McGuinn Returns To Folk Roots On 'Treasures'

As the leader of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn spent much of the '60s reconstructing folk music by applying to it the backbeat and textures of rock. More than three decades later, he is performing an almos

As the leader of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn spent much of the '60s reconstructing folk music by applying to it the backbeat and textures of rock. More than three decades later, he is performing an almost reverse function as he attempts to preserve traditional folk songs. Earlier this month, McGuinn released the album "Treasures from the Folk Den" via Appleseed Records, a collection of 18 songs, almost all of which date back centuries.

"About seven years ago, I became concerned about the longevity of traditional folk songs, at least in the United States, because the new singer songwriters -- the new folk signers -- were just doing their own stuff," McGuinn explains. "I was wondering, who's going to keep the tradition alive? So I thought I'd do my bit to keep them going on the Internet."

Through his Folk Den Web site, McGuinn has been making available new recordings of those traditional songs for several years. It attracted the attention of Appleseed, a small but prestigious folk label. "They said, 'Not everybody has computers, so why don't we do a CD we can sell in stores?,'" McGuinn says.

Asked how he defines traditional folk songs, he says, "It's not really a matter of age; it's a matter of authorship. If they're in the public domain, and usually from an anonymous author, then I would call it a traditional song. It could be a newer song but just nobody knows who wrote it. They're the old English, Irish, Scottish ballads. Some of them came to America and were distilled in the Appalachians by the mountain people and interesting changes occurred."

Referring to a track on the new album, he continues, "For instance, the song 'Nottamun Town' was originally 'Nottingham Town,' but they didn't know much about England so they heard it and they said 'Nottamun.' And it was all done by the oral tradition -- it wasn't written down. So they just changed things according to the way they heard them."

McGuinn acknowledges that, as folk is by definition music of the people, rap is conceivably the new folk music. "You could say that," he offers. "I'm gonna let rap music fend for itself though. I like the old traditional ballads, so I do them."

"Treasures" features a virtual who's-who of folk artists. Among those accompanying or singing duets with McGuinn are Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, and Odetta. "They were the people who inspired me to appreciate folk music when I was a teenager and they've inspired me all these years," McGuinn says. "I've just loved their music so it was a natural thing to get them. I'm so honored that they all joined me. So much fun to go to Pete Seeger's house - like visiting Santa Claus."

Song selection was similarly easy. "A lot of the artists chose the songs. Pete suggested 'Dink's Song' and the last song on the album ['Pete's Song'] he put together himself from a section of proverbs in the Bible and then some words that he made up. The tune is an old traditional tune. I just figured 'John Riley' was a good tune to do with Judy. She and I did a sea shanty on her third album so I thought it would be good to do a sea shanty with her on this album. And then Josh White Jr. did a version of 'Trouble In Mind' like his father used to do, which was amazing. Great stuff."

Considering that the Byrds were one of the bands credited with bringing folk into the modern era, some might consider it strange that McGuinn is now returning to the pre-Byrds folk sound. "Well, we accomplished that, and now I'd like to make sure that the wonderful music that we loved back then lives on," McGuinn reasons. "And it's working. More and more people are doing it. They're getting it from my Web site and they're starting to sing it around their homes to their children. I get e-mail from people all the time who appreciate the Folk Den."

Talk of his old group brings up the perennial reunion question. McGuinn is amused when this writer mentions how ex-Byrds guitarist David Crosby told him this year that he thinks there is still unfinished business with the band: "He's always trying to get the Byrds back together and I'm always saying no. I think the business is well finished and it's beautifully finished with the Sony Legacy reissues of the Byrds CDs. It's a complete work."

Not that this means McGuinn will only be issuing traditional material from now on. "My wife and I have written many songs and we'll be doing them later," he says. There is, though, a possibility that McGuinn may release a follow up to "Treasures," regardless of whether it sets the charts alight. "It's a labor of love," he says, "and if it only sells a few copies that'll be great, but if it sells more that'll be better."

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