Like many revolutionary ideas of synthesis, the one guitarist Roger McGuinn had in 1964 left a Mercury rocket-sized chorus of why-didn’t-I-think-of-thats in the trail of its bright burning exhaust. But blending the electric energy of the early Beatles with lyrical, socially conscious Dylan folk was merely the first act for McGuinn’s L.A.-based band the Byrds. Once touted as America’s answer to the British Invasion, the Byrds were proto-hippie, proto-classic rock, proto-cosmic cowboy, proto-everything; the progenitors of folk rock, psychedelic jam and alt-country—in that order—on the back of indelible hits like “Eight Miles High,” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” and an era-defining transformation of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
When everyone in the country was wondering what was inside Dylan’s folkie laureate head, McGuinn knew exactly. The “Blowin’ in the Wind” singer sat in on the Byrds’ sessions for his song—which he had not yet released himself—and famously applauded the band. “You can dance to it,” he told them.
That record, the Byrds’ debut single, topped the charts and was the first of many highlights for the young guitarist and songwriter who had grown up in Chicago—the son of two journalists who published the 1948 bestseller Parents Can’t Win when he was six.
Fifteen years later, McGuinn was writing songs in New York’s famous Brill Building, doing session guitar work for Judy Collins and Simon & Garfunkel and singing harmonies with Bobby Darin. The first time he heard a song featuring his guitar work over the radio waves, it was a jolt of energy and a confirmation of purpose.
“It was probably a Chad Mitchell Trio song, and it felt great, thrilling,” McGuinn says. “You want to tell everyone, ‘Hey, that was me!’ but of course you can’t.”
Two years later, after he recruited David Crosby and the other original members of the Byrds, everyone would know McGuinn by name, and his music would go on to influence dozens of bands, including the Beatles. He’d also perform and tour with Dylan.
But since the 1960s and early 1970s saw McGuinn pushing, pulling and zooming traditional folkways into every imaginable sonic direction, first with the Byrds then as a solo artist, his latest project has him reversing roles. Perhaps with the advanced age and ailing hearing of his mentor, peaceful protest icon Pete Seeger, McGuinn feels a responsibility to serve as trusty keeper and protector of timeless folk music.
An early adopter of the Internet—among his 1960s brethren, at least—McGuinn launched The Folk Den in 1995, offering free downloads of his recordings of traditional folk tunes from his own website. He hopes to spread these public domain songs worldwide, and he sees The Folk Den as his greatest legacy.
“I like the idea of keeping these old songs going, keeping them up to date,” he says. “It’d be a real shame if they got lost in the shuffle.”
To date, the catalogue includes 200 songs and counting, including Louisiana staples “St. James Infirmary” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“Louisiana is the home of the blues and of jazz. That’s always been an inspiration for me,” McGuinn says. “I’ve played in Louisiana many times over the years, and the food there and the people are always a real treat.”
If the notion of the world’s staunchest folk traditionalist and advocate being the same man who once blasted warped, surrealist guitar solos over well-known folk chords or colored Carole King’s words into a hippie flag-waver sounds strange, McGuinn wouldn’t have it any other way. As he sang on the electro-baroque masterpiece The Notorious Byrd Brothers, “Change is now.”
“That was sort of our overview of the universe,” McGuinn says of the 1968 song he penned with bassist Chris Hillman. “I don’t like to talk about what songs mean too much. Listeners can take different things from them.”
For his current tour, McGuinn is taking something else vital from his idol, Seeger. As a child, McGuinn saw the “We Shall Overcome” legend perform simply, directly and all alone.
“He’d sing a song, switch instruments, play again and tell stories along the way,” McGuinn says. “And I always thought, ‘I’d like to do that some day.’”
McGuinn will perform traditional folk songs as well as hits from his solo career and the Byrds live at Manship Theatre on Aug. 11 at 8 p.m. Visit manshiptheatre.org for tickets and more information. rogermcguinn.com
Before the Fab Four dropped Sgt. Pepper and Roger McGuinn led the Crosby-less version of his band into country territory, the destinies and sounds of the Beatles and the Byrds seemed inextricably linked. Here’s a brief timeline of mutual influence:
Aug. 11, 1964. A Hard Day’s Night is released in the United States. Teens everywhere buy boots and grow hair to look just like the Beatles. McGuinn buys a 12-string Rickenbacker to sound just like George Harrison.
April 14, 1965. McGuinn uses the “Rick” to add chiming riffs to “The Bells of Rhymney.”
Aug. 24, 1965. On a break from touring, the Beatles invite the Byrds to a party at their rented L.A. mansion. While taking LSD, actor Peter Fonda terrifies both blissful bands by showing them a childhood bullet wound on his stomach and telling them he knows “what it’s like to be dead.” John Lennon would later include the phrase in the lyrics to 1966’s “She Said She Said.”
“It really freaked [John] Lennon out,” McGuinn recalls. “He kept saying, ‘Who invited him? Get him out of here!’ David [Crosby] had brought Fonda, so David was the one who had to get him out of there.”
Jan. 24, 1966. Harrison’s groundbreaking sitar playing on “Norwegian Wood” prompts McGuinn to add his own droning, Ravi Shankar-inspired guitar leads to “Eight Miles High.”
“We’d had the same publicist, Derek Taylor, and I remember him coming to my house with a tape of the song before it was released,” McGuinn says. “George wanted me to hear it with the riff, and I thought it was great.”
Oct. 16, 1965. Harrison borrows McGuinn’s signature “Rhymney” riff when recording his new song “If I Needed Someone” for Rubber Soul.
March 14, 1966. Released as a single, “Eight Miles High” is the first shot of psychedelic sound in Western pop. A month later, the Beatles extend this trippy direction to its limits by recording Revolver‘s final song freak-out “Tomorrow Never Knows,” complete with backwards guitar solos and horn samples sped up to sound like a cacophony—like a frenzied flock of birds.
“It’s always tough to say specifically who the Byrds inspired,” McGuinn says. “It’s hard to pinpoint where certain sounds or parts of songs come from, because a lot of that sound is just woven into the DNA of the music.”
Despite his modesty, 225 pressed McGuinn to name his favorite bands that may have been influenced by his 1960s output. Here’s his list and our analysis:
Tom Petty. Try to get the ringing Byrds-heavy refrain of “American Girl” out of your head, and seek out McGuinn’s oft-forgotten Petty-penned 1990 hit “King of the Hill.”
The Jayhawks. The sunny, talky “She Walks in So Many Ways” sounds just like McGuinn is singing lead.
Wilco. Jaunty Summerteeth rocker “I Can’t Stand It” and strummy Sky Blue Sky country ballad “What Light” perfectly capture both ends of the early Byrds spectrum.
R.E.M. Get caught up in Peter Buck’s moody jangle on “The One I Love” and the band’s worthy cover version of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.”