Thursday August 11, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON -- One day during her time as a student at Amherst's Hampshire College, Caroline Doctorow happened upon an unexpected houseguest when she returned to her parents' home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

"I came home one day and Pete Seeger was sitting in our living room," Doctorow recalled during a telephone interview from her home on Long Island.

The legendary folk singer and activist, who lived a bit further up the Hudson River, was on hand for a union-organizing meeting, she said.

"That was very magical for our whole family. Even my parents were star-struck -- and I had never really witnessed my parents being star-struck before."

Doctorow will celebrate the body of work of a similarly minded, folk-influenced songwriting duo when she performs songs from the catalog of Mimi and Richard Fariña at the Guthrie Center on Saturday night.

Though the magnitude of Seeger's influence was more intense than that of the usual houseguest, his presence was not altogether unprecedented. Caroline's father, the noted academic and novelist E.L. Doctorow, worked with folk luminary Joan Baez on her autobiography, "Daybreak," published in 1968. She was occasionally at the house, and she taught the young Doctorow a few of her first chords on the acoustic guitar.

"She was a very exciting person to be around," Doctorow said, perhaps with bit of understatement.


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"And so I became an even bigger fan of her music than I already had been."

It was a natural jump to the work of Baez's sister, Mimi Fariña, who recorded a pair of influential albums in the mid-1960s with her husband, Richard, before Richard's 1966 death in a motorcycle crash. Richard died only days after the publication of his novel, "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me," and has remained as a somewhat enigmatic but enduringly charismatic figure, somewhere between cult favorite and important footnote.

The work of Mimi and Richard Fariña was firmly rooted in the tradition of English-Scottish folk balladry, with classically inspired vocal harmonies and the rippling sound of the dulcimer adding a bit of an otherworldly quality.

Doctorow celebrated their work with the 2008 album "Another Country," the first album-length interpretation of the Fariña catalog. With guest spots from the likes of Nanci Griffith and John Sebastian, the record pays due respect to the influential work of the Fariñas but reflects Doctorow's own blend of country, bluegrass and Americana, as displayed across the seven albums to her credit.

For Saturday's show, Doctorow will have her backup trio, the Steamrollers, in tow: bass, fiddle and electric guitar or electric sitar.

She made her Guthrie Center debut last summer with a program of Fariña material, and although she's recorded another album of original material since the release of "Another Country," she's been called back for an encore performance.

Last year's wasn't a tribute show -- "it wasn't about sounding just like Richard and Mimi Fariña," said Guthrie Center director George Laye. "It was their interpretation of the art of Richard and Mimi Fariña, and it worked so well. That's an important thing. You can see Elvis and Beatles impersonators, and that's all well and good -- it keeps the music alive. But this was a fresh rendering of the art, and I thought that was just wonderful."

After being bitten by the folk music bug at an early age, Doctorow pursued the lifestyle with vigor. As a teenager she began riding Greyhound busses up and down the east coast to attend and perform at folk music festivals, though she remembers feeling "overwhelmed" by the amount of talent on display and the sense of connectedness among performers and audience members.

The work of the Fariñas always stood out for Doctorow, and it was after Mimi's death in 2001 that she revisited the catalog and found herself freshly moved by the work of the couple.

"The songs all have a classic sound to them. None of them is staged in a way that they deteriorate," Doctorow says. "When you listen to the Beach Boys, you might enjoy it in a nostalgic way -- it sounds of a certain time in a certain way. But Bob Dylan and Richard Fariña somehow chose language so that the cultural setting of their songs doesn't age."

Doctorow is no longer touring heavily with the "Another Country" material, so Saturday's show is a bit of a treat, based on the success of last year's outing.

Laye acknowledges a bit of a self-interested motivation in the booking.

"It was so wonderful, there was nothing I could do except bring her back -- if for no reason other than so I could hear it again myself," he said, breaking into an enthusiastic chuckle.

What: Caroline Doctorow sings Mimi and Richard Fariña

Where: Guthrie Center,
4 Van Deusenville Road,
Great Barrington

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Admission: $12 for members and $15 for non-members

Information: (413) 528-1955, www.guthriecenter.org