Bread & Roses


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Bread & Roses


Mimi Fariña sits tethered to the telephone in her comfortably cluttered office in downtown Mill Valley, California. Much of her summer is being spent lining up talent for the Third Annual Bread & Roses Festival of Acoustic Music, to be held this October at Berkeley’s Greek Theater.

“Benefit concerts are fast money,” she notes succinctly. “Foundation grants are slow, steady money.”

As executive director and guiding light of Bread & Roses, a nonprofit organization which brings free live entertainment into hospitals, prisons, and other institutions, Fariña must be hardheadedly aware of the financial facts of life. Now in its sixth year, Bread & Roses stages some 30 to 40 institutional shows a month, its operating funds drawn from grants, private contributions, and benefit performances.

But Fariña never loses sight of the organization’s raison d’être: to reach out to people who are institutionalized and therefore deprived of the nourishing human contact that the performing arts can provide.

“Bread & Roses was actually a result of my negative response to the music industry,” Mimi explains. “It’s interesting to see the current energy crisis put ting a big crunch on the industry once again, as it did in 1974. At that time I was working on my first solo album. All of a sudden there was a withdrawal of interest in its progress. I felt I’d been misled. I was confused and hurt, and ended up leaving the music scene.”

The music industry left such a bad taste in her mouth that, for a time, Fariña considered giving up her art altogether. But then she went along with the suggestion of a social worker cousin that she make use of her talents by performing at his halfway house.

“The visit was depressing,” Mimi recalls, “but it revealed a great need, and made me think about the potential value of performing in places like this. Music is powerful; it can relieve pain and inspire. The things that music had once meant to me were beginning to come to life.

“It took me about a year to formulate an idea. Then, one day at the end of a tour, I was sitting alone in my living room, my life in front of me once again, no planes to catch, no gigs to make. I found myself picking up the telephone and calling some institutions and saying, ‘Hi, I’m an entertainer. Would you like to have some free entertainment at your hospital?’

“In the beginning I had no big plan. The idea seemed to grow on its own. Now I feel as though there is a small community that’s been built around a concept which was mine, and that really gives me a sense of pride. It was that sense of pride and identity which was lacking when I was trying to ‘make it’ in the music industry.”

The organization’s name, incidentally, is taken from a 1912 poem by James Oppenheim: “Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes/ Hearts starve as well as bodies/ Give us bread, but give us roses.”

Bread & Roses is a collective: new ideas are discussed and decisions reached at weekly staff meetings. The 13-member board of directors meets monthly; their organizational and community experience is an important asset to the ongoing activities of Bread & Roses. There is a staff of five: “Judy Underhill is office coordinator, and our accountant is Eric Lyckfors, a senior citizen who worked at Levi Strauss for 20 years.” Jeanne Bogardus, Tom Lapinski, and Peter Merts serve as events coordinators, conducting auditions, booking shows, and “hosting” the actual performances.

The events coordinators have to tell our performers not to worry if there’s not a big audience response,” Fariña points out. “Sometimes the patients are sedated, or just out of touch, and in a prison situation, hostilities may run high. All of this has to be taken into account.

“Last fall the Persuasions were performing at a convalescent home. The audience seemed catatonic, just sitting there. The Persuasions were clapping and dancing up close to them, singing ‘My Yiddishe Momme’! At one point, Jerry Lawson asked a woman who wasn’t in a wheelchair to dance. She did and it was a high point of the day.”

Bread & Roses sees itself as an instrument for social change, in the sense of planting seeds and spreading the feeling that people have to grow to take care of one another. “We don’t provoke radical steps to tear down the prison walls,” Mimi insists, though one prisoner wrote that “the walls of San Quentin crumbled” during a concert given at that infamous institution.

“One of the things that strikes me most about the prison shows,” remarks Fariña, “is the realization that each of us has the potential of being an unlucky one. Jon Hendricks put it very well: all of us share the universal fear of being locked up. We’re all prisoners of this planet, and we instinctively comprehend what that means. We hear about our brother being locked up in a small cell, or lying in a hospital bed, and something in us can identify with that very easily.

“Many entertainers avoid public political affiliations because of the complexities involved. You never know how it might affect your career. But what we’re doing with Bread & Roses is a simple concept to grasp, without ulterior motives, and I think that explains why so many ‘big names’ have been willing and eager to do benefits for us.”

George Carlin was the first major name to contribute his time and talent to Bread & Roses fundraising; countless others have followed. Lily Tomlin, Bonnie Raitt, and Robin Williams have all headlined concerts, while Santana and Joan Baez (Mimi’s sister) performed at a highly publicized 1977 show at California’s Soledad prison.

The first Bread & Roses Festival, held in October 1977, established a happy precedent of artistic excellence as well as financial success. Bread & Roses, a two-record set containing highlights from that Festival, has just been released by Fantasy Records. The album provides a fascinating musical experience that honors each performer and delights the listener. Featured artists (in alphabetical order) are: Hoyt Axton, Joan Baez, Boys of the Lough, Jackson Browne, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, the John Herald Band, Dan Hicks, David Lindley, Country Joe McDonald, Maria Muldaur, Mickey Newbury, Tom Paxton, the Persuasions, Malvina Reynolds, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk, and Jesse Colin Young.

“Human dignity does exist, and I’m determined to make use of it!” Mimi laughs. “There is music that is more civilized than what loud rock and roll has come to represent. There are people who enjoy listening to lyrics, who can respond cerebrally as well as viscerally, and who are receptive simply to a voice and a guitar. This first Festival proved that that is absolutely true.”

This year’s Bread & Roses Festival will be produced solely by the staff. The lineup includes David Crosby, John Hammond, Graham Nash, Flora Purim and Airto, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, the Roches, Chick Corea, the Chambers Brothers, Leah Kunkel, and the New Generation Singers (a 50-voice gospel choir from Oakland). Among the performers last year were David Bromberg, Odetta, and Kenny Rankin. Before his closing set, Stephen Stills prvided acoustic bass accompaniment for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joni Mitchell, with Herbie Hancock, debuted her Mingus material. (Mitchell, Hancock, and Tony Williams also contributed their ’79 Berkeley Jazz Festival income to Bread & Roses.)

Mimi herself has not turned her back on performing: for the last five years she has successfully toured with Gordon Lightfoot, both in the States and Europe, and has recently begun vocal lessons, “to see if there’s a way I can derive more pleasure from performance.”

But Bread & Roses continues to occupy most of her time. “Since we started, people have wanted us to go nationwide,” she says. “My concept is to stay small so that we are in touch with one another and the community. We have printed a handbook on how to form an organization like Bread & Roses, and several have sprung up around the country. The first was in Stockton—it’s called Sunflower. There’s one in San Francisco, called Comity, and two on the East Coast—Goodworks Music in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and Rainbow’s End in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I very much want the idea to spread—internationally too. The need certainly exists.”

Meanwhile, Bread & Roses continues to plant seeds in Marin County. The effectiveness of their work can often be measured in small ways, such as one prisoner’s letter: “I hope someday to reach out and help others as you have, and give a little love to others.”

Mimi Fariña died July 18, 2001.