On Friday, April 28 Roger McGuinn, founder of The Byrds, will be bringing his one-man show to Suffolk Theater. We spoke to him recently about the show as well as his project, Folk Den, and whether or not he influenced Dylan to go electric.
Who were your biggest influences in the early ’60’s, before you formed The Byrds?
It started with Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” back in 1956 and then in 1957 I was turned onto folk music. My music teacher brought a folk singer to our high school and I loved what he was doing. That’s why I went to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and studied to play the 12-string guitar and five-string banjo. Then I got into Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Josh White, Odetta, Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly—all the folk singers.
You’ve become quite an accomplished guitar player. How many guitars do you own?
I have a few Rickenbackers, and some acoustic guitars and banjos. They’re basically just tools. I’m not a collector.
Do you think Dylan was inspired to go electric because of The Byrds’ success with “Tambourine Man?”
He was aware of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and it might have been an eye opener that we got a number one hit with one of his songs that we rearranged to be a rock song. But there was something in the air. Everyone was sort of going that way.
Why is your Folk Den project important for music lovers and musicians to have as a resource?
The music could get lost in the shuffle. It’s definitely part of our heritage and culture. I compare it to architecture, where people like to bulldoze the old Victorians and put up glass and steel high–rises instead. This is an effort to protect the old, wonderful things. It started out of my concern that new folk singers were basically singer/songwriters and they weren’t doing the traditional music any more. I thought I’d make an effort to keep the traditional songs alive, so I put them up on the internet [updated monthly since 1995] as a free download. I have over 250 of them up now as mp3s with lyrics, the chords and a little story about the song. It’s sponsored by UNC Chapel Hill as a public service.
In a 2008 interview you said you specialize in playing in older, refurbished theaters. What is it about these kinds of theaters that attract you?
I really love the old, refurbished theaters. It’s kind of like folk music. I always walk on the stage and say, “wow, maybe George Burns worked this place or some of the old Vaudeville people.”
What can we expect from this show as far as what you’ll be playing?
People come to hear the hits and I don’t let them down. I also mix in a few folk songs. It’s not a whole program of folk music. I tell stories between the songs and the whole thing kind of ties together like an autobiographical play.
Do you prefer performing solo, as opposed to with a group?
Very much so. It’s [something] of a hump to get over, if you can get over the stage fright of being up there all by yourself in the spotlight. But once you get over that it’s really fun and the rapport with the audience is much greater.