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So you wanna be a rock ’n’ roll star? No, a folk singer

Bill Taylor writes: Over the decades, the line has constantly been blurred between rock music, folk music and so-called folk-rock. For years, Roger McGuinn danced back and forth across that line and even tightrope-walked along it. And then he came to rest on one side – the side he’d started out on.

You can take the boy out of folk music but you can’t take folk music out of the boy…

This was brought home to me in 1981, when I saw Roger McGuinn play a solo acoustic set at a little club in Philadelphia.

McGuinn, of course, was a founder, frontman and the only member to last throughout The Byrds’ turbulent history. That was back when he wore those totally cool square-framed tinted “granny glasses”.


(Roger McGuinn, old folkie. Photo from the Folk Den Project)

And The Byrds – of course – are considered one of the most influential rock bands of the 1960s. One critic wrote that their blend of close harmonies and McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker (he’s a superb guitarist) became “absorbed into the vocabulary of rock” and resonates even today.

Anyway, he was doing this club gig in Philly and ended the night by taking requests. Someone yelled "Eight Miles High”, which in its day was a drug-culture classic, a soaring, multi-layered piece that is arguably the first psychedelic rock song. Banned from American radio for a while for its supposedly pernicious subtext.

McGuinn burst out laughing: “You think I can pull that off on my own with an acoustic guitar?”

Then he did just that, turning it almost into a folk song. It brought the house down.


Once a folkie, always a folkie…

And, mind-altering rock icon or not, McGuinn’s folk roots are impeccable.

Known in those days as Jim McGuinn – Roger is his middle name – in 1957, aged 15, he enrolled at the Old Town School of Folk Music in his hometown, Chicago, studying banjo and 12-string guitar.

As he developed his skills, he performed at coffeehouses on the folk circuit, playing solo and then backup with the likes of Judy Collins, the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Limeliters.

He recorded as a studio session musician in New York with Collins and Simon & Garfunkel.

 I was in the audience when The Byrds played Newcastle City Hall in 1971. Even then there was a folk element. Sandwiched between Jackson Browne’s Jamaica Say You Will and Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man were two classic fiddle tunes, Soldier’s Joy and Black Mountain Rag, coupled together in a two-minute burst of guitar virtuosity.

The band’s 17-song set ended with a spiritual from the southern States’ pre-Civil-War slavery days, O Mary Don’t You Weep.

“We’d like you to sing along on this one,” McGuinn said, turning the place into a big hand-clapping folk club. YouTube has the actual performance at City Hall:

Throughout his career as a rock musician, McGuinn never lost his enthusiasm for the folk genre. He started touring as a solo acoustic club act in 1981, the year I saw him. My other abiding memory of that evening is his disingenuous introduction of one song as “something I wrote for a biker movie”.

It was Ballad of Easy Rider.

The story goes that Bob Dylan was asked to come up with something to accompany the film’s closing credits. He jotted down eight words, “The river flows, it flows to the sea,” and said, “Give that to Roger. He’ll know what to do with it.”


In 1995, McGuinn founded a website, “Folk Den… Roger McGuinn in the Folk Tradition.The idea was to preserve and promote folk music with a monthly MP3 posting along with lyrics and guitar chords.

Among the downloads and CDs that have emerged from the website are a four-CD box set with 100 of McGuinn’s favourite songs (though 100 seems like a lot of favourites); a four-CD 29th anniversary set released in 2016, a 22 Timeless Tracks set; and Treasures from the Folk Den in 2001, featuring a variety of guest artists, including Judy Collins and Pete Seeger Jr.

Treasures was nominated for a Grammy award in 2002 for Best Traditional Folk Album. My favourite track features McGuinn and Tommy Makem, singing Finnegan’s Wake.

A far cry from Eight Miles High. Or maybe not. It’s all in the interpretation.

Do visit the Salut! Live Facebook group! Click here.





Living nostalgia. Thank you.

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