Album of the Week, June 7: American Pie by Don McLean

McLeanAPDon McLean hit singer-songwriter gold with his second album. Born and raised in Westchester County, NY, he was an asthmatic child who missed long stretches of school. During that time he nurtured a love of folk music, learning guitar and making friends with established folk musicians like the Weavers. After a brief attempt at college, he began touring heavily, writing songs and honing his craft, mentored by the great Pete Seeger. He returned to college part-time, eventually earning a degree in business administration while bolstering his folk credentials and reputation. His debut album, 1969’s Tapestry, was rejected by dozens of labels before Mediarts picked it up. It got decent reviews but was hardly noticed outside of folk circles. Then two things happened: McLean experienced a truly inspired  songwriting streak and Mediarts was purchased by United Artists. That combination — together with a majestic epic of a title track — resulted in a massively successful album that stands as one of the major highlights of the singer-songwriter boom.

Title American Pie
Act Don McLean
Label United Artists Release Date  October 24, 1971
Producer Ed Freeman
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #3
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. American Pie [#1]
  2. Till Tomorrow
  3. Vincent [#12]
  4. Crossroads
  5. Winterwood
  6. Empty Charis
  7. Everybody Loves Me, Baby
  8. Sister Fatima
  9. The Grave
  10. Babylon

The title track sets a high bar. Using the death of Buddy Holly as a launching point, McLean explores the history of rock music, the tumultuous challenges of an America coming to grips with itself in the 60s, and the loss of innocence experienced by a man emerging into adulthood. With simple, human moments, brilliantly crafted images, a bit of epic allegory, and a smart sense of history, McLean created one of the best-known songs of the rock era, a track so compelling that radio stations were willing to use up over eight minutes of air time to let the song spin its full magic on the airwaves. The build is perfect and McLean’s vocal is riveting. This one track ensured his place in the rock pantheon.

Amazingly, the powerful chops he developed on the road — honing an intimate performing style that inspired the song Killing Me Softly With His Song — poured out in a series of songs that can stand up proudly next to the title track. Till Tomorrow was one of the last tracks written for the album. A quiet, guitar-based folk song, it ponders the loss of love in the American conversation as Viet Nam and the civil rights movement divided the nation. It’s a lovely bit of intimate protest folk that transcends its time.

Vincent was the album’s other hit, an unlikely tribute to Vincent van Gogh. Using the painter’s masterpiece Starry Night as a touchstone, McLean ponders mental illness, brilliance and passion in a touching ode. Switching to piano, Crossroads paints a picture of a man coming to grips with the disappointments in life. Fundamentally optimistic, it builds slowly, using the redemptive forces of love and hope as its beacon. Winterwood features nice guitar interplay and natural imagery inspired by a scene McLean saw on a drive. It’s a fun love song with a cheerful energy that brightens the album.

Things get pensive again on Empty Chairs, a song of loss. McLean crafts a perfect metaphor for absence, wielding it carefully as he sings a fragile, compelling lyric. It’s a highlight in a stellar set. Switching moods once more, the rollicking Everybody Loves Me, Baby is a satiric delight. Sung from the perspective of a powerful man who can’t get the attention of a woman he finds compelling, it’s a witty romp. Over the top in all the right ways, McLean has a lot of fun with this track, adding to the musical and emotional diversity of the album.

Sister Fatima is a beautiful sketch of a song. Using the fortune-teller as a symbol of faith and hope, McLean ponders their power and the ways they can lead us astray. The closing line floats off, unresolved, leaving the tension appropriately unresolved. On The Grave, McLean presents his most direct bit of protest folk, a harrowing look at warfare. Stark and gripping, it fits perfectly in the tradition of songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone and And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

McLean wraps things up with a traditional song that he learned from Lee Hays of the Weavers. Babylon rose to prominence in the Warsaw ghetto in the 30s, a song of hope for the future during a time of hopelessness. Hays and McLean arranged it as the closing track, “because it fit perfectly with the overall effort.” It’s a smart choice, with the round creating a lasting impact that lingers long after the needle lifts from the groove.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the next two decades Don McLean continued to produce wonderful folk-pop songs. Changing musical tastes and the daunting task of living up to his masterpiece kept him from sustained chart success, but he has created an impressive, acclaimed body of work. Curiously, his second biggest success came with a couple of early 80s covers: a stirring rendition of Roy Orbison’s Crying and a nice reading of the Skyliners’ Since I Don’t Have You. No single McLean album comes close to American Pie, although his catalog includes some amazing work. The 2003 anthology Legendary Songs of Don McLean is a great career overview.

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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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