Dylan’s Violinist Loves Life in Topanga

Scarlet Rivera and Bob Dylan. Photo courtesy of Scarlet Rivera

Scarlet Rivera, who played those iconic violin parts on Bob Dylan’s albums, finds life, love and peace in Topanga. 

In Studio E of the Columbia Records Building in New York City during a hot week in July, 1975, Bob Dylan gathered more than 21 musicians to record his newest album, Desire. Some of those gathered were seasoned session musicians and some were newcomers.

One of the newcomers was a 23-year-old violinist, Scarlet Rivera, whom Dylan had discovered walking across the street with a violin strapped to her back in New York’s Lower East Side.

During the recording sessions and also during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue throughout the United States and Canada, it was often Rivera’s violin that broke through, creating a sensation.

Indeed, when Dylan plays harmonica at the end of “Hurricane,” he is perfectly matched by Rivera’s soaring violin and together, they elevated the song to cult status.

Rivera’s violin also sweetened up “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Romance in Durango,” with a sound and sensibility that lent an essential female element to Dylan’s sad, romantic songs.

The recording sessions of Desire is now the stuff of legend—a ‘70s party scene that took over several studios at the Columbia Records building in New York City.

Patrick Doyle of Rolling Stone wrote in a January 2016 article regarding the 40th anniversary of Desire: “During recording, Dylan kept several studios going at once, filled with musicians (including Dave Mason and Eric Clapton) and non-musicians. Says bassist Rob Stoner, “They had opened up all the adjacent studios to accommodate all these hangers-on and buffet tables. It was just like a huge party. And it wasn’t conducive to getting any work done.”

According to Doyle, eventually, the rooms were cleared and a core group cut the entire album over two long nights. “There was just a level of excitement,” says Stoner. “Sessions were called for 7 p.m., and we only stopped at seven in the morning because that’s when they tow your car on that street. We didn’t want to lose the vibe. No drinking, no drugs, no nothing. It was pure adrenaline.”

And Scarlet Rivera, the slender raven-haired beauty, was right at the heart of it all, lending her classical training to a group of outstanding musicians who made history. She is heavily featured on a film of the event, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese that is currently running on Netflix.

DISCOVERED ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE

Rivera was born Donna Shea in Joliet, Illinois, and was privately trained in classical violin from first grade until she attended college on a violin scholarship to Southern Illinois University, where she majored in music, art and literature. 

After college, her life could have gone so many ways, but she moved to New York and set about reinventing herself as an artist and musician.  

“I changed my name because Scarlet is who I am and Donna is who I am not,” she explained. “I had a magical epiphany that I knew my name should be Scarlet about a month before meeting Dylan. I had a very reflective moment about who I was, and the name change was something essential I needed to do, to take ownership of who I was and who I was going to become. The name came from the Poppy flower—silky crimson on the outside but dark and mysterious on the inside.”

It was at that time Rivera was spotted by Dylan from his car as she walked across the street in the Lower East Side at 13th St. and First Avenue. 

“I was going to a basement rehearsal, experimenting with a lot of different things and people at the time. Before I met Dylan, I was in a Fusion band called Mammoth in New York,” she said. “It was a one in a billion chance that he would have spotted me going across the street; a simple twist of fate, destiny.

“It was a great honor to be chosen by Bob Dylan to represent the sound of Desire because of how my sound and style blended so perfectly with his sound. However, I had to pass many tests along the way, not only of musicianship, but tests of character. He didn’t just want to know how good I played, but he also wanted to know who I was inside and out.”

After a session with her, Dylan invited Rivera to play on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour through the United States and Canada for a year, from 1975-76.

THE ROLLING THUNDER REVUE

Being so young, Rivera said she was not part of the “party scene” surrounding Dylan but stayed true to her nature and classical music training, always focusing on the music.

“It was a magical experience with me and my connection with Bob Dylan,” she said. “It was an interaction directly with him; playing off of him, intently focused on him and in the recording studio for Desire, as well. Plus, I really enjoyed the time that Joni Mitchell was on the tour. Ultimately, Emmylou Harris sang on Desire, but not on the tour because she couldn’t get out of previous contracts.” 

On the tour and subsequent albums, Rivera said she didn’t have many musical challenges, just social ones.

“The challenges were fitting in with the band,” she said. “I was not very open even amongst the band members. I didn’t connect with them but had to pull that connection off live anyway. I was withdrawn but that was an actual asset and worked in my favor. I was focused on what I needed to do and be.”

Scorsese’s film also portrayed a huge social scene, a cult of Dylan, so to speak, but Rivera stayed above it all.

“I didn’t do any drugs on that tour, or drink. I was in a different world of my own,” she said. “But it wasn’t induced by anything. I was guided do the face-painting I did on the tour. I painted symbols meaningful to me, such as the butterfly, as a symbol of the artistic transformation I was experiencing. I believed it influenced Bob to incorporate the white face which he started doing soon afterward and personified his stage image for the rest of the tour.”

While Rivera didn’t get caught up in the drinking or drugs, musically speaking, she stuck close to Dylan and they played in perfect harmony.

“I was guided by a high level of inner guidance” she said. “I ended up being on Warner Bros., the same label as Emmylou Harris. Not many instrumentalists at any age get signed to a major label, especially between the ages of 23-24. I did two albums for Warner Bros.—Scarlet Rivera and Scarlet Fever.   

AFTER THE TOUR

Since the tour and playing on Dylan’s Hard Rain and additional multi-platinum albums, Rivera recorded multiple CDs as a composer in numerous styles including instrumental, New Age, Celtic, World Music, and toured the U.S., Europe, and Japan with her Celtic group.

She has also appeared on albums by Tracy Chapman (Crossroads), Keb Mo’ (The Door), Dee Dee Bridgewater (Just Family), David Johansen (Funky but Chic), Ian McNabb (Head Like a Rock), and Kori Carothers.

“In the ‘90s I recorded and toured with both Tracy Chapman in the U.S. and Europe and later got a call from the manager of The Indigo Girls and toured extensively with them. I greatly enjoyed their songs and working with them.” 

She toured Japan with the group Ritual and recorded a solo album, Celtic Dreams, which was released in Japan. Other solo albums include Journey with an Angel and Behind the Crimson Veil. She also played violin on the 2014 album, After the Fall, by UK-based Dodson and Fogg.   

“In the mid-‘80s I was a soloist with The Duke Ellington Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, performing “Black, Brown and Beige Suite,” a piece about racial integration, written in the 1940s,” she said.   

Rivera also performed at The Kennedy Center in Washington in a Tribute to Ray Nance and accompanied them to Venice, Italy, for the Carnival of Venice. In 2018, Rivera was a guest artist in the Los Angeles Music Center’s “JONI 75th Birthday Tribute” and celebration of Joni Mitchell featuring Graham Nash, James Taylor, Diana Krall, Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Seal and Brandi Carlisle. 

A CALL 2 PEACE

Currently living in Topanga, Rivera now plays violin with her band, A Call 2 Peace.

“I want to mention that each is a virtuoso musician,” she wrote. “Bass and founder, Eduardo Del Signore; Federico Ramos, guitar (featured guitarist in the Oscar-winning score for the movie Coco; Sonia Kazarova, internationally renowned opera singer; Ron Wagner, percussion for Cirque du Soleil.”  

We invite people to experience our unique World Music concerts and check our website, ACall2Peace.org.

Rivera also has an upcoming vocal debut, “Right Now,” produced by Tim Goodman. Scarlet’s singing debut is significant because all her previous solo albums have been instrumentals. 

“Two singles are going to be released within weeks,” Rivera said. “Lady Liberty” about the turbulent times in the United States, and “50-50,” a woman’s empowerment song.”  

In Topanga, Rivera also teaches violin in all styles, from Classical to fiddle. 

“I really love teaching,” she said. “I teach all styles: Classical, Celtic, Americana, Folk, some Bluegrass, Jazz, and Rock. My style of teaching supports building a foundation and making it fun. My goal is to broaden my students’ range and introduce them to more than one style. My young students at 7-years-old learned to play the ‘Swallowtail Jig,’ but I also teach adults with some foundation to those who’ve just picked up the violin for the first time. 

POLITICAL LIFE

For Rivera, it seems that the “one in a billion” chance of being discovered by Bob Dylan in New York was somehow meant to be, not only musically, but politically as well.   

“I was an activist waiting to be activated,” she wrote. “The first time I heard a Bob Dylan song was in high school. His lyrics confirmed the social consciousness I already had but needed to hear confirmation. I had no idea that in a few short years I would have the privilege of being one of the very few chosen to be in Dylan’s inner circle. From the beginning his integrity became a part of the fiber of who I was emerging to be as an artist.” 

TOPANGA LIFE

Currently, Rivera lives in Topanga near the State Park where she regularly communes with Nature. 

“I love living in Topanga; it is a sacred place, sacred land,” she said. “I love the wildlife…the mountain lions, coyotes, owls, snakes, hawks…I love the mist and fog, it’s a magical place. I’ve only been here a year, I looked and looked and looked, it took a long time to find the magical place I am in now. I love the newspaper, love the fact there are Nature Walks and people talk Online, people here celebrate the sighting of a mountain lion. I have a solo World Music album dedicated to animals, called Voice to the Animals.”

ANIMAL ACTIVISM

Rivera also speaks reverently about the consciousness of animals and about how we are not the most consciously aware beings on Earth.

“My opinion is that animals are always in a high state,” she said. “They are the most highly evolved beings on the planet.

“I would also like to use this platform to inform readers that wolves across the lower 48 states are at immediate risk in Congress of being stripped of their Endangered Species Act status and that wildlife lovers need to call and write Congress demanding upholding Federal protection. The current Administration is waging war on the environment and wildlife, and wolves are at risk of extinction if we do not act.”  

Rivera regularly puts her words into action, having volunteered with wild animals back East and currently in Los Angeles.

“My passion other than music is animals and wildlife and has been since childhood,” she wrote. “I have volunteered at native and exotic animal sanctuaries for many years in Upstate New York and the Wildlife Waystation in Los Angeles. I have worked with falcons and hawks and have my own glove made to my hand; walked a coyote, serval, handled snakes and reptiles and did educational outreach, bringing small native animals to schools.  

“I will always have a sense of awe, wonder and respect for the wondrous creatures that grace this planet.”

For more information on Rivera go to: www.scarletriveramusic.com

 

Poster from the film Rolling Thunder Review. Courtesy of Netflix

 

Annemarie Donkin
Annemarie Donkin

Annemarie Donkin is a journalist who wrote for The Signal in Valencia, CA and was the Managing Editor for the Topanga Messenger from 2013 to 2016. She is thrilled to write for the Messenger Mountain News to continue the tradition of excellent community newspapers. When she’s not writing, she loves to travel throughout California, read, watch movies and keep bees.

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