Two decades ago, the World Wide Web was just coming into being. It had more infrastructure than content back then, mostly consisting of the virtual equivalent of empty filing cabinets. But one of the Web’s most idiosyncratic repositories was already robust and growing at UNC-Chapel Hill – Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den.
Folk Den is an online archive run by founding Byrds member McGuinn, in which he records one traditional folk song per month and puts it online with lyrics and notes for free download. McGuinn has been doing this on the first of every month since November 1995, covering murder ballads and sea shanties and everything in between, and he hasn’t missed a month yet.
Tuesday is the first of March and will bring song number 245 in the series (McGuinn won’t say what it is yet). And he’ll also be appearing in Chapel Hill that afternoon as part of UNC’s Chat Festival, in which he’ll receive the newly created “Digital Preservation Under the Radar Award” from the School of Information and Library Science.
McGuinn will also do a lecture/performance that concludes with a big free-for-all jam. So bring your guitar if you are so inclined, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to brush up on “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
“I do a lecture that isn’t really a performance, although I do sing a few things during it,” McGuinn said by phone from his home in Orlando, Fla. “I have presentation software with song clips of Eartha Kitt, Chad Mitchell Trio and others who inspired me. It’s a motivational talk about being prepared to grab opportunities when they come along. Then at the end, I invite people to come up with their guitars and sing four or five Byrds songs, which everybody seems to enjoy. There’s strength in numbers and usually more people in tune than out.”
An Arkansas start
Folk Den actually began at the University of Arkansas in 1995, when a graduate student named Kenton Adler put together a website dedicated to the Byrds. McGuinn himself contributed pictures and sound files of Byrds songs. Then he got the idea for the Folk Den and started adding new recordings in November of that year.
Unfortunately, Adler couldn’t offer much digital storage space. Enter Paul Jones, director of UNC’s SunSITE (now ibiblio), billed as a “collection of collections” – a digital library of freely available music, open-source software and other artifacts.
Jones offered to host Folk Den and also present the songs in a superior format, Real Audio (which has since advanced to MP3 digital audio files). McGuinn moved the Folk Den to UNC in 1996, and it’s been there ever since.
“Right from the start, people in places like the Czech Republic were snarfing files as Roger uploaded them,” Jones said. “Roger is paying unique homage to the songs that influenced him or he thinks are important or kinda fun, whatever eccentric reason he has. It’s not cold academic collecting by a purist, it’s a passionate collector putting his own secret love sauce on it.”
Passing the baton
While Folk Den is an online phenomenon, it has yielded a couple of physical albums over the years, including 2001’s “Treasures from the Folk Den” and a four-disc box set released in 2005 to mark its 10-year anniversary. Another four-disc set of 100 songs is in the works and should be out this year.
“It’s a good thing that the box sets are only every 10 years because that’s the hard part,” McGuinn said. “Figuring out the sequence and the material and making sure not too many similar-sounding songs come in a row. There are a lot of things to consider. Right now, we’ve got storyboards lined up, moving around and rearranging.
“Coming up with songs to do is the easy part because there are thousands of folk songs,” he added. “So I’ll never run out. But yeah, some months do go down to the wire with me wondering what to do. It always comes to me, though. It takes about half a day to record and put up, and it’s a fun labor of love I enjoy. It’s not overwhelming and it keeps my studio chops up, too.”
As for what will become of the series in the future, when the day comes that McGuinn (who is now 73) is no longer around, that’s up in the air. The Folk Den archive as recorded by McGuinn will be preserved – but will someone else take it up and continue on?
“I’ve not thought about passing on the baton at this point,” McGuinn said. “But I imagine somebody will rise to the occasion if need be. I look at it as a legacy, and that’s cool. I don’t see myself as a contemporary rock ’n’ roll star, I just don’t play that game anymore. I didn’t watch the Grammys. Didn’t have any interest, although I do like Taylor Swift and I’m glad she won. But when I’m seeing tabloids at the store, I don’t know anybody. It’s actually kind of a relief not to be caught up in pop culture anymore.”