Mimi Farina; Folk Singer Staged Concerts for Inmates, the Ill


Mimi Farina, a folk singer who struggled in the shadow of her celebrated sister, Joan Baez, and then reinvented herself as a musical benefactor of the infirm and imprisoned, died Wednesday of complications related to lung cancer. She was 56.

Farina died at her home on Mt. Tamalpais in Mill Valley where she was surrounded by friends and family, including Baez. "She finally won her battle with cancer," Baez said in a statement.

Farina, born Mimi Margharita Baez in Palo Alto, saw her music career peak during her brief performance partnership with husband Richard Farina. The couple married in 1964 and had two albums, "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" and "Celebrations for a Grey Day," before he died in a motorcycle accident on his wife's 21st birthday in 1966.

Afterward, her artistic life strayed, and her defining labor would be an unexpected one--as founder of Bread and Roses, a Bay Area organization that brings live music into prisons, hospitals, shelters and other sites of institutionalized life.

The idea for Bread and Roses came to Farina in the early 1970s when she and her famous sister attended a B.B. King concert at Sing Sing Prison in New York. The show evoked a youthful memory: When Farina was in her early teens she saw her sister perform at a mental hospital. Farina watched in wonder as one near-catatonic woman began to hum along.

"It was an incredible moment. . . . It was probably the first time I saw the impact music could have on a person confined to an institution," she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1995.

Bread and Roses has grown from its original $19,000 budget to an annual operating budget of $1 million and a slate of 500 shows a year in the Bay Area. The Marin County group has now gone well beyond music, with comedians, jugglers and magic acts offered, and its model has also been widely copied across the country.

Thousands of musicians have donated performances to Bread and Roses, among them Paul Simon, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson and Van Morrison. Baez is among the frequent participants.

"Mimi filled empty souls with hope and song," Baez said Thursday. "She held the aged and forgotten in her light. She reminded prisoners that they were human beings with names and not just numbers."

Bread and Roses celebrated its 25th anniversary last year with a fund-raising concert in March featuring Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson and Baez. But by that point, the group's petite, high-energy founder hosted the show but had stepped aside from her leadership duties to battle with the cancer that had been diagnosed in late 1999.

Farina's odyssey as a musician began as a teen inside her family home in Belmont, Mass., as she sought to compete with her elder sister, who was already gaining fame in Cambridge coffeehouses. The rivalry was "like any other sibling relationship, only a little more intense," Farina told The Times in 1985. "I wanted recognition from my parents."

Farina was the third of three daughters, and her father, a physicist, traveled the world to teach and work. The family's vagabond ways made learning a challenge for the youngest member. As an adult, she realized she had also been grappling with dyslexia.

Farina found refuge in her violin lessons and dancing classes. She taught herself to play guitar and, like her sister, found a niche in the roiling folk revival scene in the late 1950s that found one of its hubs in Cambridge.

The family moved again, this time to Paris, where Farina finished her high school education in home school and also met a half-Cuban, half-Irish beatnik named Richard Farina, who would become her husband and partner in music. Their song "Pack Up Your Sorrows" would become a folk staple.

By their second album, "the pair began moving toward a richer, more personal sound--a fusion of poetry and atmospheric melody," according to the Rolling Stone Album Guide. The reference calls the folk tandem "a political as well as musical crusade" to awaken fans to social issues.

Richard Farina published a novel, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," and was riding home from his first book signing when he was killed in a crash.

The couple's romance and its place at the center of the burgeoning folk movement is mapped out in the recent book "Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina" by David Hajdu.

After her husband's death, Farina moved to San Francisco and joined The Committee, a popular satirical theater group. A romance with another singer, Tom Jans, took her back to music and yielded the low-key 1971 duet album "Mimi Farina and Tom Jans," but the relationship was short-lived.

Farina is survived by her parents, two sisters and her companion, Paul Liberatore of Mill Valley. A memorial is scheduled for Aug. 7 at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

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