Song of the Day, March 10: American Pie by Don McLean

McLeanAPToday’s song is American Pie by Don McLean. The title track from his powerful second album, it is one of the best known and most celebrated songs of the rock era. Using his fondness for folk traditions and knack for crafting smart lyrics, McLean built a stirring ballad that celebrates the early years of the rock era while mourning its losses and complications at the same time. He is famously resistant to providing in-depth analysis of the lyrics, but acknowledges that the genesis of the song was his effort to exorcise his grief over the tragic death of singer-songwriter Buddy Holly. Using that “day the music died” as a springboard, he takes a dizzying, dazzling tour through ten years of pop and rock music.

A master craftsman, he made his personal thoughts and observations resonate on such a fundamental level that listeners are able to connect it to their own musical tastes and journeys. Blending smart sincerity with an open, honest musical framework, McLean manages to be sentimental without being maudlin and celebratory without being overly deferential.

Despite running over eight-and-a-half minutes, the track hit the airwaves like wildfire. DJs frequently played the whole song (split over both sides of the 45 release). Released in late 1971, the song became McLean’s first chart hit and ascended to #1 on January 15, 1972, where it spent four weeks. It’s one of the biggest debut singles of all time and still holds the record for longest clock time for a #1 on the Billboard charts. It also topped the Adult Contemporary chart and hit #1 in half a dozen other countries, demonstrating the universality of the very American look a pop music. When the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts crafted a list of the “365 Songs of the [20th] Century,” American Pie came in 5th.

Enjoy this magnificent ode to the lasting power of music today.

INTERESTING NOTE: McLean was nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 15th Annual Grammy Awards. He lost both to Roberta Flack’s lovely interpretation of Ewan MacColl’s classic The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which was also the biggest Billboard hit of the year. Curiously, Flack pulled off the rare feat of having the biggest hit of the following year as well. That single was Killing Me Softly With His Song, inspired by songwriter Lori Lieberman’s experience at a Don McLean concert.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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