Don McLEAN (b.1945). The complete working manuscript for the song “American Pie”, with numerous revisions and unpublished deleted sections. [Cold Spring, NY and Philadelphia, PA, 1970-71].
Comprising: 4 pages manuscript in pencil on four sheets of blue paper stock, 11 pages manuscript on 10 sheets in pencil and ink on ruled spiral paper (including one a half sheet), 2 pages manuscript in pencil on two sheets of yellow paper stock, and one page typed manuscript on blue paper (with four lines holograph notes on verso in purple ink and pencil). Together 18 pages of manuscript on 17 sheets, all 4to.
"For more than 40 years I have rambled around every state of the union and many, many countries of the world. My primary interests in life have been America, singing, songwriting, and the English language. I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something. I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song American Pie so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game. It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording. I would say to young songwriters who are starting out to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song."
February 13, 2015
Don McLean's 'American Pie'
By Douglas Brinkley
A long, long, time ago…” Those five words, when uttered or sung, make Baby Boomers immediately think of Don McLean’s pop masterpiece “American Pie”. It’s hard to believe that his phenomenal 8 and ½-minute allegory, which millions of Americans know by heart, is 44 years old. All sorts of historical cross currents play off each other in this timeless song, brilliantly gilded with the unforgettable chorus, which starts as “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie”. There is no real way to categorize McLean’s “American Pie” for its hybrid of modern poetry and folk ballad, beerhall chant and high-art rock.
McLean was a paperboy when, on February 3, 1959, he saw that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson had been tragically killed in an airplane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa. “The next day I went to school in shock and guess what?” McLean recalled. “Nobody cared. Rock n’roll in those days was sort of like hula hoops and Buddy hadn’t had a big hit on the charts since 57”. By cathartically writing “American Pie” McLean has guaranteed that the memory of those great musicians lives forever.
Having recorded his first album Tapestry in 1969, in Berkeley, California, during the student riots, McLean a native New Yorker, became a kind of weathervane for what he called the “generation lost in space”. When his cultural anthem “American Pie” was released in November 1971 it replaced Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin” as the Peoples Almanac of the new decade. It’s important to think of “American Pie” as one would of Henry Longfellow’s “Evangeline” or Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” – an essential Americana poem emanating wistful recollection, blues valentine, and youthful protest rolled into one. There is magic brewing in the music and words of “American Pie”, for McLean’s lyrics and melody frame a cosmic dream, like those Jack Kerouac tried to conjure in his poetry-infused novel On the Road.
Influenced by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, McLean proudly wore the mantle of troubadour in the early 1970’s - when “American Pie” topped the Billboard charts - and has never shed the cape. Wandering far and wide, singing “American Pie” at windblown dance halls in Wyoming and cloistered colleges in New England, at huge amphitheaters in California and little coffee houses in the Hudson River Valley McLean has performed his global anthem thousands of times. Yet the encore number never loses its transfixing allure. When McLean prods audiences by rhapsodizing “and they were singing” everybody spontaneously joins in with the “Bye, Bye” chorus. Watching McLean deliver his most notable song in concert is to take part in a Collective Happening.
What makes “American Pie” so unusual is that it isn’t a relic from the counterculture but a talisman, which, like a sacred river, keeps bringing joy to listeners everywhere. When “American Pie” suddenly is played on a jukebox or radio it’s almost impossible to not sing along. Like “Danny Boy” or “Streets of Laredo” or “Shenandoah” it’s eternal. With allusions to football fields and rock’n roll, river levees and nursery rhymes, the song cascades along like a boat going down Niagara Falls or a roller coaster that jumps tracks but floats instead of crashes.
After all these years later “American Pie” still makes me feel empowered and yet filled with a sense of loss. The song is alive and joyful, yet fretful about a world gone wrong. It is a song that will never die. A reverie for the ages. There is a jump to the chorus, which forces the mind to relive the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, to troll through the back pages of our lives while, like a traditional Irish folksong, reminds us of Fate.
While McLean, the muse, has rightfully not tried to interpret “American Pie”, it’s fair to surmise that “the king” is Elvis Presley; “Helter Skelter” refers to the Charles Manson murders; the “jester on the sidelines in a cast” is Bob Dylan; and “Jack Flash” the Rolling Stones. But who knows? The lyric remains a puzzle open to thousands of spirited interpretations. As a literary artifact of the early 1970’s there isn’t anything to compare to “American Pie”.
Normally, I don’t like rankings of literature or songs or even presidents for that matter. But the fact that the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment of the Arts chose “American Pie” as the fifth greatest song of the 20th century speaks to the composition’s importance as an enduring piece of pop art. The other four were “Over the Rainbow” (by Harold Arlen and E.Y “Yip” Harburg), “White Christmas “(by Irving Berlin), “This Land is Your Land” (by Woody Guthrie) and “Respect” (by Otis Redding). That is fine company. Quite simply “American Pie” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
Douglas Brinkley is Professor of American History at Rice University and contributing editor Vanity Fair.
THE ORIGINAL WORKING MANUSCRIPT FOR THE ICONIC SONG ‘AMERICAN PIE’
Since debuting on the airwaves in 1971, Don McLean’s “American Pie” has stood as one of the most important icons of twentieth-century American music. Alternately wistful, buoyant, and enigmatic, the singer-songwriter’s masterpiece became the anthem of McLean’s own “generation lost in space,” and continues to resonate in the present day. In the span of just six verses, McLean managed to depict with poetic authority the turbulent upheavals of the latter half of the twentieth century. In doing so, he created an emblem that stands alongside the work of postwar figures such as Andy Warhol, J.D. Salinger, and Bob Dylan in its importance to the American cultural canon. For the musician himself, the writing of “American Pie” was a means of capturing and examining the American zeitgeist; it was, McLean stated, “part of my process of self-awakening; a mystical trip into my past.”
THE MAKINGS OF A TROUBADOUR
Don McLean possessed a childhood interest in music that would come to inform his early years as a singer songwriter. During his youth in New Rochelle, New York, McLean excelled at singing and guitar, and performed regularly for family and friends. “By the time I was twelve years old,” he said, “I knew hundreds of pop songs and was excited by many diverse rock, pop, and folk artists.” The young musician was drawn not only to the energetic sound of recording artists such as Little Richard and Buddy Holly, but also to American folk artists such as the Weavers, a socially conscious quartet McLean described as “unlike any musical group that has ever been, or ever will be.” He became fixated on the idea that there was a life to be made as a performer: “I knew I was going to make a living at music,” McLean remembered, “for the simple reason that I didn’t want to have to wear a suit or take a day job.”
By 1964, the young troubadour had left his studies at Villanova University for the creative vibrancy of New York City. The epicenter of the 1960s folk music community, it was in New York that McLean encountered contemporaries such as Bob Dylan performing in Washington Square Park, and where he fostered relationships with some of the most influential producers and musicians of the period. McLean honed his signature performance style at venues such as the Gaslight Café and the Bitter End in New York, the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and at the Newport Folk Festival. From the mid-1960s, McLean found himself in demand across the Northeast, performing along the Hudson River Valley with the New York State Council on the Arts as well as with musicians such as the Weavers’ Pete Seeger. McLean’s first album, Tapestry, was released in 1970, and included songs such as “Castles in the Air,” “And I Love You So,” and “Magdalene Lane.” The New York Times described the tracks as “nearly perfect marriages of music, lyrics, and ideas,” foreshadowing the characteristics that would make “American Pie” a remarkable achievement in songwriting.
A LONG, LONG TIME AGO
The phenomenal success of Don McLean’s second album, American Pie, earned the musician recognition as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of his generation. The album’s eponymous single, composed in Pennsylvania and at McLean’s Victorian cottage in Cold Spring, New York, was recorded in May 1971. By the time American Pie was released in October, radio interest in its title track sent the album rocketing up the charts: the single “American Pie” achieved number-one status in January 1972, and remains the longest track to ever hold such a distinction. In the United States, Europe, and beyond, a rapt, inquisitive international audience vaulted Don McLean and “American Pie” into the annals of music history. “‘American Pie,’ wrote critic David Browne in the New York Times, “took over the airwaves and the consciousness in a way that few records had done before or since…. Here was a pop phenomenon that grabbed the public’s attention not so much with chords as with words.”
Indeed, it is the lyrics to “American Pie” that have continued to enthrall successive generations of audiences. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.” From a reference to February 3rd, 1959—the “day the music died”—when the musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash, “American Pie” follows the social, cultural, and political trajectories of the 1950s and 1960s. Encompassing McLean’s youth in an ebullient Mid-Century United States and the folk idealism of the 1960s, the song comes to mourn and mythologize the hopes and aspirations of American popular music. Shifting national mores, Vietnam, the Beatles, and even the violent 1969 Altamont Free Concert are, like underpainting on canvas, among the many influences that harbingered McLean’s sprawling opus of joy and loss.
“In mourning the end of rock’s Brylcreem era and its first counterculture,” David Browne notes, “‘American Pie’ set the tone for the remainder of the 70s: it implied that the best of rock and the best of times were over.” McLean’s composition was, the critic continues, “the first song to ask if rock was dead.” Yet with its fluctuating tempos, collectively sung chorus, and folk-inspired narrative, the track entered the American consciousness as more than just a song of lamentation and remembrance. Rather, it began a conversation about the role, impact, and changing sense of purpose of popular music in society. Over forty years since the release of “American Pie,” nothing has lessened the song’s ability to engage and inspire. In an era of increased globalization, fluid social values, and with the loss of musical innovators such as Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, “American Pie” retains today the same poetic universality it held in 1971.
AN ENDURING ENIGMA
“American Pie” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was named a “Song of the Century” by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. An inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and winner of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, McLean followed the success of “American Pie” with a tremendously prolific career as a singer-songwriter. Yet he has remained decidedly enigmatic about the meaning and messages hidden in his masterpiece; like any great work of art, the song remains open to interpretation, informed by the histories and experiences of all those who encounter it. An icon of twentieth-century culture, “American Pie” is also an enduring chorale of symbolism and songwriting in the twenty-first. “‘American Pie’ is not just a roman à clef,” McLean has stated. “It is an American dream. It is an allegory. And it has become an anthem.”
THE ORIGINAL WORKING MANUSCRIPT FOR THE SONG ‘AMERICAN PIE’: A DEFINING PIECE OF AMERICAN MUSICAL HISTORY
See the e-catalogue on christies.com for an exclusive interview with Christie's and Don McLean