BYRDS LEGEND ROGER MCGUINN HAS ALWAYS had a knack for blending the old with the new. He artfully married traditional folk stylings with Beatles-approved rock and catapulted tunes such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the top of the charts. He teamed up with Gram Parsons and Clarence White and created a seminal country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And for the past 14 years, McGuinn has been doing his part to keep classic folk music alive and kicking with his Folk Den Project, where each month he records a tune and posts it on his website for free download. Now he’s taking that one step further by lending his tracks to kompoz.com—a musical collaboration site—where fans can add their own parts, with the winning composition chosen by McGuinn himself. He’s basically still the same guy who got his start playing folk songs in coffeehouses, only now the coffeehouse has wi-fi access and laptops with digital audio workstations.
Talk about the inspiration for the Folk Den Project and how it has evolved over the years.
I started it back in 1995 out of a concern that the folk catalog was being neglected in favor of the singer-songwriter. It was just cooler to be a singer-songwriter, and you can make more money if you publish and write your own songs. There wasn’t the same kind of appreciation for the old folk songs that there had been and I thought somebody needed to do something to spark it a little. The internet had just kind of opened up to civilians and I thought it was a great way to publish things and get them around the world. I started recording the songs at home and putting them up for free downloads. Back then we didn’t have mp3s, so I put up 11khz 8-bit WAV files. It took a while to download but it sounded okay. I went to Real Audio and then finally to mp3s.
How do you go about choosing the songs?
I know a lot of the songs from the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where I studied as a teenager. There’s also a site called Mudcat Café, a traditional folk song database. They have about 8000 songs there and sometimes even have little MIDI files of the songs and the lyrics. I choose them at random, whatever pops into my head.
How elaborate are your arrangements?
Not super elaborate. I’ll put down a scratch track, then vocal, guitar, banjo, maybe mandolin, and then harmonies. Lately I’ve been adding my Rickenbacker to some tunes, and some people really like that. I don’t do anything as a rule, I just do whatever comes to mind.
Folk music has a tradition of adaptation. Do you adapt the songs you post on the Folk Den Project?
Yes. Charles Seeger, Pete’s father, came up with the term the “folk process” to describe how folk songs get passed on from one generation to another through the oral tradition. The song will change and you’ll end up with 50 or 60 different versions, which is really fascinating. I adapted an old song called “The Colorado Trail” that I learned at the Old Town School. My wife Camilla and I changed the lyrics to reflect our experience of the road.
Will you change up the chords as well?
Sometimes. I did that with Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” He put that together from the book of Ecclesiastes. His version just had D, G, and A and I put in the passing chords, the F#m and Em. I completely rewrote it and the last time he published it he used my arrangement because he said he liked it.
Is it tough to strike a balance between respecting tradition and putting your own stamp on a classic?
Yeah, it is. You run the risk of having the old guard criticize you but I was never really worried about that. The Byrds ruffled a lot of feathers. I remember Tom Paxton wrote an article for Sing Out magazine called “Folk Rot,” and he thought we were being disrespectful to the tradition. But a few years later he was doing folk rock and so was everyone else. I was always on the periphery of folk music and never front and center like Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger. I was a session musician in New York, so I felt like I had nothing to lose by violating the traditional side of folk music. Folk music as it stood back in ’65 was starting to wear a little thin and was over-commercialized, specifically because of the Hootenanny show. Then the Beatles came out and it seemed natural to put that together with the Bob Dylan thing. I saw the niche there. In fact, I tried to sound like a cross between John Lennon and Bob Dylan on “Mr. Tambourine Man.” I was really going for that.
You got your classic jingle jangle tone by running your Rickenbacker 12-string direct and using the studio’s tube compressors. How did you replicate that tone live?
We really couldn’t. The compressors we used in the studio were big and clunky. We didn’t ever really think to buy them and put them onstage. What I did was take the guts out of a Vox treble booster and mount it under the pickguard of the Rickenbacker. It just increased the sustain a little. It didn’t get that compressed sound from the studio. I was never able to do it until Rickenbacker made the signature model that I had the compression built into. They custom designed a compressor for it based on the Byrds recordings. It sounded really good. I’ve also used a pedal called the Jangle Box, but lately I haven’t been using anything. I’ve just been going straight into the board and using whatever compressor they have in there.
You’re doing a collaborative songwriting contest for kompoz.com. What do you look for in a collaboration?
I’ve never done it this way before, but I’ll be looking for tracks that complement the song. The tune is “Take This Hammer,” an old prison work song. Because it’s for the Folk Den, I want to keep it in the traditional realm—no wild synthesizers or anything. I imagine people are going to play it straight but there might be a couple of wild ones out there and I wouldn’t kick them out if they’re good.
It seems like a contradiction: You’re the keeper of the traditional folk flame, but you’re doing it with cutting-edge technology.
When Alan Lomax went around recording in the Appalachians in the ’30s, he had the latest technology too. It was a disc recorder/record player. I’m applying the same principle, with a MacBook Pro running Pro Tools.