Roger McGuinn was always
too talented a musician and too sharp a pro to be
much of a rock 'n' roll star. Even during the 1960s, when
his group the Byrds were called "America's Beatles," he
was never a spokesman or at the center of any scandals.
Those roles were more befitting Bob Dylan, whose early
folk songs were the catalyst that sent the Byrds eight
miles high to superstardom.
Indeed, whether he wanted
it or not, McGuinn became a rock 'n' roll star when, thanks
to Bob Dylan, his band broke the Beatles' stranglehold
on the top spot of America's Top 40. The Byrds' version
of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" hit # 1 on the Billboard
charts in June 1965, and their electrified version of
Pete Seeger's folk standard "Turn! Turn! Turn!" hit #1
in Nov. 1965. They also had Top 40 hits with Dylan's "All
I Really Want to Do" and "My Back Pages," and tried numerous
other Dylan numbers, with less chart success. So fruitful
was the cross-pollination between rock and folk, and between
McGuinn's 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar-playing
and the sublime vocal harmonies of McGuinn, David Crosby
and Gene Clark, that Columbia/Legacy will soon release
an album called The Byrds Play Dylan, with 20 different
cuts (many live or outtakes) included.
Not that McGuinn has anything
against rock 'n' roll or stardom. It's just that McGuinn
has always been a student of folk music. Folk was the
Siren call that launched his lifelong musical journey.
Long before the Byrds ever existed, McGuinn was a member
of the touring bands for nationally known acts like the
Limeliters (at age 17), Bobby Darin, the Chad Mitchell
Trio and Judy Collins.
And, nearing 60 (in July),
his musical calling has brought him full circle in 2002.
The man who put granny glasses on John Lennon and did
for the electric 12-string what Tiny Tim did for the ukulele
is still on the road six months a year. He performs nuggets
from the Byrds' back catalog, as well as a grab bag of
folk treasures, accompanying himself on his signature
Martin acoustic and Rickenbacker electric 12-string guitars.
In the process of touring,
McGuinn is also rediscovering his own back pages. He has,
over the past several years, sought out the artists with
whom he once performed on folk club stages in Chicago,
New York and Los Angeles, and he has re-immersed himself
in American folk music with something like a vengeance.
Though it barely registered
on the national radar screen, McGuinn's latest effort
to resuscitate folk traditions, Treasures from the
Folk Den (Appleseed), was nominated for a Grammy this
year. This was his first studio album in a decade. His
"studio" was his converted Ford van, in which McGuinn
totes his equipment on his Kerouacian rambles around the
country. Using his Do-It-Yourself technique, McGuinn was
able to hook up, musically, with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger,
Odetta, Josh White, Jr., Judy Collins and even Tommy Makem,
with whom he interpreted some exceptional Irish tunes.
The slow but incremental loss of folk traditions in America,
and elsewhere, has turned into an avalanche since the
1960s. This causes McGuinn great concern and, at times,
a bit of despair.
Alan Bisbort caught up
with McGuinn by phone at his home in Orlando.
Gadfly: The obvious
thing that stands out about your new CD, Treasures
from the Folk Den, is that while it may seem unusual
for Roger McGuinn doing an album of traditional folk songs,
it makes complete sense to me. It's your coming full circle.
McGuinn: Right, I started
out with folk music.
Full circle going back
to the very roots of American music too, by hooking up
with Irish and English folk artists like Tommy Makem and
Eliza Carthy. What was the precipitating event or series
of events that led you to think this was something you
needed to do?
Seven years ago, I got worried
about the health and longevity of traditional folk music
because all the new folk musicians were singer-songwriters.
There's more money in that, and the record companies were
encouraging them to go in that direction. So, they were
neglecting the traditional side of folk music and, in
fact, the term folk musician had become so generic that
it came to mean anybody with an acoustic guitar. So, we
were losing the tradition. I got really concerned with
that, having grown up with these songs, and loved them.
And I thought, 'What's going to happen when the old guard
aren't here any more?' Peter Seeger is 80 years old, Odetta
is 70-something. So, I started doing something about it.
I started my own Web site (www.mcguinn.com).
I put out this section called "The Folk Den" where every
month I promised to put up a traditional recording of
a folk song. And I have done that faithfully now for over
seven years. Jim Musselman, who runs Appleseed Recordings,
a small folk label in Pennsylvania, contacted me and said
he was concerned with the neglect of traditional folk,
which is this label.
has an impressive roster, people like Seeger, Eric Andersen,
Tom Paxton, Ramblin' Jack, John Stewart, Bob Neuwirth,
And it's all coming from
the heart. It's not about the money, it's about the music.
He said to me, 'Look, I love The Folk Den, but not everybody
has a computer. Why don't we do something that we can
sell the old-fashioned way, in record stores?' I thought
that was a good idea. He was in touch with all these great
folksingers from having done a Pete Seeger tribute. And
he's been a longtime friend of Pete's. He put me in touch
with all these old folk artists, and with Pete. We went
up to his house. Joan Baez was an old friend. She agreed
to be on it. Everything fell into place, and it kicked
it up into another dimension, aside from me doing them
The logistics of it
are, as I understand it, that you have some sort of trailer
or bus in which you travel about the country?
It's a Ford C150 van that
is converted to be like a little mobile home.
So, you don't necessarily
have to squeeze into the vehicle.
No. We just carry the equipment
around in the van. We stay in hotels. And it's a vehicle
to get around in.
This has obvious echoes
of the old John and Alan Lomax of the 1930s and 1940s,
when they went out in specially converted vehicles to
record Muddy Waters, Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell
and Big Bill Broonzy and hundreds of other traditional
musicians who might otherwise be forgotten now.
That was a conscious thought.
We want to preserve the old stuff, pretty much like what
they were doing. They got worried back in the 1930s, because
radio had pervaded the Appalachians and people weren't
doing the traditional music anymore. They were sitting
on their porch doing the Top 10, the Hit Parade.
The cornerstone of the
American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress are
the Lomax recordings and archives.
Right. Well, the reason
they started doing that was because radio was the big
thing. Radio today is so corporate and narrow in its scope,
even the public radio.
About the actual locating
of the musicians on Treasures from the Folk Den,
did you arrange it ahead of time and decide on things,
or leave it open to a discovery process?
We arranged the appointments
ahead of time and some of the songs were decided in advance
and some were on the spot. Like when I got together with
Odetta and said, 'Let's do 'The Virgin Mary' and 'Sail
Those are two of the
She's a powerhouse. I just
turned on the machine and let her go and then tried to
dub something tastefully in after the fact. I didn't want
to screw up her performance.
The same with Josh White
Jr. He's a forgotten treasure.
Underappreciated. He was
never really a part of the original folk scene, like his
father. He came around after the heyday of folk, but he's
been chugging along ever since. His father was quite famous.
He's a great player and singer and a wonderful entertainer.
Is there any purely
folk culture left other than this old layer of people
carrying on? In other words, you must feel some sort of,
for lack of a better word, despair over this homogenization
of everything you see when you drive around in your van.
You've hit the road like Kerouac and yet there's nothing
to see but the same old generic sprawl.
I've seen McDonald's and
Burger King everywhere we go, even in Alaska. We were
driving around Alaska, thinking, 'This is what the moon
or Mars will look like when they colonize it.' All grey
and then there's a Burger King lighting up the horizon.
Totally homogenized, as you say. Yes, there is some despair
in that. The little subtle differences that used to happen
in America are disappearing, even in the most remote places.
Other Western countries
seem to do a better job of preserving and celebrating
their folk music heritage.
Yes, they've been very
good about preserving landmarks and keeping their country's
land open and unspoiled. They've had more time to think
about these sorts of things. They pay more attention to
detail and less to the commercial side.
I guess that answers
my next question about why America is so negligent in
There's corporate money
in it and it's like the old West in that there's not very
much policing of it.
What about the feedback
from these old artists?
Pete Seeger said, 'I think
it's a wonderful thing that you're doing. A lot of people
will hear these songs who wouldn't have heard them before.'
That is exactly what my intentions were.
I guess they must have
thought, if they didn't say, "We were wondering when someone
would get around to doing this."
They didn't really say
that. Don't forget that they have all been continuing
to make records and do concerts all these years. They
do have a following. And, to be fair, there is a folk
following in America. It's just not as big as it was in
the 1960s. It kind of collapsed under its own weight with
the overcommercialization of it by 1964.
About the title of the
new CD, I don't know if you intended echoes of your rock
and roll past in there, but wasn't the Folk Den the name
of the bar at the old rock and roll club the Troubadour
in Los Angeles?
Yes, that was intentional.
I started using that term on the Internet. The Folk Den
was where they sold strings and texts at the Troubadour.
And Gene Clark and I would hang out there and play guitar
and write songs. In fact, that's where The Byrds started.
David Crosby came in and all three of us began singing
harmony. That was the core of The Byrds. So, the Folk
Den was kind of nostalgic, and it was where we played
a lot of folk songs, so I thought it would be a good name
for that section of my Web site that has folk music in
You really are kind
of a master of synthesizing all these disparate things
and making something new out of them. The rock and roll
and folk cross-pollination is obvious, but the urban and
rural thing is too. You were a city boy, raised in Chicago,
I grew up in Chicago, so
my interest in traditional music was purely academic.
I went to the Old Town School of Folk Music. And I had
very little contact from the people in the Appalachians
aside from the few who would come to visit. I didn't travel
to the Appalachians. Although I had been to Arkansas as
a kid and had a feel for that. But, yes, I was more of
a city folk singer. I was doing these things more from
my head than my heart at the time. But I came to do it
completely from the heart.
It must have been an
exciting time in the country and for you personally, to
learn your craft on the fly and the notoriety was probably
not something you expected, but it must have prodded you
into producing material.
It was very exciting. Even
in the really early beginning, when I first got hired
by the Limeliters, I was 17 and I was thrilled. And I
thought 'This is my big break!' [laughing].
I was thrilled when I was
hired by the Chad Mitchell Trio and then Bobby Darin came
along, and Judy Collins. This is all five years before
The Byrds. Every little thing that would happen to me
would feel like a big break and I'd be really excited
and encouraged. And it has been just a great life.
It must have also inured
you to the decadent excesses of rock music because you
were already out there, performing, knew what having national
exposure on even a modest level was. You kept your head,
so to speak.
It gave me a real sense
of professionalism. I learned that mostly from Bobby Darin.
He was a real pro. He came from the old Vaudeville school
and hung out with people like George Burns. He was a spit
and polish, hit the mark every time, always be on time
and in tune, be right with it, on top of everything all
the time. It was a far cry from the rock and roll decadence
that I ran into.
But the rock and rollers
needed that. Somebody had to do it, whether it was you
or, say, someone like Bill Graham.
There was more style than
substance, for sure.
The folk scene in LA
prior to The Byrds was quite healthy. There were a number
of singer-songwriters as you called them earlier, but
they were doing totally original material, really pushing
the boundaries, so to speak. Did you run across people
like Tim Buckley?
Oh yes. I ran across Tim
Steve Noonan. Jackson Browne was too young then but he
would come around after The Byrds were formed and try
to sell us songs.
I recently got a couple
of recordings by Bryan MacLean, who went on to be the
guitarist in Love.
He was a roadie for The
Byrds. He just passed away a couple years ago.
Yes, it was. He was a talented
He mentioned in the
liner notes about hanging out with you guys at Ben Franks
and other hot spots in LA.
Yes, Ben Franks. Then there
was also a place called Pandora's Box, a coffee house.
There was something in the Valley called something like
the Golden Vanity. There were quite a few little coffeehouses
where you could get up and play, even if you were a nobody
and people would listen to you.
That's what struck me
about the LA rock scene that grew out of those early coffee
It was vastly underappreciated. All the attention
seemed to be siphoned off to San Francisco.
Oh yes. There was a scene
Not to denigrate San
Francisco, of course, but many of the bands there were
into endless jamming and loosely structured stuff, while
in LA they were putting out some pretty substantial, inventive
rock and pop. The Byrds, Love, the Doors, the Mothers,
Beefheart, the Beach Boys, the Turtles, Buffalo Springfield.
I agree. San Francisco
thought they had the corner covered on hipness and creativity,
but that was not necessarily true. Hollywood has always
had a bad name for its slickness and superficiality, but
there was actually an integrity to some of the stuff that
was going on.
Some of the people who
came out to the early Byrds gigs were not hippies necessarily.
They were more like the last vestiges of the Beats.
Oh yes. Before the hippies.
Before they'd even coined the phrase. I have links on
my Web site even now to Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
It was a real kick after The Byrds got to Number One with
"Mr. Tambourine Man," Dylan would come over to the house
with Allen Ginsberg and we'd all sit around on the floor,
chanting with finger cymbals and he had this sort of little
concertina that he'd play. He didn't sing very well but
he was really into it.
I'll end on this note.
You must feel that you are living the life you've always
wanted to live. You get to dig around the folk archives
for treasures and introduce people to the music you really
Exactly. It's a labor of
love and I'm getting paid for it. You can't ask for more
That's sort of how I
feel about my writing. I get to listen to Roger McGuinn's
music and then I get to talk to him. And people pay me
to do it. Amazing.
That's cool. Glad you're
having fun with your life.