“Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.”
It was 40 years ago that this epic song from Don McLean topped the Billboard charts and became the No. 1 single of 1972. The album released in late 1971 sold more than 5 million copies.
I knew none of this in the summer of ’72. I was 8 years old, living on a farm and excited that my first-cousin Brad Kraemer and his family had moved close by.
Two years earlier, my parents moved from Hales Corners near Milwaukee to rural Taylor in Jackson County to help run the family farm. Now Brad and his family were moving from the Brookfield suburb of Milwaukee.
That summer my parents were building a new house. Brad was living in an old farmhouse about a quarter-mile away.
Some may remember 1972 as the year that 11 Israelis were killed by Palestine terrorists at the Olympics in Munich, Germany. It was the year of President Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election. Or some might recall a break-in at the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Towers that became the focus of some reporters at the Washington Post.
All of this was of little relevance to a farm kid from Wisconsin. It was fun watching the house being built, and Brad and I made many trips back and forth between our houses on foot. We had a path through the woods and a spot where we could jump across the creek.
During our many trips Brad and I would sometimes sing. One of them was “American Pie,” or at least as much of the song that we knew. That was pretty much the chorus.
“Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.
“Them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing ‘this’ll be the day that I die. This’ll be the day that I die.’”
I didn’t know exactly what a levee was, but I knew about whiskey. I figured these were tough, hard-drinking cowboy-like men who had no fear — even of death itself.
Music and songs have a funny way of allowing you to time travel and trigger memories. I heard the tail end of this 8 minute, 36 second song the other day and instantly was taken back 40 years to those shortcuts through the woods.
McLean, who is on a 40th anniversary American Pie world tour, has never discussed the deeper meaning of his song’s lyrics, other than saying that he dedicated the song to Buddy Holly. The song is part biographical, McLean says on his website, and is the story of America during the 1950s and the 1960s. It was inspired by Don’s memories of being a paperboy in 1959 and learning of the death of Holly.
The analysis of the six-verse song and its supposed references to Bob Dylan, John F. Kennedy, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin has been the subject of great discussion and analysis over the years.
I simply think it was McLean’s ode to what he saw was the end of a simpler life and times. The turbulent world of the late ’60s had turned into the troubled ’70s. It was a period rich for a fuller examination of our lives, our purpose and where our country was heading.
Just like today.
We still have children screaming in the streets.
And when we hear about a gunman slaughtering innocent people in a movie theater, yes, there’s still bad news on the doorstep.
The pessimists have always sung dark dirges, particularly in election years.
But I don’t believe the music of our country is dead. It often gets drowned out in the hubbub of extreme partisanship and the noise.
Our music is still alive. We just need to talk less and listen more to its rhythm and chorus.
Chris Hardie is the editor of the La Crosse Tribune.