Roger McGuinn

The Folk Den


By J.R. Jones

Ever since his band the Byrds electrified folk in 1965, Roger McGuinn has embraced the conflict between musical tradition and modern technology. His love of futurism and high-tech gadgetry resonated weirdly against the Byrds’ folk roots in songs that dealt with relativity (“5D”), extraterrestrials (“Mr. Spaceman,” “CTA 102”), and dolphin language (“Dolphin’s Smile”). Even his new record of solo acoustic performances, Live From Mars, includes liner notes by Tom Servo, one of the robot characters on Mystery Science Theater 3000. And now, with his World Wide Web site, McGuinn is bearing the folk torch into cyberspace, embarking in late middle age on the ultimate busman’s holiday.

With the Folk Den, McGuinn wants to “continue the tradition of the folk process, that is, the telling of stories and singing of songs, passed on from one generation to another by word of mouth.” Actually, McGuinn records the songs on a Windows-based digital home studio and saves them to CD-ROM. On the Web, they’re available as eight-bit, 11-kilohertz digital .wav files or in Real Audio format. Since November 1995 McGuinn has posted 15 traditional folk songs, with tablature and lyrics, and he promises they will “just keep on coming, one a month, for as long as possible.”

No one can predict exactly how the Web will affect folk’s oral tradition; it’s still an infant medium, and the promised integration of telephone and television will radically expand its scope. But judging from the last great collision between folk music and technology–the advent of sound recording–it will probably prove a blessing and a curse, popularizing folk but inevitably corrupting it. McGuinn’s career began as that earlier conflict was still playing itself out, and his music has both shaped and been shaped by it.

The phonograph thrust folk music into the 20th century by adding performance to what had previously been a purely literary record. When folklorist John Lomax was compiling the celebrated print anthology Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (1910), he dragged a 1906 Ediphone around with him, recording his discoveries on crude wax cylinders. By 1933, when Lomax and his son Alan discovered and recorded Leadbelly in a Louisiana prison, he had traded up to a 315-pound portable recorder that cut discs from the trunk of his Ford sedan. After John was named curator of the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song the next year, the Lomaxes found the resources to record such legends-to-be as Bukka White, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, and Son House. By documenting the singer as well as the song, they added an entirely new dimension to the historical record and extended the oral tradition not only around the world but into the future.

While McGuinn undoubtedly drew from these old records–Leadbelly’s 12-string guitar work was an early influence–his introduction to folk music reflected the time-honored values of community and oral instruction. Born in Chicago in 1942, McGuinn was already a guitar-strumming rocker by the time his music teacher at the Latin School invited folk singer Bob Gibson to perform for the class. McGuinn was spellbound by Gibson’s songs and stories. “Bob just played the five-string banjo, sang some folk songs, and blew me away,” McGuinn remembered in Biography of a Hunch, a history of the Old Town School of Folk Music. “I’d never heard music like that before. I wanted to know more about it.”

His teacher told him about the Old Town School, run at that time by the gifted guitarist and banjo player Frank Hamilton. Hamilton, who would later join the Weavers, had taught in Santa Monica with John Lomax’s daughter, Bess Lomax Hawes. From her Hamilton learned to divide his students by level of skill and teach each group the same song at increasing levels of difficulty. Then, after a sociable coffee break, all the groups were brought together for a hootenanny, which reinforced what had been learned, gave each player the kick of hearing it all come together, and fostered a sense of togetherness in the atomizing big-city environment.

From his home at 57 E. Division, McGuinn walked up to 333 W. North, an aging brick building whose third floor then housed the Old Town School. Hamilton put him into the intermediate class, where McGuinn learned a picking style every week, reading tablature off a poster on the wall as Hamilton coached the group. By the next year McGuinn had graduated to the advanced class and taken up the banjo. Soon he was performing at Cafe Oblique, Cafe Roue, and the other coffeehouses that had sprung up around Rush Street; after hours he was jamming at the Gate of Horn, Albert Grossman’s pioneering folk club at Dearborn and Chicago. The introduction of the long-playing record had enlarged the American appetite for all kinds of music, and Chicago, like Cambridge and Greenwich Village, was home to a thriving folk scene.

But as the recording industry created a folk boom, the oral tradition represented by the Old Town School had to coexist, peacefully or not, with the mass distribution of commercial artists. Groups like the Kingston Trio capitalized on the folk market by bleaching away the proletarian sentiments of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; Seeger quit the Weavers because he didn’t want to participate in a cigarette commercial. After he finished high school, McGuinn moved to Los Angeles, where he played with the Limeliters and later the Chad Mitchell Trio, but before long he grew bored with folk. “I think what really killed it was the Hootenanny show on TV,” McGuinn recalled in Songwriters on Songwriting. “It just got to be too commercialized, and it just sort of fell apart.”

When McGuinn inaugurated folk rock with the Byrds’ debut single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” he opened himself up to the same charge, and in fact a great deal of commercial calculation went into the recording of that number-one hit. They chose an unreleased song by Bob Dylan, copied the syncopated rhythm of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” and used an electric 12-string like the one in the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The Byrds always paid tribute to their traditional folk background, and some of their best album tracks were traditionals like “John Riley” and “He Was a Friend of Mine.” But lacking the prodigious writing talent of their British competition, they distinguished themselves most as synthesizers, racing from folk rock to space rock to country rock in less than four years, pulling in elements of blues, jazz, Indian classical music, and bluegrass. Quoted on an early Byrds album cover, McGuinn said that he wanted their music to simulate the whoosh of jet travel, and in fact a forward-looking attitude became part of the group’s mystique.

Since then, the music business has stoked our hunger for “new” sounds. Critics tend to champion the innovative over the familiar; Bob Dylan is usually portrayed as a hero for cranking up an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. The record business, in its headlong rush toward the next big thing, that novel synthesis that will keep the cash registers ringing for another fiscal year, has little interest in traditional music until it’s dusted off, tarted up, and presented in a fresh commercial context. Even folk artists, who 40 years ago would have recorded traditional songs without a second thought, are expected to come up with new product. “The new folk singers all play their own material because of commercial pressure to do so,” McGuinn recently pointed out in Billboard. “Nowadays, you’re not a valid artist unless you write your own stuff.”

But traditional folk music–the cowboy songs, the sea chanteys, the Old English ballads–was entrenched, indigenous music, drawing its character from a particular locale, embodying the values and experiences of a community rather than an individual author. A singer might leave his mark on a song, reshaping a lyric or the cadence, but when he handed it down to his children, it was still a constant, a fixed part of their life together. The spread of recorded music around the globe has eroded the walls between cultures, undermining the very conditions that nurture folk art.

Small wonder, then, that even a celebrated genre-bender like Roger McGuinn might pine for the simplicity of his coffeehouse days. The 60s jet-setter flies closer to the ground now, driving from show to show with his wife and his guitars from his home in Florida, reaching into the past for inspiration. In his solo acoustic set, he intersperses songs and stories, presenting a musical autobiography of sorts. His songs ring with the same chiming patterns he learned at the Old Town School. “I like the style that I’ve grown into,” he admitted in Dig magazine. “After years of wild experimentation, I’ve relaxed and learned to enjoy the rolling 12-string sound.”

Even as he plunges into the uncharted territory of cyberspace, he does so with a project that’s conservative in the best sense of the word. McGuinn treats the Folk Den songs with enormous respect, augmenting each with a bit of artwork, a written introduction, and playing tips for banjo or guitar. Some of the introductions are historical, others personal; many draw on his days in Chicago. Given the limits of the technology, his Web site is fairly interactive: McGuinn invites E-mail, and in Billboard he said he hopes visitors will download his sound files and play along with them. The site provides links to other folk databases, including the excellent Folk Music Home Page, and to McGuinn’s bulletin board, where he responds to fans’ questions, often within a day.

McGuinn sees folk making a comeback and attributes its renewed popularity to the efforts of people on the Internet. For now, the World Wide Web represents a new delivery system for music and information, free of the financial strictures that govern the record business (the Folk Den, for instance, is hosted by the University of Arkansas). And insofar as the Web lets music lovers communicate with one another, it will breathe new life into folk. But a hundred years from now, when the Web is tomorrow’s Ediphone, it will have rendered the world even more homogeneous.

One thing is certain: the oral tradition is slipping into the past. McGuinn concedes as much when he equates it with the transfer of data through a telephone cable. One of the more moving songs in the Folk Den is “Lost Jimmy Whelan,” the mournful tale of a drowned man whose ghost comforts a bereaved maiden. “I recorded this for the Folk Den just minutes after hearing of the unfortunate death of Bob Gibson,” McGuinn reveals in his introductory note. “If it hadn’t been for Bob, I might never have learned this, or any other folk song.” Over computer speakers, with one’s eyes closed, it sounds eerily like an old phonograph.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): collage by Victor Thompson.