To everything there is a season and this December, it is time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Byrds' No. 1 hit single "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)," and the album of the same name, released on December 6, 1965. The third single by the band is one of its most iconic songs and is still played on the radio today.
Founded in 1964 in Los Angeles, The Byrds were a trio compromised of Jim McGuinn — who later changed his name to Roger McGuinn — Gene Clark and David Crosby. Because all three had music backgrounds rooted in folk songs, it wasn't a big transition to becoming the band that fused Bob Dylan-style folk music with the pop approach of The Beatles.
In fact, the group's first hit was just such a merger when they took Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and made it their own.
Following on the success of "Mr. Tambourine Man," The Byrds looked for another tune that lent itself to their unique way of combining folk with pop rock. They found it with "Turn! Turn! Turn!," which was adapted by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s from a portion of Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes from the King James translation of the Bible.
Seeger didn't have to do much writing. The song is pretty much the psalm verbatim with a few edits, including the title, a refrain and a line of his own. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" could be considered as the Billboard No. 1 song with the oldest lyrics and Seeger's co-writer supposedly King Solomon.
Despite having been put to music by Seeger in the '50s, it wasn't recorded until The Limelighters put out a version in 1962, which was released as "To Everything There Is a Season" on their Folk Matinee album. Seeger followed suit later that year and released the song on his The Bigger and the Sweet album.
"It was a standard folk song at 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," McGuinn said on CD liner notes released in 1996. "We thought it would make a good single. It had everything: a good message, a good melody, and the heat was there."
With the rock edge to it, the single of "Turn! Turn! Turn!" shot up to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts on December 4, 1965.
"What harmony they had," Seeger said in a 2009 interview with openculture.com about The Byrds' version of his song. "They had to change my melody very slightly, but it works. Now when I sing it, most people have learned the song from The Byrds' recording, so I sing their version of it. Mine's okay, but I sing their version of it."
The song, which is an extraordinary poem, found a second life as a book. Turn! Turn! Turn! was released by Simon & Schuster in Sept. 2003 with color illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin.
In addition to the book, the song has been featured in several movies, including Forrest Gump and In America, and the TV series The Wonder Years, The Simpsons, and Cold Case.
Seeger, who died January 27, 2014 at the age of 94, acknowledged that his main contribution was the music — not the words. With the royalties he made from the song, Seeger donated 45 percent to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" is generally considered to be a call for world peace, in particular because its release was during the Vietnam conflict, not to mention the closing line added by Seeger: "a time for peace, I swear it's not too late."
When it came time for The Byrds to lay down the tracks for the song, according to McGuinn, it took about 75 takes because their drummer Michael Clarke, who was added to the group following the success of "Mr. Tambourine Man," couldn't keep a beat.
As for his sound, McGuinn told musicangle.com in 2004, "I used my fingernails, but I've found that over the years that fingernails were not reliable on the road because you'd be out and open the car door and they'd snap off and you'd have to play concerts that night. I used to carry fingerpicks for that kind of emergency, but now I use them full time. I use a Hurkow flat pick, 150. And I use Dunlop fingerpicks."
"Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)" has been covered by a wide variety of artists since its initial release, including Judy Collins, Marlene Dietrich (in German), Jan & Dean, The Seekers, Nina Simone, Wilson Phillips, Tori Amos and Dolly Parton, to name a few. But it is The Byrds who will always be remembered as having the most successful recorded version.