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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Story Behind the Song

The other night while channel surfing, I came across a PBS program on the history of modern folk music in America entitled This Land Is Your Land hosted by The Smothers Brothers and Judy Collins. The production originated at Carnegie Mellon University and was filmed in 2015.

Among the guest artists were The Kingston Trio, current members of The New Christy Minstrels, Barry McGuire, Glenn Yarborough and The Byrd’s Roger McGuinn.

As I reminisced listening to the songs of my youth, the performers treated me to a walk down memory lane. However, the history shared about the song Turn! Turn! Turn! really intrigued me as I learned facts about the origin of the song that I never knew.

For more of the story behind the song, you might enjoy excerpts from an article written by Joe Taysom that appeared in Far Out Magazine on October 1, 2020.

The Story Behind the Song: The Byrd’s Romantic Rework ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’

On October 1, 1965, The Byrds released their take on Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ which would take their career to unprecedented heights and see them become the band of the moment. The track would become their joint highest-charting single which topped the charts on the US Billboard chart and was also their biggest hit on the other side of the Atlantic in Britain.

The classic hit was first released by the folk group The Limeliters on their 1962 album Folk Matinee, under the title ‘To Everything There Is a Season’. Their version was even released a few months before Seeger got round to releasing his own version of the track that he had penned. One of The Limeliters’ backing musicians at this time was The Byrds member Roger McGuinn and it was a song he had a great affinity for, even arranging the song for Judy Collins’ cover in 1963 before the band made it their own.

For Collins’ version, McGuinn renamed the track to ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ but both other versions of the track were good folk songs in their own right. That said, The Byrds’ brand of psychedelic jangly folk-tinged rock brought something out of the track that was missing from the other versions.

“I got a letter from my publisher, and he says, ‘Pete, I can’t sell these protest songs you write.’ And I was angry,” Pete Seeger said in the book Songwriters on Songwriting in 1988 about the origin of the track. “I sat down with a tape recorder and said, ‘I can’t write the kind of songs you want,” he added. “You gotta go to somebody else. This is the only kind of song I know how to write.’ I pulled out this slip of paper in my pocket and improvised a melody to it in fifteen minutes. And I sent it to him. And I got a letter from him the next week that said, ‘Wonderful! Just what I’m looking for.’ Within two months he’d sold it to The Limelighters and then to The Byrds. I liked The Byrds’ record very much, incidentally. All those clanging, steel guitars – they sound like bells,” the songwriter noted.

The idea of reviving the song came to McGuinn during The Byrds’ tour of the American Midwest in July 1965, a time when his then-girlfriend and future wife, Dolores, requested to hear the song whilst on the tour bus. When he then played the track, it was nothing like the original folk song and instead was in the style of The Byrds which made McGuinn feel compelled to get the band into the studio to record their take on the track—but little did he expect for it to become a number one single and the title track on their next record.

“It was a standard folk song by that time, but I played it and it came out rock ‘n’ roll because that’s what I was programmed to do like a computer. I couldn’t do it as it was traditionally,” McGuinn later explained. “I came out with that samba beat, and we thought it would make a good single.” The master recording of the song reportedly took the band a staggering 78 takes over five days to get right but boy did they nail it.

The song would then see The Byrds get lifted up to a pedestal where they were seen as being on the same level as The Beatles and The Beach Boys which they could never quite live up to. However, ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! still remains a bonafide classic that provides a glimpse of how things could have turned out for the band if the inner band relationships didn’t turn sour leading to a revolving door of lineup changes over the next few years.

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