Roger McGuinn: This Byrd Had Flown Full Circle
By Alan Bisbort

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 ( 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.

Appleseed ( has an impressive roster, people like Seeger, Eric Andersen, Tom Paxton, Ramblin' Jack, John Stewart, Bob Neuwirth, Holly Near.

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 all myself.

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 Away Ladies'

Those are two of the strongest cuts.

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 this department.

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 it.

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, weren't you?

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.

So sad.

Yes, it was. He was a talented guy.

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 houses… It was vastly underappreciated. All the attention seemed to be siphoned off to San Francisco.

Oh yes. There was a scene in LA.

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 love.

Exactly. It's a labor of love and I'm getting paid for it. You can't ask for more than that.

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.