When Quillnews was a young knucklehead and rocker wannabe in ‘62,
I discovered a Carolyn Hester LP album at the library of a small Ohio
town where he was in school. In an afternoon’s free hours, I would
take the Hester LP and others into the library’s music booth -- listen and learn
and dream. Pop music, all manner of music – rock, blue grass, hillbilly,
R&B, folk – had broken thru my fancy long before. AM radio, the
Hit Parade, .45 records. Then Elvis in ‘56. I inhaled it all. I listened to the
radio at the sly at night, knew all the pop music skinny, and had a six inch
stack of .45’s. When the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Richie Valenz were killed
in a plane crash in February ’59, I was among those who understood not
just who but what had been lost.
Hester was a folk favorite in the very early 60’s. She was, well, a babe, and a bit available, perhaps in a trendier but mainstream June Cleaver kind of way. Certainly safer than the more exotic Joan Baez, whose earnest seriousness seemed, somehow, more significant, more important. In the music mix were Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins and Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton and Tim Hardin and Tom Rush, building on the revival work of Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie … In May 1964, Hester’s photo was on cover of The Saturday Evening Post. In 1965, Hester filled New York's Town Hall. That was Hester’s high water mark in America’s cultural mainstream.
Hester first showed her first promise in Cambridge and Greenwich Village venues, where the modern folk music scene took hold. She got a record deal with Columbia through that label’s legendary producer, John Hammond. Hester seemed destined to be the star of the day. But the celebrity that fell to others avoided her. Joan Baez, who first saw Hester in a Cambridge coffee house when Baez, a 17-year old art student at Boston University, came over to try a few songs when Hester appeared. Baez had signed with Vanguard, Columbia’s competitor. Hester gave Bob Dylan, then an unknown, a job of playing harmonica on her first Columbia record; this led to Hammond signing the poet troubadour to a killer contract.
Cult status went to Hester’s first husband, Richard Farina, who had dropped Hester to take up with Joan Baez’ 16-year old sister, Mimi. Farina made his mark with his untimely death in ‘66 in a motorcycle accident just as Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Up To Me was published. Hester had typed the first early drafts of the manuscript, before the marriage broke up in ‘63. Farina’s book would go on to be a dorm room favorite. Check out that cover – this image was as common in a 60’s dorm as the wall poster of Brando on The Wild Ones motorcycle. The personalities and celebrity that surrounded these 60’s icons became the subject of a terrific book by author David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña.
After Hester’s divorce from Farina, fashion favored Farina’s next wife, who would be soon a widow and always a sister to the very important Joan Baez. Lots of phone calls stopped it seemed. Music fashions changed quickly in the 60’s, to say the least. Who could keep up? All pop singers, Elvis particularly, had trouble keeping up with the wave of music energy that Elvis unleashed in ‘56, and the Beatles pushed into orbit in ‘63. Many lost their way, some their minds, some their lives.
I witnessed this pop arch as a fan, becoming a pal of John Hammond’s son, Jason, at a summer school in ’62. Jason helped illuminate this world for me. Later while attending another school in Newport in ‘63, I saw Dylan’s first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. This was all the cool inside to Quillnews, as I fancied my tastes were quite edgy and full of the with-it cultural assurance that accompanies a fan whose been to the ball park for a few seasons, including nights at Leo’s Casino in Cleveland to see the day’s great R&B acts. By that point, pop was electric. Dylan went electric in ’65, causing near fist fights back stage at the purist Newport venue, where Seegar tried to unplug Dylan's gear, and Lomax attacked the rocker's manager. But the folk fashion had changed. Dylan was now a folk, rock and pop obsession, such that when he was nearly killed in a motorcycle wreck in ’66, he retreated to his farm in upstate Woodstock and became a recluse. By ’66, I was in Boston, attending concerts regularly – among them, The Who, Led Zeplin, The Jefferson Airplane.
In the summer of ’67, I was working in summer stock backstage at the Woodstock Playhouse. On the nights when actors were given the night off, the producers invited music acts of the day to perform. It was here that I witnessed first hand the cruel hand of fashion. One of the performers that summer evening as Carolyn Hester, who was trying to resurrect a musical career that had hit a very cold patch. Unlike her earlier mode of acoustic guitars and folk lyrics, Hester appeared with an electric guitar and rock band. Only a few score people were in the audience to witness this ’67 performance in Woodstock, which though completely professional seemed un-hip, off-market and ill-timed. This was two years before Woodstock became the center of the rock universe in ’69; the year Hester gave up regular performances, got married and moved to Los Angeles.
Today she is proud of her two adult children and the family life she has led with her long time husband, a musician and writer who earned his living as a copy editor from The Los Angeles Times. Hester’s music, including from her Town Hall performance, is still available. And she is still singing. The eye of fashion may have looked elsewhere, yet Hester lived a full and productive life. She is remembered well, if also as a cautionary story to any who might desire the spotlight too much. All would be lucky to have lived the life Hester has made. She continues to perform from time to time and, as this profile in the WP explains, can be assured she is remembered as a vocal artist of accomplishment, grace and endurance.