The Bob Dylan Center℠ will welcome Byrds founder Roger McGuinn to the World of Bob Dylan conference on Saturday, June 1 at 8 p.m. In preparation for this exciting event, we have put together this brief retrospective of the Byrds, Bob Dylan, and their shared influence on one another.
Following hot on the heels of the British Invasion, the Byrds, formed in 1964 by Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, and Chris Hillman, combined folk-rock lyricism with electric pop sensibilities. Though they are known more for their covers than their original compositions, the group nevertheless had an enormous influence on their contemporaries. In The Byrds: Under Review, rock historian Richie Unterberger claims that the genius of The Byrds was combining “Beatles-like” elements with the lyricism of Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger. Similarly, in a short biography written for All Music, Unterberger traces their influence on several other genres and styles as well, noting that they played a “vital role in pioneering psychedelic rock and country-rock, the unifying element being their angelic harmonies and restless eclecticism.”
The complex hybridity of this collective is recorded in Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyoncé. Two of the Byrds founding members came from established traditional folk acts, McGuinn from the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Gene Clark from the New Christy Minstrels. Their bassist Chris Hillman joined the band after collaborating on a Bluegrass album, and before they received an advance from Columbia records, Stanley records that Clark had been “playing on cardboard boxes, with a tambourine for a snare.” Based on Stanley’s account, even amid these raw influences was a daring impulse towards a sort of technological futurism: “In the press, McGuinn wouldn’t shut up about planes,” Stanley quips, and he even refers to a pair of Byrds songs as “jet-age hymns.”
The Byrds’ Dylan covers were smash hits, particularly their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was a number 1 hit in both America and the UK in June 1965. The song remained on the chart for 13 weeks and Stanley credits this interpretation of Dylan’s composition with single-handedly launching folk rock. The Byrds’ second album led with the single “Turn! Turn! Turn!” doing for Pete Seeger what they had done for Dylan, and the song stayed at number 1 in America for 3 weeks starting on December 4th, 1965.
Though the Byrds’ first two hit singles originated as Dylan songs, Anthony DeCurtis of the Rolling Stone gives the collective more credit than having simply relied on the enigmatic songwriter for their success: He suggests that the group’s experiments with electronic instrumentation might have influenced Dylan in turn, making it more than a one-sided relationship: “Dylan was really becoming something that was so important” he notes in Under Review, “and The Byrds almost seemed like his translators. It was kind of like Jesus and John the Baptist or something.” This relationship continued, as Roger McGuinn was one of the many featured artists on Dylan’s traveling circus-esque experiment The Rolling Thunder Revue starting in 1975. McGuinn was tremendously influenced by his participation in the tour despite his punishingly short set-times, as recorded in an interview with Rock magazine in 1977, excerpted below:
“‘One night on the bus,’ remembers the singer, “I pulled out my guitar at somebody’s request and played every song in the world. The reason was that I was quite frustrated, because I was used to doing at least an hour by myself and, on the tour, I was down to like six minutes on stage.’ For reasons that transcend his own musical part in the proceedings, however, McGuinn terms Rolling Thunder ‘the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was 130 people, a paramilitary commando team, going out and just taking on the country. Everybody was really tight and together. Nobody was making any errors. I mean, you’d break a guitar string and somebody would change it in 10 seconds. The lights were perfect, the sound was perfect, we covered everything. And it was so power-packed—so many stars, so much good music happening—that you couldn’t help but get off on it.'”
We are excited to be featuring Roger McGuinn at the World of Bob Dylan in Tulsa from May 30th-June 2nd 2019, where he will talk about this long and complicated history of influence and collaboration at a special keynote event on June 1 at 8:00pm. Check out our curated Spotify playlist of some of the most influential Byrds interpretations of Dylan’s work. So you appreciate their own innovative approach, we have included the Dylan originals alongside the covers. Please stay tuned for updates concerning the World of Bob Dylan conference, and for more write-ups, interviews, and scholarship here at the University of Tulsa Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.
Burger, Jeff. “An Interview with Ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn.” By Jeff Burger, 13 Aug. 2017, byjeffburger.com/1977/01/14/roger-mcguinn-talks-about-bob-dylan-and-more/.
From interview with Roger McGuinn by Jeff Burger in Rock magazine, January 1977. Reprinted by permission of Jeff Burger (ByJeffBurger.com).
“The Byrds.” Billboard, www.billboard.com/music/the-byrds.
The Byrds: Under Review. Chrome Dreams, 2007.
“BYRDS.” Official Charts, www.officialcharts.com/artist/11811/byrds/.
Stanley, Bob. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyoncé. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Unterberger, Richie. “The Byrds | Biography & History.” AllMusic, www.allmusic.com/artist/the-byrds-mn0000631774/biography.