Ernest Hemingway famously observed that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” It’s a slight exaggeration to say that everything I know about popular American music comes from one band put together by Roger McGuinn called the Byrds, but it’s not too far off. Tomorrow is McGuinn’s 78th birthday. I thought we might take the occasion for another extended lockdown edition of this series.
I haven’t done justice to McGuinn here. I haven’t even skimmed the surface of his inspirational career. YouTube documents every stage of that career with a wealth of videos. Posting the videos below mostly in the order of the original recordings, I hope to set you off on your own exploration if you find something may not have heard before and like.
McGuinn is an incredibly talented and consequential musician. He has a long and accomplished career behind him. I have tried over the years to get a handle on his career from the fanatic Byrds historian Johnny Rogan’s The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (1997). We badly need a memoir by McGuinn himself. He must have more than a few stories to tell. I apologize in advance for any errors I may have made below.
According to Rogan, McGuinn fell in love with rock music when he first heard Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” released in January 1956 (below). For his fourteenth birthday Roger asked his parents for a guitar. Fortunately, they came through.
Many of us made the progression from folk to rock. Not so Bob Dylan or Paul Simon or Roger McGuinn. They went from rock to folk and back. According again to Rogan, McGuinn was introduced to folk music by a Chicago high school teacher who brought in Bob Gibson to perform for the kids. I take it McGuinn flipped over something like this, from Gibson’s Offbeat Folksongs (1956).
Roger started performing in Chicago area clubs while he was still in high school. By the time he was a senior, the Limeliters were asking him to leave school to back them. He waited until the day he graduated to take them up on their invitation. From the Limeliters he was recruited to the Chad Mitchell Trio. He was the fourth man in the trio (below). This was not consistent with his ambitions.
The Beatles changed everything. McGuinn connected with Gene Clark in Los Angeles over McGuinn’s performance of Beatles songs as a folk artist on acoustic guitar. They asked David Crosby to join them and presented themselves as the Jet Set in 1964. These guys could sing in harmony.
They asked southern California bluegrass star Chris Hillman if he could play bass. He couldn’t but he said he could and quickly learned how. They invited Michael Clarke to play drums and look the part. They called themselves the Byrds. Manager Jim Dickson turned them on to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” for their first single, a number 1 hit in 1965. McGuinn had acquired a Rickenbacker 12-string that he put to use for the memorable intro. Below is the 1990 version of the song with McGuinn, Crosby, Hillman and their guest of honor.
For a follow-up, they turned to Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn Turn.” McGuinn had heard Seeger perform it in downtown Chicago when he was a kid. He added some new chords and put a beat to it. It’s a timely song — it’s always a timely song — in more ways than one. Now it is time to refrain from embracing. The version below also dates from the 1990 get-together.
“My Back Pages” is a 1964 Dylan song. Law & Liberty posted Henry T. Edmondson’s reflections on the song only last week. The version below is with Marty Stuart. Stuart’s beautiful solo recalls the Byrds’ 1968 countrified rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
I have seen McGuinn perform solo with an acoustic 12-string twice. He is a fantastic solo performer. In concert as a solo artist he has recreated the Byrds’ epochal “Eight Miles High.”
“John Riley” is an old British folk song that the Byrds recorded for their 5D (Fifth Dimension) album (1966). This is a beautiful track. I think it inspired some great British musicians to explore their musical heritage.
McGuinn contributed the “Ballad of Easy Rider” to the film Easy Rider in 1969. Dylan scratched out the first few lines on a paper napkin and handed the napkin off to McGuinn, saying he’d know what to do with it. Indeed, he did. The recording reminded fans like me that they were still around and sounding great.
“Chestnut Mare” is the outrageous song that resulted from McGuinn’s collaboration with Jacques Levy on a musical that never came to fruition. It landed on the Byrds’ 1970 (Untitled) double album with the late Clarence White in the band on lead guitar.
Roger has had a successful solo career along with occasional reunions of his old bandmates. McGuinn Clark & Hillman was a one-off in 1979. McGuinn wrote “Don’t You Write Her Off” with Bob Hippard. It was the best song on the album.
In 1991 McGuinn put out the successful Back From Rio album and toured behind it. Elvis Costello gave him the terrific song “You Bowed Down” for the album. We saw Roger on April 21 that year at the old Guthrie Theater with a young band backing him in style. It was a terrific show.
Since 1995 McGuinn has returned to folk music with his Folk Den Project. He’s been recording a song a month and posting the recording along with his annotations and lyrics on his Folk Den site. In 2005 he put out a four-disc set with 100 songs. In 2015 he put out a twentieth anniversary edition with 100 more songs. Below is “Dink’s Song.”
Last year McGuinn and Hillman reunited for a 50th anniversary Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour along with Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Below is a two-hour compilation of videos that gives us some idea of what we missed. We missed a lot.
Best wishes for a happy birthday to Roger McGuinn with thanks for all the beautiful music.