It is really strange. Three songs, Turn, Turn, Turn, Mr. Tambourine Man and sometimes My Back Pages as recorded by The Byrds have been going through my head—constantly for over a month now. Why is this?
It is certainly rare for any song to so constantly occupy my mind. Over and over and over, they go on and on and on. Waking in the morning, I find one of these tunes roaming my consciousness. Heading to bed, my mind runs through portions of these songs. I do not grow tired of this, but become more fascinated each day as to the meaning of this experience in my life. I have even listened to whole albums on YouTube by the Byrds.
It all seems to have started, or perhaps was re-energized, when I stayed up late to watch once again John Sebastian’s Folk Rewind. It is a great show of music I more or less missed because of my interest in Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The show has aired on PBS several times and I always find the performance by Roger McGuinn as the highlight for me. I don’t really know why. Perhaps I am on a journey to discover why and hopefully something new about myself.
Roger McGuinn heard Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel and decided he wanted to play music. Beginning in the folk revival era after having the opportunity to study at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Jim McGuinn, his real name, must have been in the right place at the right time and was able to get work with major artists, including The Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin. One day he discovered The Beatles and recognized they were using folk chords; probably filtered down to them through the skiffle music movement that had originated in America, only with a new beat. He began playing folk tunes with The Beatles beat and is now attributed to having inventing the folk-rock genre. He soon teamed up with David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke and fronted the band called The Byrds. The Byrds literally invented a variety of music genres from folk-rock to psychedelic-rock to country-rock.
An important characteristic of the sound of The Byrds was the jangly sound of McGuinn’s guitar. The story told by band members is that they went to The Beatles movie A Hard Days Night and took notes. They outfitted themselves with the same instruments that The Beatles members were playing. McGuinn noticed that the electric guitar that John Lennon was playing seemed to have a second set of tuning keys when turned sideways. It was a twelve-stringed electric Rickenbacker and he had to have one. He practiced eight hours a day and developed a unique style blending rock picking with some banjo fingerpicking. During a recording session, it was felt that the guitar sounded a bit “thuddy,” so the engineer for the session heavily compressed the sound; thus the signature McGuinn Guitar sound was born. A sound that I can’t seem to stop thinking about.
A quick note here about the guitars of Roger McGuinn. While he did play banjo and the twelve-stringed guitar, he also had a special version of the Rickenbacker and a seven-stringed Martin acoustic. The Martin had an extra G string.
To me, it seems the Byrds fell into many of the awkward experiences of popular music of the time that resulted from the introduction of the LP record. They had folk roots and quickly saw that folk could merge with rock. From there they got into drugs and experimented; even with eastern music styles and with jazz. McGuinn was heavily influenced by John Coltrane and Coltrane’s influences can be heard in some of his guitar solos. The LP ushered in a new form of recording. Instead of songs standing alone as singles on one side of a record, they melded together thematically and stylistically. Thus, The Byrds had forays into country that nearly infuriated country audiences; getting booed at The Grand Ole Opry, and confusing their folk-pop-rock followers. With each new recording came a new sound. The backstage issues the band experienced were just as confusing.
I guess I would sum up the legacy of The Byrds by first saying that, as with most popular bands, they chased commercial success. However their musical experimentations meant they gained only modest numbers of top hits and many middle charters in both the singles and album categories. Therefore their greatest legacies are the influences they left on music and other bands. Notably, The Beatles said The Byrds were the only band to influence them. Interesting, since it was The Beatles that originally influenced the Byrds.
When folk-rock, psychedelic-rock or country-rock are discussed, the Byrds are usually attributed as among the original creators of those styles. As I was writing this, I decided to read the lengthy Wikipedia entry about the Byrds. It pretty much confirms what I think. As for Jim ‘Roger’ McGuinn, he says, “no way” about doing anymore Byrds reunion stuff. Perhaps because he is a Christian and wants to distance himself from the epic monumental contributions he made to popular music. The Byrds today are considered to be among the top half dozen groups that transformed popular music.
I’m still on this journey to discover what my fixation is with those three tunes, the band, the man, the guitar and the style is all about. Since I was somewhat absent from the birthing of this music it is now intriguing to me. During the sixties, I was learning to play the trumpet, I can recall hearing people comment about the new controversial music as having little musical substance, sometimes played by young people who learned three chords and played this simplistic music of little lasting value. To many, the electric guitar was simply used to make a lot of noise.
I went from devotion to The Tijuana Brass to early jazz and swing with only a short attempt to indulge in the pop music of my generation. I always knew of other musical genres of substance, but always found a reason why they were not for me. Country was too twangy, folk was too simple, etc. I had reasons, particularly when I was considering myself a record collector of early jazz and swing from the 20s, 30s and 40s. Then I was purist.
Over the years, I have become much less snobby about music, however, I still have obstacles toward pop music from the eighties on. Something happened at that time and it may have originated in the disco movement. That is another story I may look at one day.
Roger McGuinn is still active and touring. After 50 years in the music business, I can’t imagine how many times he has played those famous notes and chords to the three songs. I have often wondered what if would be like to always have to keep reliving past times playing the same hit tunes over and over. I know this happens for McGuinn, however, he has moved on and returned to his folk roots. He runs an excellent website called the Folk Den. His wife Camilla writes a great blog about their travels. McGuinn is still a mover and shaker in the music business. He seems to be living his dream of being a troubadour; traveling the world, playing music, story telling and writing. He gives his voice to several causes such as literacy charities, music downloads and recording royalties for musicians.
It could be that I need to re-think my ways of listening to music, that is, music with lyrics. I have always said that the lyrics really don’t matter much to me, that they simply become part of the phrasing of the music. Most people probably think of a song as saying something through music. I think of a song as something said as a way of phrasing music. So, I don’t really pay nearly as much attention to what a song is saying as I should. Folk music has story content and meaning. Perhaps I need to dig into some folk music.
Roger (Jim), if you ever find this writing and music confession, please know that you are playing; playing some yet to be identified part in my musical journey. You may even play a part in some discoveries I may make one day. Until then, I say thank you for your massive historical contributions to music.
Wikipedia: The Byrds
Roger McGuinn’s website
Wikipedia: Roger McGuinn