This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Music History.
Song #90: American Pie by Don McLean.
I first heard the term, magnum opus, while reading the classic children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web” to my Grade 1 and 2 students when I was a teacher. At this moment in the story, the friendship between Charlotte the Spider and Wilbur the Pig takes a turn. Wilbur looks upward to find her, as he did each day since they became friends. But, on this morning, he notices a fluffy sac beside her. He asks his friend what it is. She replies that it is her magnum opus. Wilbur, being an intellectually-young pig, does not understand the term she has used nor, does he understand the implications to Charlotte and to their friendship, either. Charlotte patiently explains to Wilbur that magnum opus means a magnificent accomplishment and that the fluffy sac contains over 500 of her babies. Charlotte tells Wilbur that the egg sac was her Life’s work. She, then, tells Wilbur that she is very tired from the creation of her magnum opus and needs to stop talking with him so she can rest. Wilbur remains somewhat confused by it all but, none-the-less, he is happy because his best friend has accomplished something “magnificent”. Unbeknownst to Wilbur, everything he knows of the world is about to change.
For us, as adults, reading what happens next is truly heartbreaking. It is hard to read the passages where Charlotte is trying to prepare Wilbur for a life without her. I know more than a few teachers who have cried real tears in front of their students at this point in E.B. White’s wonderful book. For many of the students…..the children…..this is their first time being faced with the concept of Death, albeit, a fictional one but, a death involving someone they have grown to love, just the same. At this point in the story, the room will grow quiet for a short while and then, one by one, the hands go up and then, one by one, I would start to hear their stories of pets who have died or Grandparents and so on. As sad as this topic can be, these tended to be one of the most uplifting and fulfilling of conversations we shared as a classroom community. Change is an inevitable part of our existence. It is always good to have someone to share it with. I always felt blessed with children would share such experiences with me, even if those experiences revolved around a death.
Death comes to our attention in many ways. In 1959, Don McLean was a thirteen year old boy who loved the new sound of Rock n’ Roll. He was delivering newspapers when he found out that his hero, Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and The Big Bopper, had been killed in an airplane crash. McLean says that delivering those newspapers that day was the hardest thing he had ever done so far in his life because, inside, he was devastated. All through the rest of his teenage years, he pined over Holly’s loss and could never shake the fact that no one else really seemed to care. Like many things that happen in our world, that plane crash was big news when it happened but, as the years went by, people moved on to other things and the light that shone so brightly upon those three musicians began to dim.
That plane crash became known as “The Day the Music Died”. That line served as inspiration for McLean to begin writing down his thoughts. But, a funny thing happened as he began the process of writing. “American Pie” wasn’t completed until 1970 (and released in 1971). Between the date of the airplane crash and 1970, an entire decade had come and gone. As many of you know, there was a such a feeling of optimism as the 1960s began but, as they were ending, a feeling of pessimism took over. So, what McLean began to write, as a eulogy to his hero, Buddy Holly, ended up becoming a commentary of the state of the country as the 60s drew to a close. In doing so, McLean quite literally wrote a musical poem that is to poetry, what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is to album covers. He touched on so many important people in the music scene, as well as, so many important events that he ended up creating the longest #1 song of all-time (until Taylor Swift recently released her ten-minute version of “All Too Well”). “American Pie” is the story of how America transformed throughout the 1960s and, like Wilbur the Pig from “Charlotte’s Web”, Don McLean witnessed quite a change and didn’t exactly always understand or approve of how things turned out.
As you listen to the lyrics of McLean’s magnum opus, keep a few things in mind. First of all, McLean structured the verses in chronological order and, by doing so, causes the song to go from happier events, all the way to the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway and the death of a fan at the hands of the Hells Angels “security detail”. In doing so, McLean was holding “American Pie” up as a mirror of sorts to America. As well, Don McLean has an entire cast of characters sprinkled throughout the many verses of this song. “The King” is played by Elvis. “The Jester” is Bob Dylan. “The Quartet” are The Beatles. “Lenin” is John Lennon. And, on and on, it goes. He chose the title of “American Pie” based on the old saying, “As American as apple pie.” Don McLean didn’t think America was really that wholesome anymore by the time “American Pie” was released. The addition of a “Chevrolet” was another symbol of Americana. The “Good old Boys drinking whiskey and rye” were the average American citizen, media personality and/or politician who remained in ignorance of what was actually going on in America.
“American Pie” was not Don McLean’s only hit but, it was, by far and away, his biggest hit. Prior to the release of “American Pie”, Don McLean was a small-time folk singer. He had toured as a back-up singer with Pete Seeger but, beyond that, he wasn’t well known across the country. The sudden fame that came with having such a well-received hit song, caused McLean a period of discomfort as he was overwhelmed by all of the attention and the responsibility that came with stardom. Many of those in the Folk community accused McLean of turning his back on the small Folk music scene when he started playing concerts in larger venues. However, McLean could no more ignore the adulation that came his way than Charlotte the Spider could put the eggs back into her body. Change is one of Life’s constants, as we have said. But, change can, sometimes, bring positive things, as well. It was because of Don McLean’s fame and notoriety that a young lady named Carole Lieberman bought a ticket to see him perform in a nightclub in California. It was during this concert that she listened to McLean and felt “as though he found my letters and read each one out loud”. From that experience with Don McLean came the song, “Killing Me Softly” that Lieberman released under her own name but which, Roberta Flack really made famous. None of that would probably have happened if not for the success of “American Pie” by Don McLean.
In any case, at almost eight and a half minutes in length, “American Pie” is quite the song to listen to all the way through. So, make yourself comfortable and get ready for one of the most profound Boomer anthems of all-time and as good a chronicle of the 1960s as you are going to find anywhere. A magnum opus should be magnificent and this song certainly falls into that category. Thanks for reading and enjoy “American Pie” by Don McLean.
The link to the video for the song, “American Pie” by Don McLean, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Don McLean, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.