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The Byrds' Roger McGuinn Works To Preserve Folk Music

Each week, <em>Talk of the Nation </em>plays The Byrds' song "I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician" during the Political Junkie segment. McGuinn recorded a version just for the show. You can hear it in the last three minutes of <a href="">this story</a>.
John Chiasson
Each week, Talk of the Nation plays The Byrds' song "I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician" during the Political Junkie segment. McGuinn recorded a version just for the show. You can hear it in the last three minutes of this story.

Singer-guitarist Roger McGuinn, best known as leader of The Byrds, is a folk-rock pioneer. The Byrds blended traditional folk songs with a rock beat and scored major hits in the 1960s, including "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." The group disbanded in 1973, and McGuinn pursued a solo career, in which he performed acoustically and returned to his folk roots.

In 1995, he created the Folk Den Project, an online series to store traditional folk songs, which he records once a month. NPR's Neal Conan recently sat down with McGuinn to discuss The Byrds and his solo career, as well as his work preserving folk music.

Interview Highlights

On Getting His Start

"I started 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.

"... [I eventually wound up working with] the Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin ... He seems incongruous, but he had a love of 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."

On The Session Musicians Who Called Themselves The Wrecking Crew

"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.

"[Wrecking Crew members] 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."

On The Perils Of Covering Bob Dylan

"I did ['My Back Pages'] 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.

"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.'

"... 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.'"

On His Work To Preserve Folk Music

"I've always considered myself a folksinger, even though we strapped on Rickenbacker guitars and played pretty loud. But I was a folksinger at heart because we always loved folk music. I loved the melodies and the stories. And 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 folksingers were singer-songwriters, writing wonderful material, but they were writing new folk 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. ...

"There are 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."

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