Album Review: Mimi Fariña, ‘Mimi Fariña with Lowell Levinger (Banana from The Youngbloods) Live in Germany’

When Mimi Fariña died 20 years ago—July 18, 2001—the world lost not only a troubadour whose clear, lilting vocals moved us but an artist whose compassion and love shaped her vision of social justice. Fariña’s presence on the folk scene in New York City in the early 1960s is well known: she married Richard Farina in 1963, and the two released two memorable albums, Celebrations for a Grey Day (1965) and Reflections in a Crystal Wind (1966). The Fariñas’ songs looked deeply into the world around them—the lines on the faces of old men and women, the intricate beauties of city life—and it was Mimi’s ethereal voice that floated through them with a spiritual and emotional clarity that set them apart. After Richard died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, when Mimi was 21, she continued to grow as a songwriter and singer and activist. In 1974, Fariña founded Bread and Roses—now known as Bread and Roses Presents—an nonprofit organization devoted to bringing live music to children, adults, and seniors isolated in institutional settings such as day care centers, senior convalescent homes, and adult and juvenile detention centers. Twenty years after Fariña’s death, Bread and Roses continues to bring hope and joy into countless lives, and the organization flourishes with in the strong spirit in which Fariña founded it.

Between the mid-1970s and her death in 2001, Mimi Fariña sang at numerous protests, worked tirelessly at Bread and Roses, played folk festivals, and released her last studio album in 1986, Mimi Fariña Solo. In 1988, she and her long-time friend Lowell (Banana) Levinger performed several shows at small clubs and in at least one prison in Germany at the invitation of producer and radio broadcaster Michael Kleff, who first met Fariña when he interviewed her at the 1985 Newport Folk Festival for his radio show on WDR/West German Broadcasting Corporation. When Kleff commented that she should come to Europe for a tour, Fariña said she would love to do so; two years later, Kleff organized such a tour for her and Levinger, and the duo played a successful thirteen dates over a two-week period in February 1988. On the night of February 7, 1988, Kleff recorded the WDR radio performance at the Landesmuseum in Bochum, and he and Levinger produced this album, Mimi Fariña with Lowell Levinger (Banana from The Youngbloods) Live in Germany, which was released in 2018.

The album is a perfect tribute to Fariña and her enduring contributions as a songwriter and singer, and the 15 songs on the album—most of them Fariña originals, but with some covers of songs by Jesse Winchester, Hoyt Axton, and David Olney, among others—convey the ringing clarity and richness of her voice, as well as her remarkable ability to deliver performances that reach deep into our hearts as she sings of loss and despair, joy and hope, grace and love. The album opens with “Best of Friends,” a spare song whose cascading piano notes float beneath Fariña’s lilting vocals; there’s a resonant purity in the song that echoes down through the ages in its paean to a friendship that lasts through the exhilarating highs and sometimes bitter lows of life. In some ways, this one song flawlessly captures the intimacy of folk songs at their best. She introduces her performance of Richard’s classic “Children of Darkness” by saying “it’s still relevant 20 years later.” Her alto vocals carry this ballad, which resembles a Scottish folk ballad, higher and higher as she conveys darkness and pleads for love in the verses of the song. Fariña radiates brightness as she spryly skates through Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” while the folk jazz of “Dandelion” bears a resemblance to Laura Nyro’s late songs. In her introduction to “Old Women,” Fariña provides the story of Bread and Roses before she launches into a portrait of a care-worn woman in whose life drift “happiness and despair.” “Come Get Me Shoes” sparkles with Levinger’s Flamenco guitar as it dances through a tango between lover and beloved, while her take on Hoyt Axton’s “Less Than the Song” jauntily rides along Levinger’s silvery banjo. She introduces “Sad Cities” by saying she wrote after she had been in New York City a little too long—“about one week”—but the bright song finds the joy in the loneliness of the city, while her spiraling take on David Olney’s “If My Eyes Were Blind” climbs steadily out of the darkness into the fervid atmosphere that celebrates what’s left behind after loss and our ability to see beyond the veil. The album closes with a singalong on Jesse Winchester’s “Defying Gravity.”

Mimi Fariña with Lowell Levinger (Banana from The Youngbloods) Live in Germany conveys the intimacy of Fariña’s and Levinger’s performance from that night in 1988, and we can be grateful to Kleff and Levinger for capturing it on tape and releasing it. The album is a gift to us of Mimi Fariña’s presence and helps us celebrate her beautiful legacy and life.


Mimi Fariña with Lowell Levinger (Banana from The Youngbloods) Live in Germany  is available HERE.

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