A love letter to The Byrds – and the part they played in a musical journey

I love folk and have attended numerous folk festivals and countless gigs, taken part in seminars on the history of English folk song and enjoy writing about it, both on here and in other publications. However, unlike rock which I loved from my early teens, my appreciation of folk came later in life. But after getting into heavy metal as teenager in the early 80s, I started exploring back – to 70s glam rock and 60s beat groups.

And the key link that took me on a musical journey that led me to appreciating what folk music, as well as rock music, had to offer was The Byrds. I knew Mr Tambourine Man, of course, that perfect slice of 60s pop-rock and so one day at Preston Record Library I happened across a greatest hits compilation LP of The Byrds, which I decided to borrow. I taped it and soon fell in love with, not only the aforementioned Mr Tambourine Man, but many other gems like Turn! Turn! Turn, Eight Miles High and Mr Spaceman.

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One song, however, particularly intrigued me and that was the strangely-titled but beautifully sung The Bells of Rhymney. I learnt from the sleeve-notes that it was originally recorded by folk singer Pete Seeger, based on much older words commemorating a real-life mining tragedy in a Welsh coal mining village. It was my first taste of seeing folk songs as something that could be touching and moving and not simply something to joke about with your finger in your ear.

Over the years, I switched to CDs and began amassing the entire back catalogue of The Byrds and also began exploring other artists in the American folk rock vein, too. After a while I thought to myself that if I actually enjoyed American folk rock so much, maybe I might actually enjoy English folk rock, too. Fairport Convention followed, then Steeleye Span and then, as I got more and more enthralled with the beautiful singing of Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior and the fascinating stories behind many of the traditional songs they sung, I took the plunge and began getting into actual folk folk not just folk rock. It opened up a whole new chapter of musical appreciation.

While nothing in the world is ever going to stop me enjoying Black Sabbath’s Paranoid or Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize at full volume I am also tremendously grateful to Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke for helping open up the world of folk to me as well. In particular, a big thanks to The Bells of Rhymney which served as my gateway drug from rock to folk.

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9 thoughts on “A love letter to The Byrds – and the part they played in a musical journey

  1. I agree about the Byrds. I once saw Roger McGuinn do a one man show in which he musically illustrated how the Byrds developed. It was interesting how he decided to switch to the 12 string ‘jingly jangly’ sound. Many greatest hits CDs contain a lot of third rate ‘filler’ but a Byrds compilation could easily fill a CD and have a lot of great music left over. I like admittedly rather long Wagnerian opera but there is always a place for those concise little musical statements at which bands such as the Byrds were so adept. Give me the early folk rock any day over bland music that hyper-commercial bands such as the Eagles were to inflict on the world

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    1. Yes I’ve seen him explain that same process at a solo gig “taking a Dylan song and putting a Beatle-beat on it” as he calls it. And they also went on to do some interesting stuff with country rock, although that was more Hillman’s influence than McGuinn’s.

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  2. It’s interesting how US and UK folk music is the same but different. Some of our folk music is probably based on old British tunes but much of it is protest stuff and old “Negro spirituals.” But we are only a 400-year-old place while your country goes back. what, a couple thousand years? And so we have no medieval tradition to pull from that I think bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention (and later Traffic) did. I am hardly an expert on folk and may well be misstating my case so hopefully, you get my overall meaning.

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    1. Although there are some very ancient songs around much of the evidence points to many of the UK’s traditional folk songs being of 18th/19th century origin. Lyrics to new songs were often written by commercial songwriters in London’s west end (in 19th century England’s version of the Brill Building) and then sold around the country as single sheet “broadsides”. Some of these would be sung for a while and then rapidly forgotten but others – and this is the interesting bit – would take on a life of their own: being adapted by different singers and different communities so there would be a variety of different versions and being passed on orally from one generation to the next – and those are the ones that become folk songs – even though they would have been written by songwriters to start off with, just like any other song. Not sure how widely this stuff is known. Maybe I should do a blog on it?

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