This Byrd has landed

Folk music reclaims Roger McGuinn

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

29 January 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.”

McGuinn’s album picks We asked Roger McGuinn: “What five recordings by the Byrds or from your solo career would you recommend?” Here are the ones he picked, plus one more: “Younger Than Yesterday” (The Byrds): Released in 1967, this album has the requisite Bob Dylan cover (“My Back Pages”) but also marks McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman’s continual growth as songwriters, including on such songs as “So You Want To Be a Rock `N’ Roll Star,” “Have You Seen Her Face” and “Renaissance Fair.” “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” (The Byrds): Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke both quit the group before this album was released in January 1968, but it remains one of the band’s most adventurous, with McGuinn becoming one of the first rock musicians to use a Moog synthesizer (on “Space Odyssey” and “Natural Harmony,” among other tunes) and featuring such superior songs as “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” “Goin’ Back” and the anti-war “Draft Morning.” “Cardiff Rose” (Solo): Produced by McGuinn’s Rolling Thunder Revue bandmate Mick Ronson and featuring backing musicians from the Revue, this 1976 album includes some fine originals by McGuinn (“Jolly Roger,” “Take Me Away,” “Partners in Crime”), the traditional (“Pretty Polly”), and songs by Dylan (“Up to Me”) and Joni Mitchell (“Dreamland”). “Back From Rio” (Solo): This excellent album from 1991, whose origin dates back to a 1987 European tour that McGuinn took with Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, was made with the assistance of Petty, Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Elvis Costello, and ex-Byrds Hillman and Crosby on such strong songs as “King of the Hill,” “You Bowed Down” and “If We Never Meet Again.” “The Folk Den Project” (Solo): An excellent introduction to folk music in general and McGuinn’s return to folk specifically, this four-CD set includes 100 songs from the American, British and Irish folk canon, with informative liner notes on each selection by McGuinn. And, although not on McGuinn’s list of five, let’s add the Byrds’ “There Is a Season,” a four-CD boxed set released in 2006 that includes all of the band’s hits and many of its major efforts, some previously unissued studio tracks and live recordings - plus a bonus DVD of live performances from 1965-67. McGuinn says that this edition “has superior sound to the first Byrds boxed set.”

In 1995, McGuinn founded a Web site called Folk Den.

“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 Burrito Brothers.

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.”

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