Roger McGuinn, co-founder of the Byrds, has a lot of ducks in a row: a new album, a forthcoming DVD and a benefit show. The album, CCD (as in “Sea CD”), is a collection of 23 songs of the sea, including renditions of such classics as “Drunken Sailor.” The DVD, with a working title of The River Flows, will be autobiographical. And the show, a benefit for EIES, an organization that aids those with visual disability, will take place at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) in South Orange, New Jersey. Rolling Stone spoke with McGuinn about his recent projects and whether the Byrds can fly again.
You will be performing a show on September 18 in New Jersey, which will benefit EIES of New Jersey.
I don’t really have anything to do with EIES, but I’m happy to be helping them out. I am associated with the Glaucoma Research Foundation, so blindness is something on my mind [McGuinn suffers from glaucoma himself].
What can people expect from the performance?
I’ll be solo, but I’ll have four instruments. I have a seven-string Martin, which I designed for them, a twelve-string Martin acoustic, a twelve-string Rickenbacker electric and a five-string banjo. I’ll go between the instruments and tell stories, sing some of the songs from Byrds, like the hits – “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” “Eight Miles High” – and do songs from my solo career, and some songs from my Folk Den project, which is an ongoing preservation site on the Internet.
Let’s discuss your latest CD, CCD.
I’ve always loved the songs of the sea. I was first introduced to them back in 1957, at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I used to go to Pete Seeger concerts, and he would do songs like “Ruben Ranzo” and talk about how the sailors sang songs to do their work – to raise the anchors, pull up the sails and that sort of thing. And I’ve always just loved the lure of the sea. Over the years I’ve done quite a few sea shanties on The Folk Den, and I went back through The Folk Den to see which ones were my favorites, and then re-recorded them for CCD, which is out now.
And just what is The Folk Den, for those who are unfamiliar with it?
The Folk Den project originated in 1995. I started getting concerned about the longevity of the traditional side of folk music, because the new folk singers were all singer-songwriters. And I was going, “Well, they’re writing great stuff, but what’s going to happen when Odetta dies?” And Pete Seeger is 92. I started putting songs on the Internet for free download, and I’ve done it once a month since November of 1995. So I’ve got about a hundred and ninety-something MP3s up there for free download, along with the chords, the lyrics, and a little story about each song. And some kind of picture to illustrate it. It’s kind of like a coffee table book, but it’s all free. It’s sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and it’s a public service. I’m happy to just be giving back something. And people can find it on my website, mcguinn.com, and click on The Folk Den button, where they can download all these free MP3s and learn the songs. I hope they share them with their friends and families.
Any other projects you’re working on?
We have a DVD in the works, which is kind of autobiographical. It includes some performances and some interviews with people. We’ve got “talking heads” of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Judy Collins, Pete Fornatale and Dave Berry – quite a few people. And it’s got some concert footage in there. The working title is The River Flows. We’re pretty much in the final post-production. It shouldn’t be too long [before it’s released], but we don’t have a hard date for it.
A wide variety of artists have covered Byrds songs over the years.
I love the way Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did some of the Byrds songs, like “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better.” But Hüsker Dü did “Eight Miles High,” and Patti Smith did “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” – some really cool stuff.
Although it wasn’t originally written by the Byrds, what did you think of William Shatner’s version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”?
I thought it was hilarious, as is everything he does. But obviously, it’s all camp. He’s just kidding around, so you have to love it.
Are you on good terms with the other surviving Byrds members, and is there any possibility of a reunion?
I’m on good terms with David Crosby and Chris Hillman. I wished David Crosby a happy birthday a few days ago. We were invited to a surprise party for him in northern California, but we were on the road, unfortunately, so we couldn’t make it. So yes, we’re on good terms. As far as reforming the Byrds, I’ll quote Paul McCartney, who was asked to reform the Beatles back when John Lennon and George Harrison were still alive. He said, “You can’t reheat a souffle.” That’s pretty much the case with me. I don’t want to be an oldies act, kind of dragging around on the road just for the money. I’m really happy doing what I do.