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Thursday, March 8, 2012

American Pie. The story behind the song

Many of us have heard the song hundreds of times. We all know most of the lyrics,  but do we know what they mean? Or, does anyone really know? Or, will anybody ever really know?

American Pie" is the title of a song by American folk rock singer-songwriter Don McLean. Recorded and released on the American Pie album in 1971, the single was a number-one U.S. hit for four weeks in 1972. In the UK the single reached No. 2 on its original 1972 release and a reissue in 1991 reached No.12. The song is a recounting of "The Day the Music Died" — the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.)—and the aftermath. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century. "American Pie" is Don McLean's magnum opus and his signature song.

 McLean graduated from Iona Preparatory School in 1963, and briefly attended Villanova University, dropping out after four months. While at Villanova he became friends with singer/songwriter Jim Croce. This is notable as American Pie is a reference to the plane crash that took Buddy Holly's life, the same fate that Jim Croce had in 1973, just a year after American Pie was a hit.
 The album I Got a Name was released on December 1, 1973. Croce had just finished recording the album just over a week before his death.

 Mclean learned the art of performing from his friend and mentor Pete Seeger.

McLean recorded his first album, Tapestry, in 1969 in Berkeley, California during the student riots. After being rejected by 34 labels, the album was released by Mediarts and attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community.
McLean's major break came when Mediarts was taken over by United Artists Records thus securing for his second album, American Pie, the promotion of a major label. The album spawned two No. 1 hits in the title song and "Vincent". American Pie's success made McLean an international star and renewed interest in his first album, which charted more than two years after its initial release.

On Nov. 27, 1971, Don McLean's eight-minute, 27-second anthem about the day the music died first broke through the top 100 Billboard chart.
Six weeks later, "American Pie" ascended to the top spot in the nation, spending the next month at the No. 1 position, and carving out a place in pop music and Saratoga Springs legacy.

 There is much debate and folklore surrounding both how and where this song was written and what it was about. Below you will read differing opinions and tales related to that. What is fact no one will ever know for sure.

Don Mclean performing at Caffè Lena in the sixties.
Shortly after graduating from Iona College in 1968, the singer-songwriter turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favor of becoming resident singer at Caffe Lena in Saratoga, New York.
McLean was one of Caffè Lena's own prodigies, performing regularly at the little second-floor coffeehouse on Phila Street.
McLean spent a great deal of time hanging out at Caffè Lena in the 1960s and 1970s, absorbing the variety of musical styles he heard there. He said that of all the places he played in those formative years, Caffè Lena was by far his favorite place, and Lena was the best club owner that he ever worked for.

 "Lena was my good friend and she was wonderful to me in the '60s when I had no money. She was always out to help me and everybody else for that matter," McLean said.

 Many Saratoga residents claim the song was written and performed at Caffe Lena. McLean disputes that.

“We need a lot of those places around the country for people to learn how to perform. It’s kind of like Vaudeville. It takes years and years of being out there on the end of the diving board.” Unfortunately for Caffè Lena or Saratoga Springs – neither of those places can lay claim to anything with regard to ‘American Pie.”

An entire city of people have put themselves in there at the time. It must have been some busy night," said city resident Al McKenny, who worked with many area musicians at Caffe Lena for the past four decades, but who was not at the Tin & Lint on that infamous night.
Hud Armstrong, a longtime city resident, recalled the night, but said the story has changed through the years.
In most re-tellings, McLean was in town for a performance at Caffe Lena and had wandered into the Tin & Lint, where he spent the night alternately drinking and scribbling phrases like "American Pie" and "drove my Chevy to a levy" on a series of bar napkins, which were forgotten about and abandoned during the course of the evening, but rescued by one of the workers at the Tin & Lint that night.

"I heard what he left behind was a notebook," Armstrong said. "What was in the notebook? I have no idea."

 McLean also clarified that the first time the song was performed on stage was not at Caffe Lena, but at Temple University, where he was billed to perform with Laura Nyro.

 According to Don McLean he wrote the song in Cold Spring, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 The song is well known for its cryptic lyrics that have long been the subject of curiosity and speculation. Although McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Buddy Holly, none of the musicians in the plane crash is identified by name in the song itself.

McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song lyrics ("They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.") except to acknowledge that he did first learn about Buddy Holly's death while folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 3, 1959, (the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver"). He also stated in an editorial published on the 50th anniversary of the crash in 2009 that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly's death.

 When McLean was asked about the song lyrics of American Pie he stated:

"You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me.... Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."

 The third verse begins "Now for ten years we've been on our own". According to one interpretation much of the rest of the song refers to events of the 1960s, particularly illustrating how once unified, peaceful, and idealistic youth movements began to split apart, how the death of US President John F. Kennedy (JFK) was used as the symbolic "loss of innocence" for 1960s youth, leading up to the Altamont Free Concert, a symbolic end of 1960s youth movements.

 The concert at Altamont took place in December 1969, the same year in which the third verse in "American Pie" opens. Lines from "American Pie", particularly in the fifth verse, may refer to this event.Altamont was supposed to be a second Woodstock Festival; but instead was characterized by drugs and violence (reference the death of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter.

 Sociologist Todd Gitlin says of Altamont,

 "Who could any longer harbor the illusion that these hundreds of thousands of spoiled star-hungry children of the Lonely Crowd were the harbingers of a good society?" Given the year the song was released, the date suggested in the third verse, and the themes of loss of innocence that exist throughout the song, embodied by Holly's death, it is not unlikely that American Pie was inspired by the events at Altamont, although McLean has never indicated so.

 Many American rock radio stations have released printed interpretations and some devoted entire shows to discussing and debating the song's lyrics, resulting in both controversy and intense listener interest in the song. Some examples are the real-world identities of the "Jester", "King and Queen", "Satan", "Girl Who Sang the Blues", and other characters referenced in the verses. Also Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and The Big Bopper could be referred to as "The Father, Son, and The Holy Ghost." These three figures could also represent John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. or the three remaining Crickets, Buddy Holly's group.

 What set American Pie apart had a lot to do with the way we weren't entirely sure what the song was about, provoking endless debates over its epic cast of characters. And these controversies remain with us to this day. But however open to interpretation the lyrics may have been, the song's emotional resonance was unmistakable: McLean was clearly relating a defining moment in the American experience—something had been lost, and we knew it. Opening with the death of singer Buddy Holly and ending near the tragic concert at Altamont Motor Speedway, we are able to frame the span of years the song is covering—1959 to 1970. (Note: I did not write this, I copied this from someone else and don't have the footnote handy)

 When asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean replied, "It means I never have to work again."


A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
**The day the music died**

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey in Rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you're in love with him
Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died
I started singin'


Now, for ten years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But, that's not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died
We were singin'


Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
We started singin'


Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
Cause fire is the devil's only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan's spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
He was singin'


I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
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
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most-
the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost-
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing

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