Byrds Founder Celebrates Folk and Rock History
By Chuck Obuchowski
The compressed electric 12-string guitar “jingle jangle” that Roger McGuinn unveiled on April 12, 1965 in the Byrds’ bold reinvention of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” has become one of the most instantly recognizable sounds in rock.
The Byrds’ debut album – also called Mr. Tambourine Man – is credited with launching the folk rock style. Several years later, McGuinn and company paved the way for country rock with the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. As personnel fluctuated throughout the band’s nine-year tenure, McGuinn remained the one constant.
The author of such classic hits as “Eight Miles High” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” had earned an esteemed place in rock history well before his 30th birthday, but his musical sojourn was far from over.
Roger (formerly known as Jim) McGuinn will recount that sojourn when he returns to Infinity Music Hall Saturday, June 14 at 8 p.m. During a recent interview, McGuinn told me that he’s fashioned his current stage show after a format he observed mentor Pete Seeger using during the 1950s.
Seeger peppered his performances with stories about his life and music – and shared anecdotes about some of the traditional songs he sang. Although he often performed unaccompanied, Seeger played a variety of instruments at each show. Likewise, McGuinn will alternate between several kinds of guitars and a five-string longneck banjo. Balking at the notion that he’s a one-man band, he told me “what I do is more of a one-man play.”
McGuinn’s latest recording, Stories, Songs and Friends, captures a similarly conceived concert from 2012 in Tucson, AZ. It features Byrds favorites, songs from Roger’s solo years, and a healthy dose of traditional folk material. Also included are fascinating asides about career highs and lows, various musical associates, and back stories about the songs.
Asked why he’s avoided pursuing a Byrds reunion, McGuinn exclaims “I’m having too much fun being a solo artist … like old Pete was when I saw him as a kid. I said ‘wow, that’s fun! That’s what I wanna do when I grow up!’”
Although he began his career as a singer of mostly traditional folk songs, McGuinn also loved rock ‘n’ roll. After hearing the Beatles in 1963, he started exploring ways to put more “punch” in folk music. When he noticed George Harrison with an electric Rickenbacker 12-string guitar in the film “A Hard Day’s Night,” McGuinn realized what he needed to do.
“I traded in my acoustic guitar – which Bobby Darin had given to me – and my Pete Seeger model banjo – which was a prize possession – and I got a Rickenbacker 12-string electric. It was a big change in our sound.”
The Byrds had been searching for their own musical niche – had even recorded an album’s worth of material by that point – but it wasn’t until McGuinn played those songs on the electric 12-string that the music came to life. The years that followed were full of excitement, innovation and drama.
As the lyrics from “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” suggest, the trappings of fame and fortune began to take their toll pretty quickly. Personalities clashed; musical directions shifted; hit singles vanished. The Byrds finally called it quits in 1973, following an ill-fated reunion of the original quintet. Still, McGuinn continued to create new music, recording and touring under his own name throughout the 1970s and 80s.
While known primarily in rock music circles, McGuinn has never abandoned his roots; he’s always included folk songs in his repertoire. During the 1990s, McGuinn’s passion for the folk tradition led him to develop a new way to help people appreciate those songs: the Folk Den Project.
“I was not hearing traditional folk music anymore. I was hearing the singer-songwriters, and I thought ‘what’s going to happen when Odetta or Pete Seeger dies? Who’s going to carry on the tradition?’ So I started doing it myself … and it’s been going for almost 19 years now.”
Since 1995, McGuinn has been recording one traditional folk song per month – singing and playing the instruments himself, then uploading it onto a web site – complete with lyrics, history, guitar chords and visual images. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill serves as host to the Folk Den. Anyone can access all this music for free. The volume and variety of songs that McGuinn has made available is staggering. See for yourself at www.ibilio.org/jimmy/folkden
Infinity Hall concert goers will be treated to selections from the Folk Den on June 14, but McGuinn promises familiar Byrds and Dylan songs too, plus at least one new original composition. As he approaches his 72nd birthday, this man still has a lot of music he wants to share with us, and we should all rejoice at that prospect. Click here to buy tickets!
To hear Roger McGuinn in his own words, listen to our interview on WWUH 91.3 FM (streaming at www.wwuh.org) on Friday, June 13, between 2 and 3 p.m. during “Synthesis.” Program host Denise will also feature a sampling of McGuinn’s fine music, both old and new.