Sunday evening, July 8, 2007, I heard Don McLean and his band perform American Pie at the Vancouver Island Musicfest (aka Folk Festival). McLean, like Joan Armatrading, Los Lobos, and Bedouin Soundclash, was a headliner, who played one set during the evening concert at the main stage. The performance was professional and competent. McLean’s songs, apart from his version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, and his own song “Vincent” (“Starry Starry Night) were probably not that well known.
At one point in his career, McLean was a folk singer, in the style of the politically committed performers like Pete Seeger, with whom he was once associated. His taste and skills tended more to pure rock and roll, and most of his career seems to have spent in popular music. He played some danceable early 60’s rock, some sentimental ballads and some political songs. The political songs appealed to the sensibilities of 20th century American liberalism, focusing in blaming society, hurt feelings, and whining. Some day I’d like to see another parody of the folk songs of the last 50 years, on the lines of A Mighty Wind. Someone singing, with the whole audience weeping. “My latte was cold. My yoga class was hard. I wish men only stared at breasts when women ask them to stare. I wish little boys didn’t like trucks, guns, video games, fighting and playing with their penises. My boss has an evil aura. The world is evil”.
Late in the set, he reached American Pie, and usual buzz of conversation on background noise dropped off. The song was received with respect, bordering on reverence, and enthusiasm. After he was done, he sang a Woody Guthrie song as an encore, and then said he had gone over time and had to leave the stage.
American Pie was released in the fall of 1971. It has stood up well in memory, compared to other songs that I heard at the time. A Horse with No Name was interesting, at the time, but it was a pretentious piece by a mediocre band, more of a pose than a song, which I remember as part of the ambiance of my youth. American Pie had a catchy rock and roll melody, with some honky tonk piano. It was nostalgic about driving (drunk) in a Chevy at the levee, after drinking whiskey (bourbon, I assume) and rye with the good old boys, and munching on American Pie. It evoked, through the associations with whiskey, cars and girls, a sense of freedom and power. It associated that lost world with the angst-ridden nihilism of James Dean, the star of Rebel without a Cause, although it condemned the writers and performers who incorporated that attitude into their music. It plugged into my teen longing for contact with something authentic.
American Pie had its own built in rock and roll trivia puzzle, and it was heavilyself-referential, as a song about trends in the music industry. McLean associates some artists with poisonous trends in pop culture and society. The preceding generation had condemned rock and roll and blamed it for the decline of society. McLean redeemed Presley, Holly and the spirit of American liberalism, but blamed Dean, Jagger and Dylan for deflowering the innocence of early rock and roll. McLean has seen rock and roll as redemptive, complementing the peace and flowers approach of the folk singers. American Pie has the same tone of moral superiority as any folk song of that period, and it might be the last folk song of the 60’s, along with the sentimental “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” which was also, I recall, a big hit in 1971.