners during its gestation in the late 1950s: ”a music that gloried in the unique and the weird, challenged conformity and celebrated regionalism during the rise of mass media, national brands, and interstate travel.” Yet the folksingers he portrays were as careful about their public personas as any modern rock star. By the time Joan Baez appears on a Time magazine cover in 1962, folk is not just for outcasts anymore.
Hajdu recasts folk as a soap opera set to music, starring two of the Baez sisters and two of their most significant others. Joan and Mimi are the closest of rivals; their mother says, ”They loved each other so much, I thought sometimes they’d kill each other.” Joan, the outgoing, artistic middle child, always thought she was ugly. Mimi, the youngest, whose beauty is assessed roughly at the Helen of Troy level, is a talented guitarist but takes up dance to sidestep Joan’s competitiveness. One male friend recalls visiting the Baez house: ”We all went up there in love with Joan, and we left in love with her little sister.” When the girls meet Bob Dylan in 1961, he has a similar reaction. But two years later, Joan sends Mimi, then living in France with their parents, a smirky note clipped to ”The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” that reads ”My new boyfriend.”
Gypsy waif Baez and Woody Guthrie-worshiping Dylan — ”The Liz and Dick of the self-righteous set” — were the undisputed first couple of folk. Hajdu’s extensive interviews with folk denizens like Dave Van Ronk and Izzy Young reflect the aura of gossip and greatness that surrounded the couple. As one of the folkies put it in the fall of 1964, rumor was ”they would get married if they could only agree on whose last name to use.”
The other romance in the book is that of a young writer-musician, Richard Farina — whose myths of origin involve Cuba, the IRA, and Thomas Pynchon — and his efforts to woo and win the fair Mimi before finally dumping his folksinger wife to marry the 17-year-old in Paris. When the Farinas move back to the States, Dick’s presence fuels the sisters’ musical rivalry and spurs Dylan on to greater poetry. Hajdu treats the almost-was Farina with sympathy and effusive admiration for his dulcimer stylings; although Farina’s a dashing figure, his bluster quickly becomes tedious.
”Positively 4th Street” draws a persuasive parallel between Dylan’s eagerness to adapt to popular tastes and his convenient girlfriend upgrading. Dylan starts playing folk music because of its insurgent popularity, then adds notes of protest to his songs at the urging of Suze Rotolo, the redhead clutching his arm on the ”Freewheelin”’ cover. That social consciousness acts as an ”aphrodisiac” to the already smitten, and famous, Baez. ”I rode on Joan, I’m not proud of it,” Dylan admitted years later. While they are a couple, Baez fervently promotes (and cooks and cleans for) Dylan; then, when both are waning in notoriety, he abandons Joan and folk for sad-eyed Sara Lownds and rock & roll.
”Positively” is both instructive and revisionist, educating the masses about folk and questioning the few received truths about the movement. Admirably, Hajdu manages to avoid both idol worship and idol bashing: His four main characters are richly drawn (but not prettied up), and his affection for the music and the musicians is unmistakable. For the most part, he stands back and lets the participants paint the scene — though he is there to clarify a fuzzy recollection, add a trenchant observation, and keep the stories moving. The results are often enthralling: In ”Positively 4th Street,” Hajdu has done honor to both the scruffy, workingman’s esthetic of folk and its irresistible glamour.