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‘Jingle Jangle’: Folk-Rock Memories of The Byrds

For so many people, myself included, the emotional pull of music is often intoxicating. For in its unique way, music has the magic power to catalogue so many of the salient points, watershed moments, and marking posts of our lives. Hearing an old song can, in an instant, bring a laser-sharp focus to the timeworn memory of an old girlfriend from high school or college who you knew a lifetime ago. Hearing a song from a certain period in our lives can take us back to a place where we might have worked, or maybe to a heartbreaking moment when someone who we loved dearly passed away.

Lyrics and melodies can blow away the dusty cobwebs that cloak those indelible mental still life images of a long ago summer vacation where the gentle world of our youth resides forever in a series of idyllic moments lost in time. So often, the opening lines of an old song have the power to catapult us back to a point in time that is buried way down deep in the bottom of a file drawer inside our mind. The music of certain artists shines a light on the shadowy image of who we once were in yesterday’s world. It pulls us back to the long ago and far away.

For me, the music of the 60’s folk-rock band, the Byrds, reaches out with that emotional pull. Quite recently, while driving in the car, taking-in the backdrop of the frozen New England countryside flashing by on the other side of the widow, out of my radio came perhaps the most enduring cover version of a Bob Dylan’s song; “Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds.

It had been eons since I’d heard anything from the legendary band that was founded in Los Angeles in 1964, and by 1973, had vanished forever. In the decade of the 60’s, the Byrds came to be known to the world as America’s Beatles. Only a small handful of 60’s bands have enjoyed the lasting influence across the decades as they have.

From my perspective, they were not exclusively responsible for crafting folk-rock, however, what set them apart from other American musical artists of their time, was their ability to marry together the creative energy of the British Invasion with the lyrical purity of contemporary folk music. With cutting edge songs like “Eight Miles High,” The Byrds were also on the leading edge of melding psychedelic rock together with country-tinged rock in a unique way. The cohesive element in their musical equation was found in their heavenly harmonies.

Hearing again that distinctive trademark jingle-jangle sound of the Byrds founder Roger McGuinn’s 12-string electric Rickenbaker guitar was akin to diving into the deep end of the fountain of youth. That unique jangling guitar style that he employed would have enormous influenced rock giants like Tom Petty, the Eagles and Poco. One can clearly hear the sound of the Byrds in page after page of Petty’s song catalogue. The underpinning of those timeless and pristine harmonies from West Coast folkie singer-guitarists David Crosby and Gene Clark swept me up, and “cast its dancing spell my way.” In a frozen moment in time, the sound of it took me by the hand, and lead me down the foggy path of my own yesterdays.

In their halcyon days, the Byrds burst upon an unsuspecting music scene in 1965, and were seen by many critics and fans alike as a hybrid of Dylan and the Beatles, as Roger McGuinn credits having seen George Harrison playing a 12-string electric Rickenbaker in “A Hard Day’s Night” as the catalyst for his own love of the instrument. The mix embodied in the Byrds recipe also included a healthy amount of beautiful Beatlesque harmonies that completed the rich musical meal. An ironic twist is that, as time passed, the Byrds actually went on to influence the Beatles as the Liverpool lads had once influenced them.

Their chart-topping hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man, “My Back Pages,” and “All I Really Want to Do” amplified the combination of the up-tempo pop sound of the Beatles alongside of the message-rich lyrics of Bob Dylan. Their biggest hit, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” came from a song written by the legendary folk icon and political activist, Pete Seeger. Projecting a biblical theme, Seeger took the lyrics from a passage in the Book of Ecclesiasts (3:1-8) in the bible, and its musical centerpiece was the 12-string jangle of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker that broke new musical ground.

Their noteworthy original compositions like “Eight Miles High,” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” also cemented the reputation of the Byrds as being at the vanguard of American music’s recalibrated response to the British Invasion as their material exerted a powerful influence on American music. This folk-rock rich musical portfolio led to the band being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. As I say, for me, after so many years have slipped by like evening shadows, hearing again that hypnotic sound of the Byrds on a chilly winter day in New England was like a taking a little three minute musical magic carpet ride that melted away the years.

Today, in the techno-pop Hip Hop-driven music of these rapidly changing times, the angelic harmonies and unique musical backing of a band called the Byrds still hangs over the folk-rock landscape. It still hangs over me as well. The Byrds, and their timeless music, are a bit like a haunting and glamorous ghost from a time that is now long gone. A time that can now only be seen in my long ago memories, and felt in music’s enduring and intoxicating emotional pull.

Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough, Massachusetts.