[27 August 2001]
When Roger McGuinn was a member of The Byrds—one of America’s most influential rock ‘n’ roll bands—he brought to his band an earnest appreciation for Depression-era and post-War folk music. “Turn Turn Turn” and “The Bells of Rhymny”, two of The Byrds’ biggest hits, were written by the legendary social activist Pete Seeger (“co-written” would be more accurate; most of the lyrics for the former were gleaned from the Bible, while the latter was based on poetry by Idris Davies). McGuinn infused his own compositions with a strong folk ethic. “5D (Fifth Dimension)” clearly drew upon Anglo-Celtic melody, McGuinn’s 12-string electric guitar mimicking bagpipes. “Mr. Spaceman” was a wonderfully disarming example of Bakersfield country, with the mop-top, hippie protagonist becoming the sympathetic subject of an alien abduction. Of course, The Byrds also made dramatic forays into other more esoteric realms, most notably Gene Clark’s raga-influenced and radio-banned “Eight Miles High” (not a drug song, by the way, but a brilliantly scathing word picture of the band’s cold reception in London). Essentially, however, The Byrds’ most notable achievement was their ability to transform folk music into popular, danceable numbers.
Thirty years later, McGuinn is managing a web site devoted to his life’s passion—the preservation of American folk music. Each month McGuinn records an MP3 version of a folk song from yesteryear for downloads. Having realized that many listeners don’t possess the technical means to obtain these downloads, McGuinn decided to record an album of some of the artifacts he has collected over the past couple of years, enlisting the help of several notable artists to enhance the historical significance of the songs. Treasures from the Folk Den is precious, not so much because of its content or performances, but due to its expression of one man’s heart and passion for an art form he holds dear.
McGuinn turned the recording process for Treasures into an adventure. As he explained in the liner notes, McGuinn and wife Camilla hit the road in the spirit of John and Alan Lomax: “Armed with an 850MHz computer, a Stedman 1100B large diaphragm tube condenser microphone, and a copy of Cool Edit Pro, (software that turns your PC into a 64-track recording machine), I set out to make this CD”.
The boyish wonder displayed by McGuinn in his narrative is charming. A geekish attention to technology and gadgets has always been one of his characteristics. Throughout the notes McGuinn pedantically reminds the reader that a “5-string banjo and 12-string guitar” were used. And if, on rare occasions, he went to his trusty electric 12-string, he specifies that it was a Rickenbacker. Not a Danelectro, mind you, but a Rickenbacker, the instrument McGuinn has been virtually synonymous with since his heyday with The Byrds. The Lomaxes didn’t carry 850MHz computers or 12-string Rickenbackers on their fabled mid-century sojourns across America, but, like Dickie Betts, they were generally southbound. Not so Roger McGuinn. The making of Treasures required him to travel due north from his Florida home into New England and upstate New York. These “field recordings” involved not raw, authentic Americans on their back porches but high-profile, professional artists from the folk revival of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Before leaving Florida, McGuinn managed to catch Joan Baez between shows and she agreed to sing “Wagoner’s Lad” and “Willie Moore” for the PC.
In Maine McGuinn caught up with Irishman Tommy Makem, who contributed spirited versions of “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Whiskey in the Jar”. Josh White, Jr. was consulted for a traditional rendering of the old blues number “Trouble in Mind”. Judy Collins (yes, folks, as in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”) climbed aboard for the sea chantey “Bonnie Ship the Diamond” and the ballad “John Riley”.
Odetta got caught up in the maritime spirit on “Sail Away Lady”, though her singing and whistling on the track are more freakish than folkie. Expatriate Kentuckian Jean Ritchie (who claims to be related to the old-time giant Roscoe Holcomb, but don’t hold your breath), was found on the 25th floor of a Manhattan high-rise apartment for her contribution to “Fair Nottamun Town”, a song as far away from Appalachia as Antarctica. She and Odetta also added backing vocals to the album’s most disastrous track, a clumsy stab at Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator” that should have been aborted during rehearsal.
Interestingly, some of Treasures’ highest points—and its comedic lowest—came when McGuinn hooked up with his old mentor Pete Seeger in the mountains above the Hudson River. Seeger is a story in himself. Raised in New York by a music teacher father, Seeger fell in love with the banjo on a trip through Asheville, North Carolina in the ‘30s. He dropped out of Harvard to become a self-styled folk singer (despite his urbane pedigree) and kept frequent company with the legendary Woody Guthrie. Seeger served his country in World War II and became a communist activist. His main characteristic is an impish grin that has remained on his face through thick and thin over the decades. When Seeger was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955, he offered to sing for the congressmen and was cited for contempt, spending four days of a one-year prison sentence in jail. His music and his song group were banned from American airwaves, but Seeger kept smiling. He wrote enthusiastically of the social advances in the Soviet Union after a brief visit there, but when Khrushchev spilled the beans about Stalin’s atrocities, Seeger kept grinning in an “aw shucks, folks, guess I was wrong” manner.
Seeger has had his share and ups and downs, but he is far from a bona fide bluesman—which is why his vocal rendering of “In the Evenin’” is downright laughable. Imagine a university sociology professor walking into a classroom trying to demonstrate what the blues sound like, and that’s a fair picture. Yet, Seeger pulled off some convincing blues licks on his 5-string banjo. He also contributed a gorgeous vocal and 12-string on one of this album’s most moving tracks, “Dink’s Song”. But Seeger’s best moment comes at the end of the collection, where McGuinn left the microphone on between takes of “In the Evenin’”. While McGuinn is preoccupied with technical matters, Seeger speaks gently into the microphone about his visit to a New York City Renaissance school. His monologue is brief but it reveals the kindly spirit who has always sought his fellow man’s good.
“Cane Blues” is the one track on Treasures that is exclusively Roger McGuinn, and not surprisingly it is the best. His 12-string acoustic has brightness and depth, and the singer harmonizes beautifully with himself. It raises the question of why McGuinn didn’t choose to do this project entirely on his own, in the spirit of the one-man shows that he performs worldwide. McGuinn has always been at his best when operating with singular focus. Though the guest performances are at times delightful, they are nonetheless the contributions of professionals who, at least in the cases of Baez and Seeger, placed political activism over artistry. This, unfortunately, leaves the false impression that folk music is intrinsically linked to social issues, when in fact the majority of the folk canon involves the most private and individual of concerns. There is little sense of vitality and pioneering spirit in these performances. Instead, they come off as sentimental reflections from aging members of the “peace” generation.
Regardless, Treasures from the Folk Den is a sincere and reverential treatment of folk music in all of its surprising variety and a tribute, it turns out, to its devoted creator.