For the past 20 years, McGuinn has been keeping traditional folk music alive by recording a series of these tunes from yesteryear and uploading them for fans to enjoy on his website in a section called Folk Den. In 2016, he celebrated by re-recording 100 of these tunes and issuing the 4-CD set, The Folk Den Project: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (ordering info and song samples are located here).
McGuinn spoke with us about the importance and meaning behind several of these tracks, as well as his own classic material. He also divulged the magic songwriting formula he learned from Clive Davis.
Roger McGuinn: My primary objective was to get the songs saved, so people will remember them and they won't get lost.
Songfacts: There was a great quote on your site about the importance of these songs.
Roger: Before there was a printing press and books, songs captured and preserved our history.
Songfacts: Let's discuss specific songs from Folk Den, starting with "Yellow Rose of Texas."
Roger: It's historically interesting, because it was a song that was sung in the Civil War by the troops, and it was kind of a rallying song. It's gone through many stages, where people have interpreted it in different ways. I went back to look at the original, and it was totally different from what you would hear Mitch Miller do. But it's a great melody, and it was a great song.
Songfacts: And you also reworked the lyrics.
Roger: Yes. You have to from the original, because it was not that "PC."
The song itself can be traced back to 1853, when it was included in a songbook titled Christy's Plantation Melodies. No. 2, and back then, contained such cringe-worthy lyrics as "No other darky knows her no one only me" and "She's the sweetest rose of color this darky ever knew." By the time Mitch Miller scored a #1 hit with the song in 1955 (when it was featured in the classic film, Giant), the offensive word was dropped.
Roger: It's a wonderful old Christmas carol - it's just a fun one. I remember singing it when I was a kid with my parents - around the piano, with my grandmother playing piano and we all sang Christmas carols.
Songfacts: "No Payday in Detroit"?
Roger: I changed that to "Detroit," because it was originally "Last Payday at Coal Creek," which was a historical problem where coal miners didn't get paid. But it was at a time when the financial crisis hit the US, and Detroit was really in trouble, so I changed the lyrics.
Songfacts: "Hard Times of Old England"?
Roger: It's a song about the difficulties that happened back in England - which are still going on - but this was after there was a financial crisis.
Songfacts: "John Henry"?
Roger: John Henry worked for the railroad, and he was driving spikes into rocks to clear the way for the railroad. Around the same time, somebody came up with a steam-powered driver that was even better than human drivers, and he had to compete with it. He did, and he won the battle, but he died in the process.
Songfacts: Which of your original compositions do you think will join the ranks of these timeless songs?
Roger: It's hard to say. I've gotten BMI things for "Eight Miles High" and "You Showed Me" for a million plays on the internet and radio. And "Chestnut Mare" has been covered a lot.
Songfacts: What are the qualities that make those songs timeless?
Roger: I think a good song has to have a good melody, and it has to have a good storyline. I remember Clive Davis would tell me a formula: a good melody, and then you have a verse, and the verse has a pre-chorus and a chorus, and another verse, and some hooks in the front and the back of it. [Laughs]
Songfacts: Sometimes famous songs are reinterpreted in a modern style. How did you feel about the Salt-N-Pepa version of your song "You Showed Me"?
Roger: I loved it. I thought it was great, and I'm always happy when anybody covers anything we've ever written.
Roger: Well, it was done on an airplane ride to England and back. I'm not denying that the Byrds did drugs at that point - we smoked marijuana - but it wasn't really about that.
Songfacts: How much at that point did drugs inspire the Byrds to write material?
Roger: I don't know if drugs really made a difference in our productivity. I think it was just sort of a way to get high. [Laughs]
Songfacts: You've always had a knack for identifying hidden gems. What did you hear in the Dylan song, "My Back Pages," which the Byrds covered?
Songfacts: Did you have any idea at the time of the writing and recording of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album that you were coming up with an original style?
Roger: Not really. We just loved country music so much that we wanted to do an entire album of it. And we thought that everybody else would embrace it the same way we did. Unfortunately, it took about 30 years for that to happen.
Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters of all time?
Roger: I like Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty, Pete Seeger, and Joni Mitchell.
July 20, 2016
Photo(1): John Chiasson
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