Roger McGuinn Interview with REVERIES October 2001 It may not be exactly the same thing as girls tearing him apart. But for ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn, making folk music for kids is all he really wants to do. Well, that and grow up to be like Andres Segovia.

The past, present and future of The Byrds, the true meaning of music piracy, the vagaries of creativity and the marketing of pop stardom -- he'll talk about all that, sure. But what rocks Roger the most these days is cultivating kids as folk music fans. This time around his medium of choice is not 45s and radio airplay, but audiofiles and the Internet, which he calls "the new radio."

Says Roger: "The Internet is kind of the kids' domain. They live and breathe it. So it is a good way to reach them."

Back in 1965, as the whole world knows, Roger used a technology called the 12-string electric guitar to define folk-rock, a new brand of music that sustains into the present day.

Mission accomplished.

Exactly thirty years later, in November of 1995, he started another technology-induced adventure. He began uploading digital recordings of his favorite folk songs to Folk Den, now hosted by his Web site, McGuinn.com (and also on Reveries.com). With this new folk minstrel foray, Roger McGuinn continues to press his stamp on pop culture, albeit this time without as much fanfare.

He humbly labels Folk Den "a global community service," and quietly, unfailingly, adds a new song every single month. It's just Roger's voice, his guitar, and a hope that the next generation of kids might also love folk music. He likes to call Folk Den, now about 70 songs strong, "a coffee table book on the Internet."

Satisfied merely to park himself at the Internet's doorstep? No. Roger and wife Camilla have now taken their passion for folk songs to the land. They've packed up their van with recording equipment and traveled up the Eastern seaboard to the homes of folk legends Pete Seeger, Tommy Makem and Jean Ritchie. There they've recorded a just-released CD, Treasures from the Folk Den. Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Odetta are featured, among others, too.

"It was much like what John and Alan Lomax had done back in the 30s," Roger writes in the CD's liner notes. "They'd gone out with an early disc recording machine to record people in the Appalachians singing almost forgotten songs…only I was going to use a computer with multi-track software instead of a tape recorder."

The project was a labor of love for Roger and Camilla; the result packs surprising appeal. Try playing Finnegan's Wake and see how long before the kids start singing along. Then the grownups. Then Tim Finnegan himself. "Oh, yeah, absolutely," says Roger. "It's just a wild party."

Friendly, relaxed and ready to laugh, Roger McGuinn is a man of very few words. But every word counts.

Why do you hope that kids will take an interest in folk music?

Well, they're the next generation. I mean the old folk singers are going to die. So somebody has to carry it on.

What was it about folk music that intrigued you when you were a kid?

I loved the stories and the melodies, the folklore behind the songs, that they all had a lot of personality. The melodies are wonderfully melodic, with a lot of intricate melodies. They're usually from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Maybe it's even a genetic thing, some kind of roots to these songs that my forefathers were into. I don't know. But I just love the music.

What were some of your favorite folk songs as a child?

My favorites are the songs that are on the Folk Den, basically. I've got about 70 of them on there, and there are more coming. These are just songs that I love. I choose the songs that I love. There's no other agenda really. I just like the songs.

I started out with a cowboy song called Old Paint back in November of '95. And that's just a really pretty melody about a cowboy who wants to die on his horse, or have his bones put on his horse and sent off into the desert. That's how much he loves his life. It's just a romantic thought.

Then I've got sea chanteys. The Argonaut is a version of Blow Ye Winds of Morning. John Riley is a love song. I don't know, I just love 'em all. I really don't have any favorites in here. I think I prefer sea chanteys maybe. Something about the swashbuckling. Maybe I saw a lot of Errol Flynn movies when I was a kid!

What's the response been like so far to Folk Den?

It's been tremendous. I've gotten great press from The New York Times on down to other journals around the world. I do it once a month and it takes about a day or so every month, out of my life. It's really a labor of love. I enjoy doing it. It's one of my favorite things to do.

Folk music is so poetic, it's authentic and it's American. Why aren't we hearing more of it, especially now?

I think the situation has improved since '95 when I started doing this. There's a lot more interest in acoustic and folk music in the last five years. I'm very encouraged by that. But I'm continuing my bit with the Folk Den. I'm not going to stop.

There are a lot of other Web sites devoted to folk music, the best of which probably is the digital traditional folk song database. It's at Mud Cat Café. It's a database of about 6,000 traditional songs. I use it as a reference for the Folk Den, quite often.

Reading the liner notes, it sounded like you had the time of your life recording your new CD, Treasures from the Folk Den.

It was great fun…yeah, yeah. It was wonderful. Going to Pete Seeger's house. Catching Joan Baez on the fly in a garage. It was just wonderful fun.

It was also a mission. We packed the gear into the van and drove up the East Coast and had a timetable of people, and schedules to meet. Tommy Makem first. And then drive down to Pete Seeger's and then to Jean Ritchie's, and then Odetta and Judy Collins in the city.

 

It was very organized and orderly but it was also tremendously exciting, especially going to Pete Seeger's house. We felt like kids going to see Santa Claus! Having a meal with him up there, sitting around in the living room, jamming. He was very relaxed and enjoyed the whole thing.

You became famous as a crossover artist, blending folk with rock. Do you see any future crossover potential between folk and other forms of music?

I don't know. It's pretty well been exploited I think in that capacity. A lot of that stuff's already been done. It's continued to be popular. A lot of new bands come up and they kind of emulate that style. I don't think there's a whole lot of room for expansion.

That's why I went back to the roots. The expansion was fun and it's still going strong, but the roots were getting lost. I'm more concerned about the roots music now than trying to blend it into other things.

Are you planning to go back to rock at some point?

I will. I have a tremendous number of songs I wrote for a rock CD like Back from Rio. I certainly have enough material for a good electric CD. I plan to do that in the near future.

Camilla is very involved in co-writing songs with you. She's also listed as co-producer on Treasures from the Folk Den.

Well, we've been working together since 1978. It's just a very natural thing where we collaborate, come up with ideas and kick them back and forth.

Is her contribution more musical or lyrical?

It's lyrical. But she does have a musical mind. Actually, she reads music better than I do. She studied guitar at UCLA and plays piano, too.

She brought to your attention the poem, America for Me, which is your October 2001 contribution to Folk Den.

Yes. Even though it's not a traditional folk song I did it for the tragedy in New York, as a tribute. Camilla found it in a book of poems she had in high school. We were in San Francisco in 1981 and she was going through my sister-in-law's library. We were at her house. She found this book and she said, "Hey, wouldn't this make a great song?"

So I got my guitar out and made up a tune to it. We liked it and we discovered that the copyright was about to expire and it was about to go into the public domain. So I copyrighted it in 1981, as a song. The recording that's on MP3.com I just did the other day in my home studio.

You were a very early adopter of the Internet. What is it about the online world that you find so attractive?

I have always loved communication. I'm a radio enthusiast. I've been into two-way radios and short wave and all kinds of communication radios over the years. I'm not a ham but I'm into radio like ham.

When the Internet opened up it was an expansion of that. First started out with email and newsgroups and then the Web opened up. The Web was a beautiful, colorful thing (laughs) that you could do all kinds of things with. So I've just kind of enjoyed it. It's just part of my gadget-loving nature.

So many other rock stars have railed against the threat of piracy on the Internet.

Yeah, I don't think they get it. They're just looking at the bottom line and worrying about somebody pirating. You know, when you get your songs played on the radio, people can tape that and the quality is just about good as an MP3. I don't know what they're worried about. It's just pretty silly really. I've only gained exposure through the Internet, as opposed to losing record sales.

You testified before the U.S. Senate to that effect.

I also testified that the record companies don't pay royalties like they say they will. Most people don't know about that. Mine is not a unique case. It's across the board. Did you see the Courtney Love -- Courtney Love does the math? It was on the Internet a year or so ago. She outlined this fictitious group that sold two million copies and made a few thousand dollars. Might as well have been working at the 7-Eleven (laughs)!

You know, we make music because we love it. Most musicians don't really care about the money. I think the record companies have been taking advantage of that for a long time. The only good thing I ever got out of a hit record was the publicity it generated and got people to come to concerts. There was good money there.

You earned an enduring place in history with a technology called the 12-string electric guitar. How else have technologies affected the creative process for you?

Well, aside from the use of computers as a recording machine, I experimented with a Moog synthesizer early on and decided that I didn't particularly like electronic music that much. It's kind of fun to experiment with. But to try to use it as a musical instrument, to synthesize orchestras and violins and things, it falls short. It doesn't sound like real music to me.

I can hear a (computer-generated) track a mile a way. It drives me nuts. The Weather Channel runs these awful MIDI (Musical Instrument Data Interface) tracks behind their weather reports. I'm really not that pro-technology. Most of the hip-hop tracks on the radio are using MIDI tracks. All the big drums and everything -- it's all MIDI stuff. It doesn't sound that great to me.

Does technology affect the way you write songs?

Only the word processor. I find it helpful to get a song up on a word processor and then, instead of having to use an eraser on a legal pad, you can go in there and re-write lines and it's much neater.

What is the creative process like for you? Where do all those great songs come from?

I don't know. It's something that nobody's really ever figured out. It's almost like you're a radio receiver and the signals are coming from outer space or something (laughs). It's really not you when it's working properly; it's coming from somewhere else. It's what they call "inspiration." So it's whatever you attribute that to.

Were some songs more like that than others for you?

Yeah. I think so. Some songs are more studied and more calculated. Others songs just pop into your head. Mr. Spaceman was one that just sort of arrived. It's a silly song but I just started playing guitar one day and got a series of chords that I liked and hooked up a melody to it. And then I was looking out the window and kind of fantasizing about a flying saucer landing out there in the front yard. The song came out in probably about 30 minutes.

Now, Chestnut Mare was much more calculated. It was based on a Broadway play I was writing with my friend, Jacques Levy. The storyline was from Peer Gynt, where there is a reindeer that goes off a cliff and Peer is chasing this reindeer. So we adapted that story to the Western United States. That was a much more of a calculated song. A lot of people think it's that I'm really into horses. But it was written for a play.

When you wrote Rock and Roll Star…

 

That was a quick song. That just came out in a half an hour or so.

You made pop stardom sound almost quaint.

(Laughs). Well, we were making fun of it.

Do you think being a rock star will ever be that simple again?

Well, it is that simple, when all the things are lined up right. It really doesn't take all that much. Nowadays it takes more because there's much more competition, and it helps to be supermodel beautiful if you're a female (laughs). And then if you can sing a little, that's nice too. But it was that easy, really. It's not that hard to do it if you line it all up.

The legend is that you picked Michael Clark as your drummer because he looked like one or two of the Rolling Stones.

Right. He looked like Brian Jones and Mick Jagger. He wasn't a drummer at all. He didn't play drums, as far as I know. Some people backpedal there and say, "Oh, no, he used to play drums in high school." But I don't think so. He did learn, though.

How much of the Byrds' success was the music and how much was the marketing?

It was a combination. I think we were fortunate to get a deal with a large label that had clout, Columbia Records. Then we happened to look right. We had a good songwriter, Gene Clarke, and David Crosby who was a good harmony singer. And I played guitar. There were just a lot of things that worked well together. It was kind of a "right place at the right time" situation.

Jimmy Buffet has made a brand out of "Margaritaville" -- all kinds of licensed merchandise, retail stores, and so forth.

 

More power to him. He's an entrepreneur.

Would you ever consider doing something similar with one of your more famous songs or even develop Roger McGuinn or The Byrds as a brand?

I don't really think so. I'm not inclined to merchandise things. I'm more into the music part of it.

You said once that you'd like a career that's at least as long as Andres Segovia's.

Well, he was a role model. He was in his nineties and booked into Carnegie Hall when he died. I thought, "Wow, that's really cool. To be able to do it until you die, to die with your boots on." So, yeah, I like that idea a lot.

What else would you like to do?

I just want to keep doing it. I love what I do. I love performing, singing for people. Writing songs, performing. I don't really want to do anything else.

The new CD and the Folk Den are basically what I'm thinking about right now. I'm not playing clubs anymore. I've found that most of my fans don't want to come to clubs. They don't want to park in the bad part of town, stay out late and be around cigarette smoke, and a lot of things that clubs have going. So I concentrate now more on concert halls. My new agent is more plugged into the fine arts concerts.

Didn't hear any mention of a Byrds reunion in there…

No, that falls under the heading of merchandising! It wouldn't be a satisfying thing for me to do. It may satisfy some fans. I get a lot of people e-mailing me about that. But it wouldn't be any fun. I think it would dilute the legacy of The Byrds.

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