The Byrds' Roger McGuinn Works To Preserve Folk Music Singer-guitarist Roger McGuinn, best known as leader of The Byrds, is a folk-rock pioneer. Since the group disbanded, McGuinn has pursued a solo career, and also created the Folk Den Project, an online database of traditional songs he records.

The Byrds' Roger McGuinn Works To Preserve Folk Music

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Fifty years ago, Roger McGuinn started out as a folk singer. The following decades took him through the star machine as one of the founders and leaders of The Byrds, one of the most popular and influential bands of the '60s and '70s. They get credit as pioneers of folk rock and for plugging the music of folkies like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger onto the early top 40 charts.

They also helped pioneer country rock. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and all these years later, he's back where he started - or maybe never left. Folk singer Roger McGuinn joins us this hour. Later in the program, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge on some of the implications of a world seen through Google glasses.

But first, we want to hear from folkies in the audience today: How do you overcome the fustiness factor and keep your music relevant? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Roger McGuinn joins us here in Studio 4A. He's on tour and serves as curator of the Folk Den Project. And Roger, we play your tune "Politician" every week. So you're already a regular on the show. But it's nice to see you in person.

ROGER MCGUINN: It's great to be here. Thank you. Thank you, Neal. I'm really honored that you play "Politician" all the time. That's a wonderful, wonderful thing.

CONAN: And I understand, though, you start every concert with another of your old tunes, a Bob Dylan tune.

MCGUINN: It's a Bob Dylan song called "My Back Pages" because within the concert, I take people through my back pages, and here's the song.


MCGUINN: (Singing) Crimson flames tied through my ears rollin' high and mighty traps, Growing with fire on flaming roads using ideas as my maps. We'll meet on edges, soon, said I, proud 'neath heated brow. Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.

(Singing) Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth. Rip down all hate, I screamed. Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull I dreamed. Romantic flanks of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow. Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. But I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now.


CONAN: "My Back Pages," Roger McGuinn with us here in Studio 4A. And I am hearing that through rose-colored hearing aids, or that sounds like it's the same key as it was all those years ago.

MCGUINN: It's actually a half-step lower. I've tuned down to E-flat. I found that I can hit the (singing) a little better.

CONAN: Little better slightly down a little bit. So yeah, maybe it was - but it's still there. The voice is still there.

MCGUINN: Well, I'm happy to hear that.

CONAN: Yeah. That is from an era where plugging in to play that song electronically, on electric guitar, that was controversial. It's hard to remember that.

MCGUINN: Yes, it was, although we didn't really take too much heat for it because we weren't established as folk singers like other people, like the man who wrote that song. So he took a lot of heat because he was. But no, we were kind of coming up with something new, and people like it and went with it, and it was a lot of fun.

What's interesting about that song, I did it for Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary on Columbia Records at Madison Square Garden, and they had teleprompters at the foot of the stage. And I'd learned the song off the record. So I got some of the words wrong.


MCGUINN: I'm looking at the official lyrics typed in from the official Bob Dylan songbook, and instead of romantic flanks of Musketeers, it was romantic facts of Musketeers.

CONAN: Really?

MCGUINN: Lots of different words, yeah. I said - let's see, growing, and he went pounced with flames. It was - a lot of things were quite different.

CONAN: All those years.

MCGUINN: Yes, and they're still different.

CONAN: So you could have copyrighted your version.

MCGUINN: Well, no I couldn't. But I've gotten his words wrong before, and he got mad at me. One time we did a song, a country song called "You Ain't Going Nowhere," and I reversed the order, I said pack up your money and pick up your tent. And about six months later he recorded it, and it came out pick up your money and pack up your tent, McGuinn.


CONAN: That's from a wonderful record, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo."

MCGUINN: "The Sweetheart of the Rodeo," and Gram Parsons was a catalyst for that. Chris Hillman had grown up in bluegrass music and loved country, and he invited Gram to come over, who basically replaced David Crosby when he left. So I wanted somebody to play McCoy Tyner-style piano, and I tested Gram. I said: Can you play any jazz piano?

He sat down and played a little sort of Floyd Cramer-style piano. I said, well, this guy's got talent, we can work with him. I had no idea that he was really George Jones in a sequined suit you know.


CONAN: Later to go on to the fabulous Flying Burrito Brothers and other such, but that - all of those fusions, as it were, you brought rock to folk, you brought country to folk, I'm sure country ever left folk. But in any sense, you were identified with all these fusions, these attempts to sort of modernize, if you will.

MCGUINN: Well, we liked to experiment, and when we did the Bob Dylan "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn," they labeled us as folk rock. And we said, well, that's kind of restricting. So we wanted to break out of that label. And we listened to John Coltrane and Ravi Shanker and recorded "Eight Miles High," and they thought that was psychedelic.

So then we were labeled as a psychedelic band, and we wanted to do something else. So we got into country and kept going on in different areas.

CONAN: Through it all, though, folk music has been the heart of your - not only your tradition, where you grew up, where you first started to perform but what you've been doing pretty much these last 30 years.

MCGUINN: Yes, it has. I've always considered myself a folk singer even though we strapped on Rickenbacker guitars and played pretty loud. But I was a folk singer at heart because we always loved folk music. I loved the melodies and the stories. And about - almost 17 years ago now, I was listening to a Smithsonian Folkways record, and I said, you know, I'm not hearing these traditional songs even in the folk clubs or on the radio, or anywhere. All the new folk singers were singer-songwriters, writing wonderful material, but they were writing new folks songs.

So I thought: What's going to happen when Odetta dies? Well, as you know, she just passed away. And Pete Seeger's, what, he's 92, 93. He's getting up there. So I thought I'd do something about it. I started the Folk Den out of a need to preserve the traditional side of folk music.

And the Folk Den is on my website,, or you can get to it just by going to, sponsored by UNC Chapel Hill. And it's a public service. I don't - it's all free. There are about - almost 200 MP3s there for free download, along with the lyrics, the chords, a little story about the song and a picture of some kind. And it's just a labor of love.

CONAN: We want to hear from those folk musicians in the audience today about how you keep the music alive and relevant, 800-989-8255. Email us, Let's start with Greg(ph), and Greg's on the line with us from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.

GREG: Hey, there.


GREG: Roger, I must say your little bit you just did, you sound as beautiful as you always have.

MCGUINN: Oh, thank you.

GREG: Yeah, you know, I got to see you in the mid-'90s. You played a small venue in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I had to feel for you because it was apparent you wore an all-silk shirt, and after the first song, you were drenched for the rest of the night.

MCGUINN: Well, you know, that happens. I just played in Irvington, at the town hall, and I got drenched there, too, because we were playing with John Sebastian, and it was really warm in that venue. It's one of the hazards of performing live, is you might get wet a little bit.

GREG: Yeah, yeah, I agree. You know, one thing that really strikes me is your attenuation to songs with great melodies, you know, of course Dylan, a lot of his things, but some of the things that you've written, too. And I always get in that debate, since I'm a songwriter as well, when I'm out performing, I really will not do any song that I'm not crazy about the melody.

MCGUINN: Good idea.

GREG: Yeah, you know, and in my opinion, it's melody over lyrics which give a song longevity. I was just curious what you thought about that.

MCGUINN: Well, I think it's a combination of things. I remember when I was on Columbia Records, and Clive Davis was the president. He had a formula for, you know, it's a pretty melody, a catchy refrain, a little hook here and there and a pre-chorus and a chorus and repeat the verse and you're out. So there are quite a few things that work together for making something memorable.

CONAN: Bob Dylan was on Columbia Records, too. Did he tell that to Bob Dylan?

MCGUINN: I'm sure he must have. He told it to all of...

CONAN: Because all his songs sound exactly like that.

MCGUINN: Yes, it's what he told everybody.

CONAN: Greg, what kind of songs do you play? Do you write your own material?

GREG: Yes, I write - matter of fact, I just finished doing some stuff in Colorado with Dennis Weaver's son, you know, the actor. And the icing on the cake was throwing in some 12-string, acoustic 12-string, so...

CONAN: All right, well...

GREG: Influenced by The Byrds, primarily.

CONAN: Greg, thanks very much for the call.

GREG: Sure.

CONAN: Wasn't that song, wasn't there a sort of compendium song, Roger McGuinn had a 12-string guitar, it was like nothing I had ever heard?

MCGUINN: Yeah, it was - let's see - I remember hearing it.

CONAN: I remember hearing that, too. If I could remember who it was, I'd be younger.


CONAN: Here's an email question from Margaret in Little Rock: The folkies I hang out with write about computers, cats, the space program, whatever we happen to have read recently that jolts our juices, quite likely including one or another of Vernor Vinge's books, for sure; several of Robert A. Heinlein's books. So that's another way to keep the material relevant.

MCGUINN: That's cool. You know, I have nothing against contemporary folk music, and all folk songs, all traditional songs, were contemporary at one time. Even "Jones's Ale" was new from 1573, but it was about something that was happening back then, so...

CONAN: It wasn't on the hit parade, but I'm not sure they had a hit parade back then.

MCGUINN: It was a big hit in the pubs, yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Roger McGuinn, co-founder, former front man of The Byrds, still touring, now also curator of the Folk Den Project, his effort to preserve folk music. we're going to hear a couple more songs in a few minutes. Folkies, how do you keep your music relevant? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with Roger McGuinn, co-founder of The Byrds, a band many cite as one of the most influential groups of the 1960s. We took our political junkie show on the road earlier this year, to Florida, where he lives, at least when he's not on the road. And Roger was kind enough to record a special performance of our Political Junkie theme song for us. If you missed it, you can take a listen at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Roger McGuinn is again on tour, also working to preserve the folk music that helped launch his career through the Folk Den Project. We want to hear from fellow folkies today. How do you overcome the fustiness factor and keep your music relevant? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at that website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Roger, can we hear another song?

MCGUINN: Yes, this is one from my latest CD, which is entitled "CCD." We were going to call it "23 Songs of the Sea," but we thought "CCD" was kind of more fun. And it's a song about a sailor who is going around Cape Horn and ending up in Valparaiso, Chile, which they loved. They call it Vallipo Bay. And it had nicknames like the Little San Francisco or Jewel of the Pacific.

And it was a big relief to get around Cape Horn for one thing, but when they got there, the architecture was beautiful, it had a lot of European immigrants that moved there. And they just loved being there. Called "Rollicking Randy Dandy Oh."


MCGUINN: (Singing) Now we are headed out for the Horn, way, hey, roll and go. Our boots and our oilskins are still in the pawn and rollicking randy dandy o. And heave a pawl, heave away, way hey, roll and go. The anchor's aboard, the cable's all stored to me rollicking randy dandy o.

(Singing) And now we are warping her out through the locks, way, hey, roll and go. The pretty young girls all come down in flocks to me Rollicking Randy Dandy O. Goodbye to Sally and goodbye to Sue, way, hey, roll and go, for we are the bullies that can kick her through, to me Rollicking Randy Dandy O.

(Singing) Roust her up, bullies, the wind's drawing free, way, hey, roll and go. Let's get the rags up, and we'll drive her to sea. To me Rollicking Randy Dandy O. And we're outward bound for the Vallipo Bay, way, hey, roll and go. Get cracking, me lads, it's a mighty long way. To me Rollicking Randy Dandy O.

(Singing) And heave a pawl, heave away, way, hey, roll and go. The anchor's aboard, and the cable's all stored. To me Rollicking Randy Dandy O.


CONAN: One of the tunes from Roger McGuinn's new CD, "CCD," Randy Dandy O." It reminds us that the origin of so many folk tunes is work songs of one sort or another.

MCGUINN: Yes, they're work songs, the old blues, the cowboy songs. Cowboy songs are work songs, pretty much, too.

CONAN: And we were talking earlier about 12-string guitar. That is not a 12-string guitar, but it's not a six-string guitar either.

MCGUINN: No, what happened was I don't know if you saw that YouTube video about United breaks guitars. Well, I was on an airline that broke my 12-string guitar, and I thought: What if I didn't have to carry a 12-string and a six-string, if I could get the best of both on one guitar.

So I went to the Martin company and asked them to build me a guitar that had a pair of strings like the 12-string has, which is...


MCGUINN: It's a low and a high octave string. And I play leads up and down the neck like this...


MCGUINN: Like on "Turn, Turn, Turn." But it's also more flexible. You can bend the strings like...


MCGUINN: Or do these little runs...


MCGUINN: So it's kind like a Swiss army knife of a guitar.


CONAN: It also reminds us that - there's that line in "A League of Their Own," if it was easy, everybody could do it. Folk music, one way to keep it relevant to your audience: Get good.

MCGUINN: Oh, practice, practice, practice, right.

CONAN: Yeah, let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. John's(ph) on the line with us from Jackson Hole in Wyoming.

JOHN: Hi there, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JOHN: It's wonderful to hear Roger McGuinn. I had the great pleasure of meeting him and being an emcee for a show he did here in Jackson Hole in one of the hotels back in the mid-'80s. I don't know if Roger remembers that, but I really enjoyed that.

MCGUINN: Thank you.

JOHN: And of course my favorite songs of his are "Mr. Space Man." We used to do that with a band, I had a local band I played in.

CONAN: I love the line won't you please take me along, we won't do anything wrong.

MCGUINN: That's right, I won't mess with your dials.


JOHN: Wonderful. And talking about staying relevant, I would like to say that here in Jackson Hole, we have - we are really keeping folk music alive. We have a wonderful Monday night hoot that runs most of the year.

MCGUINN: Oh great.

JOHN: And we draw really, really good crowds and anywhere from some of us older folks maybe up to - let me see, we're up to 80 years and down to maybe 15 years. We have a real fine mix of music.

CONAN: I have to ask you, you just used the word hoot, as in hootenanny?

JOHN: That's right, the official word is the Jackson Hole Hootenanny.

CONAN: And you use it without irony?

JOHN: Oh yes, you bet. We're very happy to bring that word back.

MCGUINN: That's cool that you're doing that.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Do you play many hootenannies?

MCGUINN: I haven't played one for years because people call it open mics for the most part.


CONAN: Yeah, I was going to suggest it's nothing something - you started, though, in Greenwich Village at open mic programs.

MCGUINN: Yes, yes, I started - well, really in Chicago at the Gate of Horn. They had hootenannies there every Sunday. And then when I moved to New York, I would go to the clubs and the coffee houses in the village, yeah.

CONAN: And these were at a time when you eventually wound up working professionally with people like the Limelighters and then later Bobby Darin.

MCGUINN: That's right, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin.

CONAN: What did you - Bobby Darin seems a ways away.

MCGUINN: Yes, he seems incongruous. But he had a love of folk music. He loved folk music, and he was such a talented guy that he could really devote himself to it wholeheartedly when he did it. He did that Sinatra thing that he did and the "Splish, Splash," the teenybopper music. But when he did folk songs, he really got into them. He was really good.

CONAN: Huh. Let's get another caller in on the conversation, though we just seemed to have lost our computer call-in screen. So let's take an email. This is from Kevin, for Roger: How do you feel about the influence of your music on other artists such as Tom Petty? Are there artists who have been influenced by your music you particularly like?

MCGUINN: Yeah, well, that's - I've heard about that. People have told me that other artists have been influenced by my music, and it's flattering. It's a wonderful thing.

CONAN: But do you consciously listen for it?

MCGUINN: No, I don't. I don't listen for it. But I hear it when it's out there. I can hear like the sort of jingle-jangle sound, as they call it.

CONAN: Here's another email, this one from Belle(ph): Could Roger speak about working with The Wrecking Crew on the early Byrds recordings? It's a great, mostly unknown history of rock.

MCGUINN: Right, most people - well, now it's come out, there's a book, and there's a film about it. But the Wrecking Crew was sort of a secret in Hollywood, where Phil Spector used them for all his recordings and the Beach Boys for quite a few of theirs and the Mamas and Papas. And Terry Melcher, who was Doris Day's son and our producer, decided to use the Wrecking Crew for the single "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the flip side, "I Knew I Want You."

Of course David Crosby and all the other Byrds went nuts and campaigned, and we got to play on all our records after that. But the first single was with the Wrecking Crew. And I was honored because I'd had about five years of studio experience in New York, so they let me play with them. And I was - these guys were, you know, five, six years older, seven years older.

Leon Russell, Hal Blaine, Jerry Cole, Larry Knechtel and Bill Pitman were in the studio at the time. And they were the coolest guys. They were like James Dean. You know, they wore black leather jackets with the collar up and very cool. I was honored. And they were so tight. I mean, you could really not get anything between the beats. You know, it was really solid, solid music.

CONAN: But it was portrayed at the time that somehow the record company didn't trust you guys to play your own music.

MCGUINN: Well, they were right. Michael Clarke learned how to play on cardboard boxes only a couple of months before that. You know, he wasn't ready for the big time, so it worked out.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Josh is on the line, Josh with us from Tulsa.

JOSH: Hi, Roger. I recently discovered your album "Thunderbird," and it struck me, the material on it struck me as slightly atypical of some of your more traditional works. And I was just wondering if there was anything specific that changed how you approached that album compared to some of the earlier works that you've done.

MCGUINN: Let's see. I did "American Girl" on that, right? Is that right? Yeah, and I think it was a little more hard-edged, more rock-oriented than some of the earlier stuff that I'd done.

JOSH: And I was just wondering if you consciously pushed to the back of your mind some of your folk influence or if that still, you felt, you know, bled through in those sessions?

MCGUINN: I don't know. It was just what I felt like doing at the time. It's hard to really pin it down.

JOSH: Sure, I understand. Well, I - usually when I perform live, I, you know, I have my beat-up, old '60s Framus classical, and I'll be performing my songs and I'd get lumped in with a lot of folk or bluegrass musicians. But, you know, I perform only originals, and almost all of my topics have to do with science or skepticism.

MCGUINN: That's wonderful.

JOSH: And I - it's really hard to stand, although maybe relevant in the folk scene when nobody really wants to hear about that stuff. And I just - I didn't know if that's anything you'd ever encountered when you started maybe...

MCGUINN: No, no. I was just, you know, I was just going for a different sound at the time. So just practice, practice, practice. That's all there is to it.

CONAN: Josh, thanks. Good luck.

JOSH: Thanks.

CONAN: And we've got any number of emails helping us out with our memories. The lyric Roger McGuinn had a 12-string guitar from "Willie Waylon and Me" by David Allan Coe.

MCGUINN: David Allan Coe. I remember I was on the Rolling Thunder tour, and we were on the bus. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning, and this guy David Allan Coe walked on the bus, which was kind of a no-no, you know, strangers walking on the bus. I didn't know who he was. And he had a guitar, and he said, I got to show you a song. That's even worse. I was like, no, no. So - but then he sat down and he sang that song, and I went, oh, wow. That was a real honor. So thanks, David Allan Coe.

CONAN: Here's an email from Terry(ph): Wow. I just listened to Roger, aka Jim, McGuinn play "My Back Pages" while driving back from lunch. I hadn't heard that since the '60s, yet I sang along as the words came back to me. Even going into David Crosby's harmony, I'm still smiling.

MCGUINN: Wonderful. That's great.

CONAN: Jim McGuinn? Well, you changed your name.

MCGUINN: Yes. I'll tell you about that. Back in the '60s, we experimented with quite a few things.

CONAN: Really?


CONAN: I had not heard that.

MCGUINN: And one of them was this Eastern sort of spiritual exercise. And I went in there, and they said, well, if you change your name, you'll vibrate better with the universe, and that sounded groovy.


MCGUINN: So I went for it.

CONAN: You went for the middle name.

MCGUINN: Yeah. I got - I changed my middle name to Roger and started using it as a stage name, and I've been doing it ever since. I thought about changing it back. It would be too confusing now.

CONAN: Roger McGuinn...


CONAN: here with us in Studio 4A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News. And I wanted to ask - you mentioned earlier - I know you're going to play "Eight Miles High" for us. Psychedelic music - drugs played such a terrible role for so many people in the'60s, and, well, we all know about David Crosby's struggles.


CONAN: And yet this is still a critical part of the band's existence. And was it part of your life too?

MCGUINN: Yeah. Well, yeah. I was - I experimented with a lot of things back then, and that was one of them.

CONAN: And the song, you have no problems playing it now?

MCGUINN: No, I have no problems. Well, see, there are three writers on "Eight Miles High," and it was about an airplane ride over to England and back, and that's what I always thought it was. But if you ask David Crosby what it's about, it's about drugs, man.


CONAN: Well, let's hear for ourselves.

MCGUINN: OK. Over the years, it's kind of evolved from the recording we did in The Byrds, and I put a little John Coltrane, some Ravi Shankar and some Andres Segovia in just for fun.




MCGUINN: (Singing) Eight miles high. And when you touch down, you'll find that it's stranger than known. Signs in the street that say where you're going are somewhere just being their own. Round the squares, huddled in storms, some laughing, some just shapeless forms. Sidewalk scenes and black limousines, some living, some standing alone.

CONAN: Roger McGuinn, whose next 50 years begin May 4 at the Jefferson Center in Roanoake, Virginia, then on to the Ryman in Nashville with Marty Stewart. His tour continues there. Stay with us. Up next: Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge on seeing the world through Google Glasses.


CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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