Positively Mt. Auburn Street: Joan Baez & the Cambridge Folk Scene, 1958-60

The role of folk music in America’s postwar cultural and social history doesn’t lack for testimonies. Being the privileged soundtrack to the middle-class generation born during or just after the war, the story of how this music ‘changed the world’ won’t go unrecorded thanks to Baby Boomers’ economic and political hegemony. And yet the peculiar registers of this moment are often glossed over by the folk sounds of pop music today: indie-rock eccentricity (think Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom), Laurel Canyon solipsism, the genteelity of Nashville’s alternative scene (think the Civil Wars), and an ever-growing genre of Bob Dylan hagiography. Surprisingly little is remembered of folk’s coming-of-age in the late 1950s except for that most hackneyed of college-town clichés, the coffeehouse.

An exceptionally entertaining book that restores the place, time and culture of this period in folk music is David Hadju’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. Not the usual narrative about a generation finding its voice, the book focuses on the mutual inspirations, comraderies and rivalries that Dylan and Baez drew from Joan’s teenage sister Mimi and her husband, Richard. (His story is especially forgotten and thus particularly edifying; Richard died at the age of 28 in 1966, on the day of his sole book’s release and Mimi’s 21st birthday.)