Roger McGuinn’s career has been marked by numerous contradictions. One of the most influential figures in rock and roll history, he’s relatively unknown to a large portion of today’s rock audience. Though McGuinn—as leader of the Byrds—had as much impact on the shape of rock in its early days as any other legendary musician, he’s not as recognizable as, say, John Lennon or even Buddy Holly; heck, he isn’t even as well-known as many as his former bandmates, David Crosby or Gram Parsons. Likewise, his music is another contradiction; known as a musical pioneer who continually forged the sound of the future, he has always been rooted in the centuries-old tradition of folk. Even when he and the Byrds pioneered genres as diverse as country-rock and psychedelia, it was folk that served as the foundation of his music. The great innovator, it turns out, was always old-fashioned.
Therefore, it only makes sense that McGuinn’s current project combines two of his passions that seem, on the surface, incongruent: folk music and technology. McGuinn has always been a technology aficionado, and for the past decade (a little longer, actually), he has sought to preserve folk songs that span back across hundreds of years by enlisting the aid of the Internet. This, perhaps, is the greatest contradiction of his career. After all, as McGuinn is quick to point out himself, folk music originally served as a means of transporting news when the media was slow or nonexistent altogether; in essence, folk music was the media. To think that the modern world’s fastest, most innovative medium is being used to preserve a primitive medium that originated centuries ago is, well, slightly ironic.
And yet McGuinn’s website, titled the Folk Den, is nothing less than a marvel of history, folklore, sociology, and music. Together with his wife, Camilla, McGuinn has collected and recorded dozens of folks songs, posting one per month on the website. In a recent interview with PopMatters, McGuinn explained that “the idea [of the Folk Den] is to preserve the material” so that it won’t “get lost in the shuffle” of mainstream music. To help achieve that goal, McGuinn also includes the lyrics and chords of each song, as well as notes about the history of and/or his personal experience with the songs. For instance, referring to the traditional Irish song “Roddy McCorley,” he writes:
Roddy McCorley was a local leader in County Antrim in Ireland during the rebellion of 1798. After being captured by British Soldiers he was executed in the town of Toomebridge. The words of the song were written by Ethna Carberry who lived from 1866-1902. I first heard it performed by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at the Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago around 1961…
And this is why the Folk Den is priceless; not only is the site an impressive collection of music, it’s also an amazing reference. McGuinn has spent his entire life listening to and researching folk music, and his vast knowledge is dispersed throughout the Folk Den. Reading about and listening to the songs on the website is like sitting in the reference section of the library, except the reference section also has surround sound.
Thankfully, McGuinn and Camilla decided to compile and release 100 tracks from the Folk Den and release them on a four CD set titled The Folk Den Project: 1995-2005. Though you can download many of these songs from the website for free, the sound quality on the collection is much improved. Moreover, there’s nothing like an artifact that you can hold, flip through, and display, and since this compilation is also a reference source, owning it makes sense. Together with the website, The Folk Den Project: 1995-2005 provides amazing context on a genre that spans numerous countries and hundred of years.
And what amazing context: here you have everything from songs about outlaws (“Old Riley”) to natural disasters (“Mighty Day”) to patriotic duty (“America for Me”) to holidays (“The First Noel”) to historical events (“Follow the Drinking Gourd”) to just about every other topic that knits a culture together. More importantly, though, here you have McGuinn in his musical home, diligently playing the music that has always been his passion. And while Crosby and Parsons are given much of the credit for the Byrds success and mythology, these four discs show why McGuinn was the linchpin of the band: he can play anything with strings, and not just on a passing level. Throughout the collection, he effortlessly shifts from banjo to guitar to bass—in addition to handling the lead vocal duties. So, if you have any interest whatsoever in the Byrds, folk, Americana, folklore, history, urban legends… you get the point… this is a fascinating listen.
The songs on The Folk Den Project: 1995-2005 not only reveal the mythos and values of our cultural roots, they also trace the evolution of popular music, an evolution that leads right to the rock and roll songs of the present day. Fortunately, one of the most learned scholars and monumental figures of popular American music has decided to serve as professor, and we are blessed to listen as students. In that regard, The Folk Den Project: 1995-2005 is required—and damn enjoyable—listening. Indeed, in keeping with the contradictions of McGuinn’s career, you might learn more about modern music by putting it aside and listening to the past.