Jan. 29, 2008
The Byrd has flown full circle. Roger McGuinn, co-founder and leader
of the Byrds, perhaps the premier American rock band of the
mid-1960s, has returned to his folk music roots.
McGuinn explains it this way in a recent phone interview: "I was
listening to a Smithsonian-Folkways album of Woody Guthrie material.
And I thought, 'Wow. This is great stuff, and I'm not hearing any of
this old folk music anymore.' So I thought a good way to keep the old
songs going would be to pop them up on the Internet."
In 1995, McGuinn founded a Web site called Folk Den (www.folkden.com).
"I put up the chords and the lyrics and a little story about the song
and maybe a picture," McGuinn says. "I figured I could spare enough
time in my life to put up one song every month. And so I did that,
and on the 10th anniversary of it, we decided to commemorate it with
a 100-song, four-CD set 'The Folk Den Project.' And I've continued
to put one (song) up every month."
(A 2001 release, "Treasures From the Folk Den," brought together 18
songs McGuinn had performed with such notable folk musicians as Pete
Seeger, Judy Collins, Tommy Makem, Joan Baez, Jean Ritchie and Odetta.)
Still, McGuinn, now 65, hasn't turned his back on his many flights
with the Byrds, nor have his fans forgotten the band that was
inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 after placing a
rock beat and electric instrumentation on such Bob Dylan-penned tunes
as "Mr. Tambourine Man," folk material like "Turn, Turn, Turn" and on
their original songs, such as "Eight Miles High" and "So You Want To
Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star."
McGuinn's recent solo concerts have melded songs from the Byrds with
songs from his early solo career, as well as from the folk music canon.
McGuinn sums up the keys to the Byrds' success as "the combination of
folk and rock, giving a little more meaning to rock 'n' roll, a
little more depth, and the vocal sound that (Dave Crosby) and I had,
and the Rickenbacker" the electric 12-string guitar McGuinn played.
Bob Keller, longtime DJ on KSEG-FM in Sacramento, Calif., points out
McGuinn and the Byrds' influence on rockers who came later.
"The way McGuinn plays that Rickenbacker, that jingly-jangly thing,
from that sprang Tom Petty, The Edge from U2, all these guys doing
this ringing guitar thing," Keller says. "And the first time I ever
heard that (sound) was when McGuinn was doing it."
McGuinn first started playing an acoustic 12-string guitar, along
with a six-string guitar and a five-string banjo, in the late 1950s
when he was a high school student in Chicago and one of his teachers
brought folk singer Bob Gibson to class.
"He blew me away," McGuinn remembers. "He brought his five-string
banjo, and he was so good at it he did all this intricate picking
and told great stories, and the melodies of the songs were
captivating. This was before the big folk boom, and while I had heard
Burl Ives and the Weavers on the radio, I had never really listened
to folk music before."
His teacher steered the young McGuinn to Chicago's newly opened Old
Town School of Folk Music, where he studied banjo and guitar and
learned some of the old standards, like "Old Paint," "Delia's Gone"
and "Mighty Day," which he much later went on to record for the Folk Den.
When McGuinn was 17, he started hanging out at the Chicago folk
nightclub the Gate of Horn. One day, he wandered in with his banjo
and guitar and found Glenn Yarbrough and Alex Hassilev of the
Limeliters jamming with actor and folk singer Theodore Bikel. They
asked him to join in, liked his playing, invited him to an audition,
and a few months later, flew the teenager to Los Angeles for an RCA
recording session and a live concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
McGuinn later played with the Chad Mitchell Trio, Hoyt Axton, the
Irish Rovers and Judy Collins, but it was pop singer Bobby Darin, who
in 1963 hired him as a backing musician and songwriter, who persuaded
McGuinn to not only attempt a solo career but to switch to rock 'n' roll.
"It was something that kind of evolved from working with Bobby Darin
and then hearing the Beatles and the folk music chord changes they
were using," McGuinn says. "I was really inspired by the Beatles, so
I started taking old folk songs and putting a Beatle beat on them
rocking them up."
While performing solo in his new style in L.A., McGuinn met fellow
folkies Gene Clark and David Crosby, and they decided to form an
electrified folk-rock band, adding bassist Chris Hillman and drummer
Mike Clarke to what became the Byrds.
At about the same time, McGuinn discovered the electric 12-string,
also the result of his admiration of the Beatles.
"We saw 'A Hard Day's Night' and took note of the instruments. And
(the Rickenbacker) was one of them. (George Harrison played it on the
song 'If I Fell.') I loved the sound of it. I had been playing an
acoustic Gibson 12-string that had a pickup on it, but it was too
fat-sounding. It didn't have that jingle-jangle sound. So we went
shopping for one in L.A. It wasn't the exact model George had played,
but it was a Rickenbacker 12-string."
Signed by Columbia Records in January 1965, the group's manager, Jim
Dickson, who was a friend of Dylan, played a tape of an
as-yet-unreleased acoustic Dylan song, "Mr. Tambourine Man," for the
new band. The Byrds quickly recorded it with McGuinn singing lead,
Crosby and Clark harmonizing, and McGuinn playing his new electric
12-string backed by studio musicians.
Columbia didn't release the song until June 5, 1965. Three weeks
later, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. (After the "Mr.
Tambourine Man" recording session, the members of the Byrds all
played their own instruments on subsequent recordings.)
According to McGuinn, Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, wanted to
stop the song's release "but it was climbing up the charts too fast."
In any event, McGuinn says, Dylan liked the Byrds' interpretations of
his songs. Dylan is featured in a photograph with the band on the
back cover of their debut "Mr. Tambourine Man" album. And, McGuinn
remembers, "Even before we recorded for Columbia, (Dylan) and Bobby
Neuwirth came to our rehearsals at World Pacific Studios (in Los
Angeles), and they kind of gave us their approval. They listened to
our stuff and they liked it."
That's why it was a surprise to hear Dylan, 40 years later, in Martin
Scorsese's 2005 documentary "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," sneering
at "these jingly-jangly songs that are supposed to have something to
do with me. I didn't really like that sound folk rock, whatever
that was I didn't think it had anything to do with me."
When read that quote, McGuinn responds, "Oh, well. I think that's
just what he said at that moment, because he did like it back in '65.
He told us he did. We were his boys. Maybe he just forgot how much he
liked it at the time."
In any case, the Byrds went on to record many more Dylan songs, and
McGuinn appeared on Dylan's 1973 soundtrack album to the movie "Pat
Garrett and Billy the Kid," which included "Knockin' on Heaven's
Door." He was a featured performer in Dylan's mid-'70s Rolling
Thunder Revue and has performed with Dylan over the years on tours
and special concerts.
But if Dylan's reception in the '60s to the Byrds' folk rock was
positive, the folk music establishment had a decidedly different
reaction, viewing the Byrds and others as little more than barbarians
at the gate. There was even an editorial in Sing Out! magazine,
America's leading folk music publication, entitled "Folk Rot."
"Yeah, I remember that," McGuinn says. "That was by Tom Paxton." By
the end of the 1960s, purist folk singer Paxton also was using rock
instruments on his recordings.
From the vantage point of today, McGuinn attributes the folk
establishment's attitude to "a kind of snobbishness."
"The politics of folk was left-wing, and rock 'n' roll was seen as
frivolous, kid stuff and meaningless." But eventually, "they finally
got on board with it."
Beyond folk rock, the Byrds deserve credit for popularizing what
became known as "country rock" they recorded "Satisfied Mind" in
1965 and McGuinn's "Mr. Spaceman" in '66 before going whole hog on
the countrified 1968 album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."
In addition, writes Richie Unterberger in his book "Eight Miles High:
Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock," the Byrds "were
so far ahead of the curve that they were playing music that had yet
to be named. It was psychedelic rock."
Unterberger is referring in particular to the song "Eight Miles High"
from the Byrds' 1966 "Fifth Dimension" album, in which McGuinn's
electric 12-string blended Indian-style ragas with John
Coltrane-influenced modal jazz to create a Space Age sound in the
service of a lyric about air travel, visiting England for the first
time and (what was popularly believed) psychedelic drugs.
Despite their musical impact, the Byrds did not last long as a group.
Clark, who had a fear of flying, left the band in 1966. (According to
McGuinn's "Byrds FAQ" on his Web site (http://mcguinn.com), he told
Clark, "You can't be a Byrd, Gene, if you can't fly.")
Crosby left the next year to work with Stephen Stills and eventually
form Crosby, Stills & Nash, while Clarke and Hillman departed in 1968
Clarke to join Dillard & Clark and Hillman to found the Flying
McGuinn carried on as the Byrds with new musicians until 1973, when
he embarked on his solo career save for a few reunions over the
years with his former Byrdmates.
McGuinn says he's enjoyed going solo.
"When I first went from a band situation to a solo situation," he
says, "it was quite an adjustment to make. But after having done it
for a number of years, it really feels good out there."
And he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
"My inspiration is Andres Segovia (the Spanish guitarist), who was 93
when he died, and he was booked into Carnegie Hall," McGuinn says.
"That's pretty cool. So if I can play well enough that I can still
work, I plan to do that. I want to go until I drop dead."