December 4: The Byrds reach No. 1 with Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

The same week that Linus recited the Bible while holding his security blanket in the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Byrds reached No. 1 with lyrics from The Book of Ecclesiastes.

In the late ‘50s, Pete Seeger’s publisher told him he couldn’t sell his protest songs. Angry, Seeger decided to just turn some verses from the Bible into a song, and created “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in just fifteen minutes.[i] His only original contributions were the title and six words at the end about peace.

That song the publisher easily sold, to the Limeliters and Marlene Dietrich. At the time, Jim McGuinn was in the Limeliters’ backing band, and he also arranged the song for Judy Collins to sing on Judy Collins 3.

On the Byrds’ tour bus, when they weren’t playing tapes of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, McGuinn’s future wife Dolores asked McGuinn to play the song on his acoustic, and he jazzed it up with a rock-and-samba beat.[ii] It took the band 78 takes to get it right[iii] — cracking that snare at the perfect moment was tricky even if drummer Michael Clarke hadn’t been a newbie — but at last it was molded into the ultimate No. 1 for the holidays.

 

References:

[i] Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting, 8.

 

[ii] Rogan, 128.

 

[iii] Rogan, 619.

 

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