“Positively Fourth Street” is one of the most rapturously spiteful pop songs of the 1960s. Recorded by Bob Dylan four days after he enraged folk loyalists at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival by strapping on a Fender Stratocaster and tearing through a set of hard-driving rock songs, it’s a biting attack on the Greenwich Village folk scene, composed at the very moment Dylan was set to burst onto the world’s stage as a full-blown rock star. As author David Hajdu sees it, Dylan’s break with folk’s old guard was pure performance art — one more feat of opportunistic self-invention by the man born Robert Allen Zimmerman to middle-class parents who owned an electronics store in Hibbing, Minn. But it was also the end of a vibrant chapter of pop music history — one Hajdu resurrects with striking immediacy — that began in the late 1950s. That’s when Dylan shed his Jewish suburban roots to don the train-hopping, hobo persona of his troubadour hero, Woody Guthrie.
Dylan’s makeover, Hajdu writes, points up a contradiction at the heart of the folk revival — a movement he artfully shows was as much a commercial as a cultural and political force. “Archie Leach and Norma Jean Baker became Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe when they went into show business,” he says. “But folk was supposed to be neither business nor show.”
It was, of course, both. A music journalist whose last book was a biography of Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, Hajdu has written a richly nuanced group biography charting the lives of the musicians who helped make the folk revival a mainstream enterprise. The music itself had been circulating since the early days of the Eisenhower era, when Guthrie and Pete Seeger roved the country, fomenting an interest in rural, traditional songs at a time of suburban sprawl, plastics and space flight. Thanks to Harry Smith’s landmark 1952 “Anthology of American Folk Music” recordings, the music eventually found a broad national audience, and it found a home in the coffeehouses, clubs and book shops that bordered West 4th Street.
The personalities that blazed their way through that milieu come to life colorfully in Hajdu’s pages, not as nascent superstars but as cliquish scenesters, just past their teenage years, equal parts ambition and insecurity. It was in the Village that Dylan entered the orbit of the folk-singing sisters Joan and Mimi Baez and of Richard Farina, an aspiring writer and musician who’d roomed with Thomas Pynchon at Cornell, and who married Mimi before being killed in a motorcycle crash in 1966. Hajdu’s story turns on the ways these characters — who eventually became four of the brightest stars of the folk universe — used each other, romantically and professionally, while turning the zeitgeist to their own advantages.
Hajdu deftly balances his portrait of Dylan’s circle with detours into the cultural climate that shaped the careers of each member. By the early 1960s, he writes, discontent on college campuses was both a fashion trend and a business opportunity. (In 1961, for instance, sales of dungarees increased by 50% and a million Americans purchased guitars.)
In Hajdu’s view, Dylan shrewdly recognized that radicalism could be packaged, recording the all-purpose protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962. Soon thereafter, he visited the London folk clubs and began appropriating British traditional songs for his own politically charged ballads (“as Dylan’s esteem as a songwriter grew,” writes Hajdu, “it became a source of pride to be a victim of his thefts”) and began romancing Joan Baez, the first lady of folk. That alliance was so conspicuous at the time that comedian Mort Sahl dubbed the pair “the Dick and Liz of the self-righteous set.” It helped put Dylan on the map, while catalyzing Baez’s transformation from a singer of timeless folk standards like “Kumbaya” into a strident voice of social protest.
Farina, too, was a con artist, writes Hajdu, though perhaps of a more benign stripe. He scraped together an identity the way Dylan appropriated other people’s music, claiming variously to have a metal plate in his head, to have run guns for Castro and sunk a British submarine for the IRA. Farina aggressively courted Mimi Baez while she was still a teenager, and the two had embarked on a promising career as folk duo when he was killed just hours after the publication party for his first novel, “Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me.”
The folk revival, writes Hajdu, may have reached its apex at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, when an array of folkies young and old, including Seeger, Baez and Dylan, joined hands onstage and sang “We Shall Overcome.” As Hajdu puts it, they already had overcome. That summer, as Peter, Paul and Mary’s recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” became Warner Bros.’ fastest-selling single to date, Johnny Cash appeared in exploitation pic “Hootenanny Hoot,” about undergrad folk singers strumming guitars in bathing suits on the beach.
But the trend proved ephemeral. As Farina wrote in a profile for Mademoiselle a year before Dylan put the folk world behind him: “Catch him now… Next week, he might be mangled on a motorcycle.”
That article was all too prescient. Hajdu’s book ends soon after Dylan’s own nearly fatal motorcycle crash in 1966. By then, Farina was dead, and Dylan and the Baez sisters had drifted apart. But Hajdu’s meticulous portrait of their lives and the cultural forces that threw them together stands not just as an enduring monument to them but as a great American story in its own right.