By Frank Blechman
“Long, long time ago, I can still remember how the music used to make me smile,
And, I knew that if I had my chance, I could make those people dance,
And maybe, they’d be happy for a while.”
—Don McLean, American Pie.
Fifty years ago this week, Don McLean’s anthem American Pie was released in the North American music market. It was long (8.5 minutes), and strange; filled with both vivid and obscure cultural references and images. On the surface, it was a ballad about the death of popular musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the ‘Big Bopper’ (J. P. Richardson, Jr.) in a plane crash 12 years earlier (February 3, 1959) in Clear Lake, Iowa (“…February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver. Bad news on the doorstep. I couldn’t take one more step. I don’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside; the day the music died….)
It proclaimed that their death marked the end of a musical era, “the day the music died.” For those of us of a certain age today–65 to 80 today, 15 to 30 then–it was a primary history lesson embracing and explaining the musical evolution during those 12 years from raw rockabilly to the ‘British invasion’ to the Rolling Stones; from Elvis to Bob Dylan (“… and while the king was looking round, the jester stole his thorny crown.…”) and beyond.
Written and performed by a young Don McLean, an unknown, skinny 26-year-old kid, the song was really a poignant meditation about aging. It was filled with nostalgic lines about the inability to regain lost innocence. (“…I went down to the sacred store, where I’d heard the music years before. But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.…”) The famous chorus (“… bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye.…) ended on a somber note, “… this’ll be the day that I die.”)
Even 50 years ago, most listeners understood that the work was not just about music. It mourned the passing of a simpler, sunnier America. It foretold hard times in rural America and the flight of activists (“.… and the three men I admire most; the father, son, and the holy ghost, all took the last train for the coast.…”) to the cities. It foresaw the divisions in our country today. McLean, now 50 years older and heavier, has just put out a new music video of this prescient classic. It is worth listening to again: https://youtu.be/9RlTZdYXcKg.