Roger McGuinn on Keeping Alive Folk Standards

There's no point in asking Roger McGuinn if "Eight Miles High" is a drug song. The band claimed at the time it was about flying to an unfriendly London for a tour, but the intent seems obvious, and fellow Byrds Gene Clark and David Crosby eventually supported the allegations. Whatever the lyrical meaning, however, the influential song borrowed technique from both John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, market a key moment in developing the 1960s psychedelic rock sound. Questions about and legends from the '60s could go on indefinitely, but McGuinn is happy today to focus on his current projects instead — namely Folk Den.

To understand Folk Den, however, a little time travel is required. Long before founding The Byrds, McGuinn was a dyed-in-the-wool folkie. He studied guitar and banjo at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, eventually joining the Chad Mitchell Trio and similar groups. Relocating to Los Angeles, McGuinn fell in with his future bandmates, and by combining his folk sensibilities with rock 'n' roll, pioneered the psychedelic sound, not to mention the beginnings of alternative county.

What made the Byrds so popular was the way they combined those disparate influences at what turned out to be a crucial transitional period in music. The folk revival was fading, the Beatles had gone global, and Bob Dylan was plugging in. The Byrds' first single was Dylan's own "Mr. Tambourine Man," and the timing, McGuinn says from his Florida home, couldn't have been more perfect.

Roger McGuinn
Roger McGuinn

"There's a combination of folk and rock in the Beatles, if you listen closely. 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 kind of beat poetry, and played well with the rock 'n' roll set. It was just a lot of the right things at the right time."

Though he wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star — and was for many years — McGuinn eventually grew weary of the effort, and decided to return to his original love, folk music. Folk Den is central to his goal of familiarizing today's acoustic guitar dreamers with the classic songs of that golden era. A series of free downloads at first, with a CD box set coming later, the project is what McGuinn calls his "labor of love."

"It dawned on me that I wasn't hearing a lot of traditional music from folk singers," he says of the project, which he kicked off in 1995. "There are people now who play acoustic instruments and call themselves folk singers, but they aren't playing folk songs — they're playing songs they made up themselves, because Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and people after that became singer-songwriters when 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?'"

McGuinn plays them and also models his concerts after the Pete Seeger performances he attended in the 1960s, switching between a handful of instruments. "Pete Seeger had been a strong influence on me playing solo," he says. "I didn't imagine him being able to pull it off as a solo artist, but I was amazed."

McGuinn attempts the same trick, rotating between banjo and several guitars — including his trademark Rickenbacker 12-string — on solo cuts, traditional folk, and Byrds' classics, including "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "Feel a Whole Lot Better," and, of course, "Eight Miles High."

"It's a lot of fun, and somehow I cobble together a set," he says with a laugh. "I really prefer . . . being a troubadour now."

 
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