Roger McGuinn: Many of Today's Folk Singers Aren't Playing Folk Songs
Roger McGuinn has had a somewhat storied career that's moved from folk to rock to country and back. A founding member of the seminal psychedelic band The Byrds, McGuinn's career actually began in folk bands, notably The Chad Mitchell Trio and The Limelighters, along with a stint as guitarist in Bobby Darin's band.
Upon moving to Los Angeles, McGuinn fell in with his future bandmates, bring the folk sensibility to a rock and roll world. His jangly guitar sound was an instant hit and sparked a new direction in popular music.
The Byrds first hit it big covering Bob Dylan--their first record and hit song was "Mr. Tambourine Man--including Dylan songs for most of their albums. The band went country on the now-critically acclaimed Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a failure at the time.
McGuinn broke up the band in 1973, embarking on a solo career that eventually led him back to his folk roots. In 1995 he started Folk Den, a series of classic folk songs released on his website. Today, McGuinn tours solo, taking his cue from Pete Seeger and mixing it up on stage.
Up on the Sun caught up with McGuinn at his Florida home to discuss Folk Den, his solo tours, development on the Byrds, and what might have happened had he changed his name (from Jim) to Rocket (an option) instead of Roger.
So, you've been immersed in folk rather seriously since The Byrds disbanded. In the nineties you started recording classic folk songs and putting them online, something you call Folk Den.
In 1995 I was listening to a Smithsonian folkways album and it dawned on me that I wasn't hearing a lot of traditional music from folk singers. There are people now who play acoustic instruments and call themselves folk singers, but they aren't playing folk songs. They were playing songs they made up themselves because Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and people after that became singer-songwriters and the trend was to move away from traditional folk. The idea was that if you weren't writing it yourself it wasn't valid. I thought, "What was going to happen to these great traditional songs if nobody plays them?"
Odetta died a couple years ago; Pete Seeger's 94. Somebody's got to hold up that end of it.
I decided to put these songs up on the internet for worldwide distribution for free. It was a great way to keep them alive. I started doing that in November 1995. It's a labor of love, sponsored by University North Carolina-Chapel Hill. I've been doing this for 18 years--twice as long I'd been in Byrds. The Byrds were more popular, no doubt, than Folk Den, but it's been adopted by people around the world.
What was it that made The Byrds such a success? Was it those folk/country roots that helped people gravitate to it? You had rock and folk--two very different outlooks at the time.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The Beatles had just come out and the folk revival of the 1960s was winding down. There was a combination of folk and rock in the Beatles if you listen closely. They had a folk background as well having been a skiffle band. I picked up on that and ran with it and we got the wonderful sound of folk and rock at the same time. Bob Dylan songs were so kind of beat poetry and played well with the rock and roll set. It was just a lot of the right things at the right time.
The first hit was a Dylan song--was it hard to separate yourselves from that likeness? Even Gene Clark's songwriting in many ways mirrored Dylan.
We made a conscious effort at one point not to do any Bob Dylan. We did one album where we did no Bob Dylan songs (Fifth Dimension), but then we got back to them because they were great material and it was better than anything we could write. We tried to stand alone, but it didn't work without a Dylan song.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo is now considered a classic album, the founding album of alternative country. What made you want to do a country record?
(Byrds' bassist) Chris Hillman had a bluegrass background and I had a folk one. Earl Scruggs was my banjo inspiration. Chris met Gram Parsons at a bank and brought him over to a rehearsal. Gram had such a love for country music that he inspired us to roll with it. It was a labor of love.