WAUPUN – Singer/songwriter Roger McGuinn emerged from the 1960s as one of American folk music’s greatest innovators.
Now, more than 50 years later, he is determined to be one of American folk music’s most committed curators.
Saturday night, at Waupun’s historic City Hall Auditorium, McGuinn delivered a little of both to the delight of a crowd old enough to remember the Byrds, yet young enough to care what McGuinn is up to these days.
With the lustrous ring of his signature, 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar, this founding father of folk rock arrived on the auditorium stage singing his Byrds mid-60s hit “My Back Pages,” encouraging the mostly over-60 crowd to join in the chorus and recall how “they were so much older then,” but are “younger than that now.”
“I’d like to take you through my back pages,” McGuinn said, settling into his center-stage seat and setting the tone for the evening. For two hours, the 74-year-old leader of folk rock’s most enduring band shared insights into his history and that of the Byrds, embellishing with hit-record originals, post-Byrds solo creations and, of course, the music of Bob Dylan.
“We got a hit with ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ before he (Dylan) was a pop artist,” McGuinn said Friday morning.
That occurred in 1965, when Dylan, as McGuinn put it, “was a well-respected folk singer, but not the rolling stone he was later.”
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was the Byrds’ do-or-die shot at the big time, McGuinn told the crowd Saturday night. Dylan had written the song in 2/4 time, a standard signature for folk music but, McGuinn said, at four minutes and 19 seconds, the tune was too long for AM radio airplay, which in those days tolerated no more than two-and-one-half minutes of music at a pop.
McGuinn recalled how he and singer/songwriter Gene Clark, bassist Chris Hillman, drummer Michael Clark and a “pudgy” harmonizer named David Crosby pondered ways to make “Mr. Tambourine Man” a hit and thereby secure a contract for another record.
Crosby, McGuinn said, didn’t like the song’s folksy, 2/4 trot, especially since the Beatles were burning up the charts with their 4/4 beat. Enter McGuinn the innovator who, Saturday night, first entertained with Dylan’s version of the song, complete with a passable vocal impersonation of his old friend.
Next, McGuinn played a few acoustic-guitar bars from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to demonstrate how a slight rearrangement, in 4/4 Beatles style, became one of the most famous guitar intros in rock music and propelled the Byrds and their rich, multilayered harmonies into the pop music stratosphere.
Gene Clark, who McGuinn said he first met while playing at the Troubadour, Los Angeles’ crucible of 1960s talent, was the folk singer and guitarist with whom he would pen many early Byrds hits.
“He was supposed to play bass (guitar), but we found out he couldn’t play bass and sing at the same time,” McGuinn said of Clark, who died in 1991. “We got Gene’s Gretsch (guitar) away from him and he just sang and played tambourine. Dave (Crosby), became our rhythm guitar player and he played excellent rhythm guitar,”
McGuinn said, adding, “David was a jazz fan and he was always doing different tunings and different chords.”
McGuinn demonstrated his own affection for jazz and flamenco music Saturday night but, in the end, he was and remains saturated in folk.
“I studied at The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago,” McGuinn said Friday.
“That’s where I learned to play the banjo. I was there about three years; it was pretty intense,” he recalled.
“I was the sole accompanist for the Chad Mitchell Trio, from 1961 to about 1962-and-a-half,” he said. “I played banjo for Chad Mitchell.”
As proof, McGuinn banged out the Byrds’ “I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician” on banjo Saturday and also flat-picked some wicked acoustic licks on Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
In line with his latest, folk-music-preservation project, Folk Den, McGuinn Saturday presented “Rolling Down to Old Maui,” a tune sung by 19th Century whalers.
“In 1995, I was listening to Smithsonian Folkways traditional songs and it dawned on me current singers weren’t doing original folk music as Pete Seeger had. These are cowboy songs, sailor songs, chain-gang songs, those I learned at The Old Town School.
“I started recording these songs for free on Folk Den,” he said. “Since November, 1995, I’ve recorded over 243 Mp3s of traditional songs and they are available on the Web, along with lyrics, chords and the stories behind them, to keep these old songs alive.”