About the Songwriter

Introduction

In the autumn of 1971 Don McLean's elegiac American Pie entered the collective consciousness, and over thirty years later remains one of the most discussed, dissected and debated songs that popular music has ever produced. A cultural event at the peak of its popularity in 1972, it reached the top of the Billboard 100 charts in a matter of weeks, selling more than 3 million copies; and at eight and a half minutes long, this was no mean feat. But this was no ordinary song, either: boldly original and thematically ambitious, 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—as the "10 years we've been on our own" of the third verse. It is across this decade that the American cultural landscape changed radically, passing from the relative optimism and conformity of the 1950s and early 1960s to the rejection of these values by the various political and social movements of the mid and late 1960s.

Coming as it did near the end of this turbulent era, American Pie seemed to be speaking to the precarious position we found ourselves in, as the grand social experiments of the 1960s began collapsing under the weight of their own unrealized utopian dreams, while the quieter, hopeful world we grew up in receded into memory. And as 1970 came to a close and the world this generation had envisioned no longer seemed viable, a sense of disillusion and loss fell over us; we weren't the people we once were. But we couldn't go home again either, having challenged the assumptions of that older order. The black and white days were over.

Bye bye, Miss American Pie.

•   •   •

The era of the 1950s was a relatively peaceful period in American life, as many of the values of the preceding generation held firm and a general accepetance of the status quo prevailed. Having survived the traumas of the Great Depression and emerging victorious from World War II, we were of the mind that as a society we knew who we were and where we stood in the world; and as the postwar economy thrived and expanded, swelling the ranks of the American middle class, a sense of well-being and prosperity anchored us. It is no wonder, then, that life appeared more stable, more comprehensible, more black and white. This was also reinforced by the popular entertainment of the day, as historian David Halberstam sums up in his book The Fifties:

 

  1 more