Epitaph to a Lost Americana: ‘Day the Music Died’

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If you thought the Buddy Holly saga ended with his tragic death way back in the late 1950s (read that story here), you probably weren’t paying attention. One guy who didn’t forget or ignore Holly’s significance to American music history was another singer/songwriter named Don McLean.  You know, that guy who sang that long, confusing song with the repetitive but catchy lyrics “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.” That was late 1971-early ’72. The actual title was simply American Pie.” The song was NOT simple; however, it was an eloquent tribute to a simpler time when America’s youth had a common interest in music that defined them — music  that changed.  The plane crash that took the lives of Holly, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper (J. P.  Richardson) wasn’t called the “day the music died” UNTIL McLean’s song.

It was 13 years after Holly’s death that McLean reminded all of us why Holly’s short career and his music were important.  McLean did that through his lengthy, thought-provoking anthem about ourselves.   But many people didn’t understand what McLean was saying. Chicago’s WCFL radio deejay Bob Dearborn produced an in-depth interpretation of the song’s lyrics that still gets much discussion today.

Audio  PART 1   Dearborn’s analysis  (Running Time 11:20)

Audio  PART 2  Dearborn’s analysis  (Running Time 11:19)

Bob Dearborn

Bob Dearborn started in radio at 15, and had a near 50-year career (and says he moved 38 times).  Six of those years were in Chicago, which, geographically, helped promote his ‘Pie’ analysis due to station WCFL’s night coverage to over 25 states and Canada. Puget Sounders will remember Dearborn as the on-air program director of Seattle’s KIXI in the late 1990s.  Before Seattle, he worked in Providence, Cleveland, Albany, Detroit, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Toronto, and he was host of RKO’s Night Time America. 

It’s been jokingly said that Dearborn’s analysis of American Pie received nearly as much airplay as the song itself. The story behind his analysis is as interesting as the song. There was, of course, immediate, lightning response to McLean’s clever six-verse song. That prompted Dearborn to put his thoughts about McLean’s many metaphors on paper.  He shared some of them on the air with his WCFL listeners, which produced an increasing number of phone calls and questions.  Finally, he offered to send copies of his five-page interpretation to those listeners who wrote to him requesting it. Uh Oh . . . you guessed it:  WCFL’s mailroom was buried with letters — tens of thousands of them.  It took a team of five people several weeks to handle them all. WCFL soon produced a 30-minute American Pie special that featured Dearborn’s full analysis.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  Soon Dearborn was famous in his own right. Local, national and international news media outlets wanted his story. By then, more than 100,000 printed copies had been sent to all parts of the world.  Before long, Dearborn was taking his famous review into broadcast syndication. It is his famous voice-over-song production that was posted above.

American Pie, McLean’s hit song, was released in October ’71.  It quickly vaulted to #1 on Billboard’s album chart and remained there nearly a year. The single version, released in November ’71, was #1 for four weeks in early ’72, staying on the Hot 100 over four months. It also was #1 in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and had a double run in England where it reached #2 in ’71, then #12 when reissued in 1991.  It would be an understatement to say McLean hit it bigger than big with American Pie.  The song, to this day, has classic historic standing:

—  An epic chronicle that cut across all genres in the face of a fragmented American musical landscape

—  5 million+ air plays, certified by BMI*

—  longest #1 (LP=8:33, single side 1=4:11, side 2=4:31)

—  song manuscript that sold for $1.2 million (3rd highest for an American literary work), 2015

—  #5 on “Greatest Songs of Century” list by National Endowment for the Arts and RIAA**, 2001 (topped only by Over the Rainbow, White Christmas,This Land is Your Land and Respect)                          

—  included in the Grammy Hall of Fame, 2002 (Original album and single cover)

—  preserved in National Recording Registry, Library of  Congress, 2017* Broadcast Music, Inc   ** Recording Industry Assoc. of America

Don McLean

Perhaps most frustrating to those folks analyzing American Pie has been McLean’s ongoing vagueness about the song’s multiple metaphors.  He told his fans in a 1993 open letter that the lyrics . . . “are beyond analysis, they’re poetry and long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.” He has weasel-worded his way through a lot of interviews over the years.

The Biography

McLean said he started writing the historic track in the late 1960s, and that its scope was much larger than just Buddy Holly, who was referenced only in the song’s beginning.  McLean had dedicated the song to Holly, admitting he wanted to revive public interest in Holly’s life and career.  He certainly did that. American Pie triggered the later success of John Goldrosen’s 1975 biography The Buddy Holly Story, the first of several Holly biographies. (Goldrosen said he had great difficulty getting it published until McLean’s song attracted many publishers’ attention.)

The Movie

The movie version of Holly’s story, praised by some but criticized by others, hit the big screen in 1978, making actor Gary Busey a star in the title role. Don McLean was a New York area singer/songwriter, and a guy who for years did gigs at a number of coffee shops and clubs (New York’s Bitter End and Gaslight Cafe, Washington D.C.’s Cellar Door, the Newport Jazz Festival and finally the Troubadour in Los Angeles).  Actually, McLean was little known outside the folk music community. He had been a one-time protege of famed folk singer/political activist Pete Seeger.  Seeger, in fact, was among an elite group of backup singers in the final American Pie background chorus. You’ll hear the chorus at the end of the song —  Seeger, James Taylor, Carly Simon and Livingston Taylor. They were identified on the record cover as the West Forty-Fourth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir. The giant hit American Pie  jump-started McLean’s career and led to other musical successes, including the well-received Vincent (Starry, Starry Night), which rose to Billboard #12, and five other top-40 hits through 1981. Overall, Don McLean released 25 albums — four of them live — and 9 compilation Lps. He was inducted into Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2004.

Bob Dearborn had his opinions and, as an author, I have my own:  

First, I agree with nearly all of Dearborn’s points.  His analysis, too, is a remarkable piece of work. There are lots of songs in various halls of fame that don’t hold a candle to ‘American Pie.’  Not because McLean’s was more melodic or lyrical if measured against others.  But rather because his musical story addressed a whole lot more — mostly our loss of innocence. ‘Pie’ is a chronicled observation of the direction of America and its music after a shocking event felt by millions.  It’s likely the country’s musical and social stage would have changed even if Holly and the others had lived.  So, you could call the song musical/poetic conjecture — certainly McLean’s opinion — about a time most people didn’t notice changes in our values, tastes and desires.  But McLean did.  He felt the loss and was willing to say so in a way that made people listen.

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie

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Ronald DeHart

Author: Ronald DeHart

Ron DeHart is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist and a retired Public Affairs Officer from both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve. His historical accounts of Pacific Northwest broadcasting are published by Puget Sound Media.  

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