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Music Review: Ian & Sylvia and Mimi & Richard Fariña – Vanguard Visionaries

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In the relational hurly-burly that was the sixties folk scene, two married couples stand out: Ian & Sylvia and Mimi & Richard Fariña. Both duos released strong LPs for Vanguard Records in the folk era, the cream of which has recently been gathered on two Vanguard Visionaries sets. As with the other Visionaries budget releases, the 10-track discs provide good intros to these influential folkies.

Of the two, Canadian couple Ian Tyson & Sylvia Fricker were arguably the more folky. Their first 1963 Vanguard release was primarily composed of traditional British and Canadian songs, while their own later compositions frequently looked to cowboy and rodeo themes, something that Tyson would more extensively explore in his solo career. An acoustic duo, they were among the first to include a bass (initially, courtesy of Spike Lee's dad, Bill) in their recordings. Though they later would incorporate electric instruments into their records, it's as earnest unplugged folkies that they are best recalled. The 10 tracks in Vanguard Visionaries (with the exception of a cover of "The Mighty Quinn") wisely stick to acoustic tracks, focusing on the couple's appealing harmonies.

As composers, I&S each have their moments of folk greatness: Sylvia's "You Were on My Mind" was a folk-pop hit in the hands of Californians We Five, while Ian's migrant farm-worker song, "Four Strong Winds," is practically the second Canadian national anthem. The duo also had a knack for spotlighting good early work by their fellow Canadians (Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell), in addition to being among the first to cover a Dylan song ("Tomorrow Is A Long Time"). Though their post-Vanguard recordings frequently favored one voice over the other, the early emphasis is on harmonies – a decision that makes a track like the cowgirl's love song, "Some Day Soon" (nailed by Judy Collins on her Who Knows Where the Time Goes album), sound oddly over-balanced if you think about it too much.

The Tysons' American counterparts, Mimi & Richard, had a shorter, though arguably much more interesting, musical lifespan. Cut short by Fariña's death in a 1966 motorcycle accident, the pair only released two albums in his lifetime, followed by a posthumous collection two years later. Comprised primarily of original material composed by Richard, both albums bristle with confidence and wit. If Ian & Sylvia belonged to the heart-on-their-sleeve singer/songwriter school exemplified by Joan Baez, than Mimi (Joan's sib, interestingly enough) & Richard owed their allegiances to the more sardonic class of Dylanesque wordsmiths.

Too, the pair sounded more out there as folkies, blending dulcimer and acoustic guitar to frequently striking effect. Listening to a track like the dirge-y "Bold Marauder" or the Middle Eastern-tinged "Morgan the Pirate," you can practically hear a whole generation of British folk-rockers jottin' down notes. As singers, neither Richard nor Mimi were as pristine as their Canadian compeers, though they frequently could be more expressive.

They also had no compunctions about leaping full-throttle into electric. After their largely acoustic debut, the duo quickly and confidently made electric guitar and piano inextricable parts of their music. Though this doesn't seem like a big deal in the aftermath of folk-rock, in 1965 it was still a commercial gamble. Dylan's notorious appearance at the July '65 Newport Folk Fest was still fresh, and many folk devotees were divided as to whether electric guitars even belonged in the music. Today, however, it's hard to imagine tracks like the bluesy "Reno Nevada" or the sexy/goofy "Hard-Loving Loser" without their plugged-in accompaniment.

Though occasionally his sense of outrage could make him righteously prolix (cf., the appropriately angry "Michael, Andrew and James," written to denounce the vicious murder of three civil rights activists), at his best, Richard's lyrics were cunning and well-aimed. Even his most-covered song, the deceptively sweet-sounding "Pack Up Your Sorrows," has a melancholy tinge to it that is frequently missed by its interpreters. Whether Fariña could've taken his considerable lyrical gifts further is one of those questions that'll be forever unanswered. My own suspicion is that the publication of his novel, the very of-its-time Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, would've most likely lured him away from recording altogether. But mebbe that's just my old English major bias coming into play.

In any case, Fariña's sudden death gives the duo an advantage in the folk pair comparison sweeps. It spared us the inevitable ups and downs – and fallible moments – that a longer career would've doubtless engendered (cf., Ian & Sylvia as a part of the country-rock band, The Great Speckled Bird). Still, the fact remains that while I feel perfectly satisfied to have the ten-track Visionaries set fulfill my listening needs whenever I wanna play the Tysons, the ten Fariña tracks have me wanting to hear the rest of their two studio releases, Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in A Crystal Wind. Good job of interest piquing, Vanguard!

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.
  • Nik

    I’ve never heard any of the Farinas’ music but was quite interested in doing so after reading “Positively 4th Street” (excellent book on the early Dylan/Baez/Farina years). Good review!