Photo Courtesy of Roger McGuinn
As a founding member of the Byrds,
Roger McGuinn helped shape the sound of the sixties with lysergic guitar solos, bewitching harmonies, and the meshing of country and rock into a lasting hybrid. For that, he holds an esteemed place in the firmament of rock and membership in its Hall of Fame, too.
And on March 1
, the seventy-three-year-old rocker will be honored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Sciences
with its first-ever Digital Preservation Under the Radar Award—for pioneering work that does not
involve a compressed 12-string Rickenbacker but rather archivist and curatorial work in the area of folk music.
While he’s best known for his unmistakable electric jangle, McGuinn began as a folk player. His fascination with the music, learned at the Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music and played in coffeehouses, caught up with him later in life. In November 1995, he transposed the lyrics, chords, tablature, and history of the traditional cowboy song “Old Paint” and posted it online to share with others. He decided to keep doing this, once per month, and called his project The Folk Den.
He has now amassed 250 songs, organized by categories like “Seafaring,” “Cowboy,” and “Love.” The most popular category is “Mountain/Southern U.S.” which includes seventy-four songs, spanning everything from “Nine Pound Hammer” to Child Ballads to “Cold Rain and Snow.” McGuinn is methodical; he hasn’t missed a post in twenty years.
Around the same time that McGuinn launched The Folk Den, UNC clinical professor Paul Jones,
who directs SILS' digital archive, ibiblio.org, oversaw a significant upgrade that entailed a dedicated server and one of the earliest streaming audio players. He approached McGuinn about bringing The Folk Den under the aegis of ibiblio, saying that its use of public domain songs and intention to share knowledge made it just the kind of citizen archive the SILS repository was meant to serve.
The Folk Den was especially appealing because access to online folk music resources was scarce, partly due to fears about copyright issues that might arise from unauthorized use. McGuinn’s transcriptions were his compositions, his arrangements, and his performances—or in the public domain. There was no risk in sharing them.
When McGuinn came aboard, Jones admits to being more than a little thrilled.
“The music that you hear that really blows your mind when you’re thirteen or fourteen, it makes a big impression on you,” he says. “When you heard just the sound of 'Tambourine Man,' it didn’t sound like anything else.”
Although library science might seem a world away from what we think of when we think of McGuinn, Jones says it makes perfect sense. He points out that McGuinn, an early Moog owner and inventor of a seven-string guitar, has always been a maverick and an alchemist. “He’s consistently made and remade things,” says Jones. “The way that he took a Merle Travis banjo lick and put it on a 12-string guitar and played it to a Beatles beat for a Bob Dylan song—that’s what we do with remix culture and open-source culture. It’s very creative.”
McGuinn will be honored at UNC’s biannual CHAT festival, which celebrates new media in the arts and humanities. (Check here for more information on the March 1 event.
) Attendees are invited to bring their guitars for a climactic group play-along of a couple of Byrds songs.
“It’ll be a lot of people playing together in the sort of way that Pete Seeger got people to sing together,” says Jones. “It’s gonna be a load of fun.”