As we approach the end of our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, we encounter the crème de la crème of the band’s recordings. Last week we reviewed one of the Byrds’ two signature tunes, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and this week we’ll review the other.
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)” (3:49)
Adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes by Pete Seeger
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Columbia Records, December 6, 1965. Previously released as a single on October 1, 1965
Several months following the phenomenal success of their same-titled first single and album, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Byrds began making preparations for their next single and second LP. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, had previously arranged folk singer, Judy Collins’ third album, “Judy Collins 3” (March 1964), which included a lovely rendition of folk singer Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” an adaptation of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 composed in 1959 and meant to serve as a protest song against violence and military aggression.
“…a time for love, a time for hate,
a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.”
McGuinn’s wife, Dolores (later Ianthe), suggested to her husband that the Byrds record the tune as their next single. With the war in Vietnam ramping up, McGuinn felt the song was an appropriate choice. However, the band’s manager, Jim Dickson, adamantly opposed the tune, feeling it wasn’t cool for a rock ‘n’ roll band to sing “preachy” Bible verses. Thankfully, McGuinn, his bandmates, and producer, Terry Melcher, overruled Dickson.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” is such a joy to listen to, even fifty-seven years later. McGuinn gives a virtuoso performance on his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, using his banjo-style, multi-finger picking. David Crosby came up with the distinctive, off-beat opening (Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless, Vol.1, p. 202). Byrds biographer, Johnny Rogan, reports that despite the pro-peace theme of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the recording sessions for the single and same-titled album were particularly fractious, with bickering and fistfights galore. It took the band 78 takes over 5 days in the studio before everyone was satisfied with the final version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
“Turn! Turn! Turn!” was released as a single on October 1, 1965 and reached #1 on the U.S. singles charts on November 30th. The song is still one of the Byrds’ two most recognizable and cherished tunes, along with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Any documentary about the tumultuous 1960s is bound to include “Turn! Turn! Turn!” in the soundtrack.
Folk singer, Pete Seeger, had been a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party. In adapting Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, the atheist was rubbing American Christians’ (nominal and genuine) noses in their own good book in the cause for “peace.” Although he severed ties with the ACP in 1950, Seeger never forthrightly condemned the violent aggression of the Soviet Union. Many non-believers “leverage” the Bible for their own purposes, but they’re missing the Bible’s main point: man’s depravity and eternal judgement for sin and yet the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. I like to believe that “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was another marker on Roger McGuinn’s journey to accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1977. What most people “get” out of this song is its observations on the “cycles of life,” and the pining for an eventual era of peace, but text without context is pretext and the writer of Ecclesiastes brought it all together at the end of the book with its focus on God. There is no peace in this fallen world, as we’re currently seeing in Ukraine. However, Jesus Christ offers salvation and spiritual peace and one day He will rule the world in perfect peace.
The Lord works in strange ways. The Byrds meant for “Turn! Turn! Turn!” to be a protest song against the war in Vietnam, but the song also inspired many young people to open a Bible, perhaps for the first time. It had an influence on me.
It’s my distinct pleasure to present song #3 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”