AMERICAN PIE (Oldie but Goodie)

One of my first articles about the Fourth Turning, written in October 2009. My assessment of Obama’s economic policies seems to have been spot on. It seems I was a little off on peak oil. I sure wrote long articles in the early days. I really enjoyed trying to interpret McLean’s lyrics.


“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” Bertrand Russell

Don McLean was born in 1945 and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. He was one of the earliest Baby Boomers. He was born at the beginning of America’s last High, as described by Strauss & Howe in their book The Fourth Turning. America’s victory in World War II began a new 80 to 100 year cycle consisting of four turnings of 20 to 25 years. The four cycles are a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling and a Crisis. These cycles have been recurring throughout history due to the generational mood changes as people age. Don McLean grew up during a High. This was a episode of safety and security. He basked in “Dr. Spock permissiveness, suburban conformism, Sputnik-era schooling, Beaver Cleaver friendliness, and Father Knows Best family order.” His idyllic life changed on the morning of February 3, 1959 when he read the headline in the newspaper he was about to deliver.

A long long time ago
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
So bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
American Pie – Don McLean

To Everything There is a Season

Don McLean was 14 years old in 1959 when he read the bad news on the doorstep. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the American High was coming to a conclusion. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 marked the end of the High and the start of the Awakening. A stage of turmoil was about to erupt across America. Strauss & Howe describe the mood transition of the country from a High to an Awakening:

“An Awakening arrives with a dramatic challenge against the High’s assumptions about benevolent reason and congenial institutions. The outer world now feels trivial compared to the inner world. New spiritual agendas and social ideals burst forth, along with utopian experiments seeking to reconcile total fellowship with total autonomy. The prosperity and security of a High are overtly disdained though covertly taken for granted. A society searches for soul over science, meanings over things. Youth-fired attacks break out against the established institutional order. As these attacks take their toll, society has difficulty coalescing around common goals. People stop believing that social progress requires social discipline. Any public effort that requires collective discipline encounters withering controversy. Wars are awkwardly fought and badly remembered afterward.”

As the chart below shows, the progression of generations through the four cycles of life can be documented back to the 1400’s. I’ve always believed that George Santayana’s quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, was a profound statement. After examining Strauss & Howe’s generational theory, it may not matter whether you remember the past. You are condemned to repeat it. A generation that is 80 years removed from the last similar cycle is incapable of understanding or learning from that prior cycle.

Individuals may study and understand the mood changes that shifted the country on a certain course, but they are helpless in changing the powerful force of a generational life transition. Every person born on this earth has a maximum stay of about 80 to 100 years. They hopefully will make it through the phases of childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and elderhood. These phases can’t be reversed or rearranged. This is why the four cycles of High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis must occur in that order. When Don McLean was writing American Pie in 1970 at the age of 25, he wasn’t aware that he was capturing the Awakening mood of an entire generation in one song.

The Turnings in Anglo-American History

The Turnings
Life Phase:
Elderhood Nomad Hero Artist Prophet
Midlife Hero Artist Prophet Nomad
Young Adulthood Artist Prophet Nomad Hero
Childhood Prophet Nomad Hero Artist
Late Medieval Retreat from France
War of the Roses
Tudor Tudor Renaissance
Protestant Reformation
Intolerance & Martyrdom
Armada Crisis
New World Merrie England
Puritan Awakening
Reaction & Restoration
Glorious Revolution
Revolutionary Augustan Age of Empire
Great Awakening
French & Indian Wars
American Revolution
Civil War Era of Good Feelings
Transcendental Awakening
Mexican War & Sectionalism
Civil War
Great Power Reconstruction & Gilded Age
Third Great Awakening
World War I & Prohibition
Great Depression & World War II
Millennial American High
Consciousness Revolution
Culture Wars
Millennial Crisis?

The Day the Music Died

As a young boy, Don McLean was often housebound due to a bad case of childhood asthma. It was during this time that he developed his love of music and learned to play the guitar. The 1950s were an era of happiness and affluence for the burgeoning American middle class. Americans had a feeling of optimism about their prospects for the future, and pride in their nation which had emerged victorious from World War II, setting the world free from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

Popular music mirrored society. Performers such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley and the Comets churned out feel-good records that matched the mood of the nation. Don’s idyllic childhood came to a shattering conclusion between 1959 and 1963. His music idol, Buddy Holly, died in an airplane crash. His father died in 1961, when Don was 15 years old. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

Don entered young adulthood during the 1960’s as he develop into a musician and made connections in the music industry. He came of age during the Consciousness Revolution. It was marked by urban riots and campus rage, together with Vietnam War demonstrations and a rebellious hippie counterculture. It gave rise to feminist, environmental, and black power movements and to a steep rise in violent crime and family disintegration. The Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King assassination and the Robert Kennedy assassination were major episodes during this tumultuous period.

McLean wrote the song American Pie in 1970, about one-third through the Awakening era. American Pie presents an conceptual story of McLean’s life from the 1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the happiness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s.

In 1970, the Vietnam War was at its height. Four unarmed college students had been shot dead at Kent State University by National Guardsmen while protesting the invasion of Cambodia in early 1970.

Alan Howard, author of The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs,described the period of turmoil and Don McLean’s role in closing this chapter:

“The 1960s was the antithesis of the previous decade. The exuberant simplicity of the 1950s was displaced by a much more volatile and politically charged atmosphere. People were asking questions. The cozy world of white middle class America was disturbed, as civil rights campaigners marched on Washington, D.C., and Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The following year saw the 1964 Civil Rights Act become law. On the world stage, America’s leading super-power status was being challenged by the Soviet Union, and its military might was being tested by the Vietnamese. Even in music, America soon found itself overrun by a British invasion. The 1960s was a turbulent time for McLean’s generation.”

“By 1971, America was still deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control. The anti-war movement was gathering momentum and being listened to. Other events of the time, such as the successful launch of Apollo 14, did little to restore national pride. “American Pie,” in the opinion of the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, was the funeral oration for an era: “Without it, many of us would have been unable to grieve, achieve closure, and move on. Don saw that, and wrote the song that set us free. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that.”

The generation defining song marked the end of the fierce phase of the Awakening. After the ferocity crested with Watergate in 1974, passions turned inward toward New Age lifestyles and spiritual rebirth. The mood petered out during Reagan’s optimistic Morning in America reelection campaign in 1983, as onetime hippies reached their yuppie chrysalis.

American Pie has been voted the 5th greatest song of the Twentieth Century. It didn’t fit the requirements of a standard pop music hit. Singles were supposed to be 2 to 3 minutes. McLean’s song was War and Peace in comparison. The song ran for an unheard of 8 minutes and 33 seconds. The lyrics contained 877 words. The song is sad, emotional, touching, inspirational, religious, and confusing. It somehow touches you deep inside. Don has never interpreted the lyrics for the public. His view is:

“You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me… sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

I personally consider American Pie to be the greatest song ever written. I was eight years old in 1971 when the song came out. I shared a 100 square foot room with my sixteen year old brother. I would go to bed at eight o’clock and he would be studying at his desk with the stereo on. My childhood memories are filled with the tunes of Don McLean, CSNY, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, and the Stones. In the late 1980s I spent many a summer weekend night in the Princeton Bar & Grille in Avalon, New Jersey. The saddest part of the evening was at 2:20 a.m. when the DJ would play American Pie, letting everyone know that closing time had arrived. I can still hear the echo of hundreds of drunken 23 year olds singing at the top of their lungs. This is a particularly happy memory, as I met my lovely wife at the Princeton Bar & Grille.

In the past, generational mood changes were reflected in literature. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm were reflective of the mood during the last Crisis era. The music of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s captured the mood of the country. Ohio by CSNY, Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel, Revolution by the Beatles, and Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones all reflected the chaotic times, but American Pie is the national anthem of the Baby Boom generation. McLean documents the progression of music and national mood with his haunting lyrics.

Consciousness Revolution

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you’re in love with him
’cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died
I started singing

Bye, bye Miss American Pie 
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry 
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye 
Singing this’ll be the day that I die 
This’ll be the day that I die 

American Pie – Don McLean

McLean’s lyrics in this verse reflect the music of the 1950s with sock hops, slow dancing with girls and making out in pickup trucks. Then it all ended on the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died. In the chorus, American Pie represents rock and roll music. His Chevy represents America. McLean and his friends used to drink at a bar called the Levee in New Rochelle. When it closed, McLean and his friends moved on to Rye, New York drinking away their sadness at the loss of Buddy Holly. The final reference is to Holly’s That’ll Be the Day lyric, that’ll be the day that I die.

Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that’s not how it used to be
When the Jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh and while the king was looking down
The Jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died
We were singing

American Pie – Don McLean

This verse begins with a reference to Buddy Holly being dead for ten years. Bob Dylan has assumed the role of the king of rock and roll. McLean thinks he has sold out his folk music roots. He replaced Elvis as the king. McLean wasn’t convinced that Dylan deserved this stature. The Beatles hadn’t burst onto the scene in the U.S. The funeral dirges refer to the fact that the music of the 1960’s didn’t measure up to the music of Buddy Holly. The music reflected the disintegration of public trust and reaction to an unsupported war.

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
Landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
We started singing

American Pie – Don McLean

This verse refers to Charles Manson’s murders inspired by the Beatles song Helter Skelter and the Byrds’ Eight Miles High and their subsequent problems with the law over drug use. While Bob Dylan was laid up after a motorcycle accident, other bands tried to take his place. The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s album changed rock and roll forever. Still, it wasn’t music that you could dance to. McLean didn’t like drugs or the drug references in music. He saw drugs as evil and a major reason for the decline in American society.

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
He was singing

American Pie – Don McLean

The one place was Woodstock. The Baby Boom generation was lost in space. They were alienated from their Hero Generation parents. The hippies were lost in their drug induced psychedelic stupor. There was no time left to go back to the good feelings of the 1950s. He refers to the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin Jack Flash and the murder of a fan during the Stones’ Altamont Speedway Concert by the Hell’s Angels during a performance of Sympathy for the Devil. McLean was a religious man. He was angry at what he believed were satanic influences on the music of Mick Jagger and the Stones. The fan was sacrificed while Jagger performed.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing

American Pie – Don McLean

The girl who sang the blues was Janis Joplin and she turned away by overdosing on heroine. The sacred store was record stores where they used to let you preview the records in the 1950s before buying them. By the late 1960s they wouldn’t let you listen anymore. The teenagers screamed as the National Guard shot them down at Kent State. The church bells were broken refers to all the dead singers. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson. They died and went to heaven.

Awakening through Unraveling

In 8 minutes and 33 seconds, Don McLean captured the angst and turmoil of an entire generation moving from a High halfway through an Awakening. McLean was unhappy with the America of the late 1960’s. The Awakening cycle continued until 1984. The youthful enthusiasm and the attacks on the establishment dimmed as the country exited Vietnam and experienced the trauma of Watergate. Emotions cooled as the 1970s progressed. The 1970s and early 1980s are remembered for closure of the gold window by Nixon, Nixon’s resignation, stagflation, oil embargoes, even or odd gas days, the Ford Pinto, recessions, Saturday Night Fever, American hostages, Carter’s ineptitude, Reagan’s optimism, John Hinckley’s assassination attempt, John Lennon’s assassination, 18% interest rates, and 11% unemployment rates.

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(Like Jim said, he used right really long articles!)

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