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The Ballad Of Carolyn Hester

"Carolyn was a contender, no doubt about it," the late folk and blues singer Dave Van Ronk told journalist David Hajdu, author of "Positively 4th Street," a few years back. "Beauty, talent, charm -- she had it all."

"She was a huge star at the time in Texas," says Grammy-winning contemporary folk-country artist Nanci Griffith, a longtime admirer who stood in line for Hester's autograph in Austin around 1963 or 1964. "I've always been in awe of her."


Carolyn Hester and husband David Blume last week in Cambridge: After the near-glory years, she's back on the road. (Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)

What happened?

The answer is complicated, as these things tend to be in real life as opposed to legend. But a plot element to watch is another classic: the showbiz marriage gone wrong.

Hester was born in Waco, Tex., in 1937. Her parents moved to Washington to work for the government in 1939 -- she wore her little white boots on the train ride and remembers making snowmen on the Library of Congress lawn. But by the time she was in high school the family was in Dallas, which is where her musical life began.

She got a church choir scholarship that paid for voice lessons. Her father bought her a Sears guitar that made her fingers bleed. A teacher loaned her an album by a folk singer named Susan Reed; having a female role model fueled her ambition. When she graduated from high school, she turned down a college scholarship and headed east.

Her mother did her best to lure her home. She sent a postcard to Norman Petty, Buddy Holly's producer, who had a recording studio in the Southwest. This led to Hester's first album and a connection with Holly himself, but it didn't keep her away from New York.

She was starting to perform in Greenwich Village. Van Ronk saw her first at Gerdes Folk City -- a lovely brunette with a three-octave range. "My God, she tore the place apart," he said.

Before long she was venturing out of town. In Washington, she played the old Showboat Lounge. In Boston, a folk revival hotbed, Joan Baez came to hear her. The younger singer was "maybe 17," Hester recalls, and just beginning to be known. After the show, at Baez's request, the two sang "Virgin Mary Had One Son" together.

Back in New York, New York Times critic Robert Shelton asked Hester out to dinner. During the course of the evening, Hajdu reports, he introduced her to "a lean, dark fellow with longish black hair and a fiery glare." This was the Irish Cuban charmer Richard Farina, an advertising copywriter and would-be novelist, who said he'd come to see her next time she played in town.

He did.

Eighteen days later, they got married.

She sang "Once I Had a Sweetheart" at the reception.

More than four decades after that -- after Farina dropped her for Baez's sister Mimi; after Richard and Mimi became a well-known folk singing duo; after he finished a novel called "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me"; after he died in a motorcycle accident while celebrating its 1966 publication; and after Mimi died of cancer in 2001 -- Hester still sounds a bit startled by the force of nature who blew so suddenly in and out of her life at such a critical time.


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