July-August 2014

Don McLean: The FolkWorks Interview

By Ross Altman

Don McLean legendaryI happened to be at a roadside coffee stand yesterday where the radio was tuned to K-Earth 101; they were taking a commercial break to promote the station, and were playing two brief song excerpts to do so. The first was the Rolling Stones Satisfaction and the second was Don McLean’s American Pie. That’s all—no Beatles, no Madonna, no Elvis, no Rod Stewart, no Chuck Berry, and no Dylan; just the Stones and Don McLean. After the sound samples concluded the announcer breaks in and delivers the tag line: The greatest songs on earth—K-Earth 101. He doesn’t even bother to identify the artists or the songs, that’s how universally well-known they are. The Stones I got; but Don McLean? And then I connected the dots.

His most popular hit song American Pie is number 5 on the Recording Industry Association of America’s Top 365 list of the Greatest Songs of the Century—right behind Aretha Franklin’s Respect and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land—which are right behind White Christmas and Over the Rainbow. And yet American Pie is not on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time—not even #500! How could this be, one wonders?

I’ll tell you how it could be. Don McLean, who wrote the greatest goddamn rock-and-roll tribute song of all time—the rhapsodic, rambling, profoundly metaphoric history of American rock from his self-proclaimed “Day the Music Died,” when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper’s plane went down on February 3, 1959 after their fateful concert at the Winter Ballroom in Clearlake, Iowa—is the ultimate rock-and-roll outsider—to use the term that the late British writer Colin Wilson coined to describe such lonely, alienated, existential artists as Vincent Van Gogh—who by the way Don McLean also paid tribute to in his second most popular hit song Vincent.

Both of those landmark songs were on his second album American Pie—which came out in 1971, following his debut album Tapestry—which came out in 1970—one year before Carole King released her album of the same name—without crediting Don McLean as her title’s source, no thank you. Carole King is in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame; but the source of her own classic album has been sedulously ignored by its voters since he first became eligible in 1995—25 years after the original Tapestry was released, which included his third most popular hit song—And I Love You So. How could this be?

It so happens that on December 13, 2013—the night I saw Don McLean in concert at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, recently reviewed in these pages—The New York Times reported the death of Colin Wilson, whose classic book of philosophy cum social portraiture The Outsider inaugurated the age of the Angry Young Men in Great Britain, written at only 24 and published in 1956 when Wilson was spending nights in his sleeping bag on Hampstead Heath and days in the Reading Room of the British Museum writing what turned out—after more than 100 subsequent books before he died at 84—to be his masterpiece. It includes portraits of a wide range of troubled artists, from Jean Paul Sartre to Hemingway to Van Gogh—a number of whom committed suicide, but thanks to folk rock songwriter Don McLean only Van Gogh has been featured in a major popular song. So is it any surprise that the author of the song Vincent should share some significant traits with its subject? Perhaps not.

After all, it used to go without saying that rock-and-roll was the musical expression—the voice, if you will, of the American angry young men (and women) of the 1950s and '60s—those same rebels without a cause that McLean describes as wearing “a coat they borrowed from James Dean,” and, like Wilson, “practicing in the park” (Washington Square Park, I like to imagine—where a certain “quartet” (from the song) named The Weavers actually did practice.

Except the Weavers—unlike James Dean—and Elvis, and even Buddy Holly—were not “rebels without a cause.” They all had causes, left wing causes, from Pete Seeger to Lee Hays to Fred Hellerman to their great contralto Ronnie Gilbert. That’s why they were blacklisted in 1950, right after their recording of Leadbelly’s theme song Goodnight Irene shot to the top of the Hit Parade—and stayed there for 13 straight weeks, setting a record unsurpassed until the BeeGees entered the scene in 1975.

Don McLean celebrated all of these outsiders in his own masterpiece American Pie—little knowing that he was at the same time describing and defining his own role as an artist—The Outsider—the permanent rebel in his own right. That is certainly the portrait that shines through this interview I conducted via transcontinental phone call from Los Angeles to his home in Camden, Maine.

Another American rebel, Woody Guthrie inspired him to start writing songs—at the age of fourteen, when he was just learning to play guitar—a Harmony Jamboree model. He heard Roll On, Columbia and thought, “Maybe I can do that.” He soon realized that as simple as it seemed, there was genius beneath the simplicity. Thus, when I looked the other day for some of his albums in my local 2nd hand record haven, I wasn’t surprised to find they were all shelved in the Folk section, yet another reason The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may have so far ignored him. As far as he has come in his meteoric career since penning one of the top five classic songs of the 20th Century—again, American Pie is ranked just behind Woody’s This Land Is Your Land—Don McLean has no problem in continuing to think of himself as a folk singer. He performs one of the time-honored roles of the folk singer—and that is to remember—and to help his audience remember.

Don McLean in 2012-275More than any singer-songwriter of his generation he ranges far and wide to find his songs—both from other songwriters (such as the late great Tim Hardin, author of Black Sheep Boy) and traditional songs such as the Irish Mountains of Mourne—and this from a songwriter who is responsible for a number of the best-selling songs of all time. It is quite astonishing to hear from him that he gives equal weight to the first word in singer-songwriter. He feels that he is as much a singer as a songwriter—and a singer who makes a deliberate effort to embrace the entire scope of American song—from folk to rock to country and all the way back to turn-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley. His prolific recorded output of over forty albums covers the waterfront. Indeed, compared to him most “singer-songwriters” come across as entirely parochial and self-involved. If they didn’t write it, why should they bother to sing it?

That’s not Don McLean—and from the beginning it was not his concern if he didn’t write a song that he loved and wanted to share. Thus: Crying, by Roy Orbison and Joe Nelson became one of his biggest hits—in 1980. McLean not only felt it, he lived it he reported to me, and could not help singing it.

FolkWorks readers, you are in for a rare privilege and a treat—to spend some time with an American legend and folk music hero—a folk rock musician who was there at the beginning of the folk revival—1961 in Greenwich Village—the same year Dylan hit town and blew the lid off American popular music. But I don’t need to put words in Don McLean’s mouth. He has his own story to tell, and in the following pages he tells it warts and all. Thank you to Don McLean for giving us his time and the passion of his voice.

But before we begin, a few words about ground rules. There weren’t any. Not because I insisted on it; the subject never even came up. Nothing was off limits or off the record, and as you will soon discover, Mr. McLean—and I quote—calls them as he sees them—without fear or favor. He held nothing back, took nothing back and was remarkably forthcoming in his evolution of thought about folk music in general and America’s favorite folk singer (and the clueless Rolling Stone!) in particular. In a real sense I was listening to Don McLean thinking out loud, and grateful for his willingness to stand behind his words and like Van Gogh himself give us a real self-portrait. The author of Vincent, And I Love You So, Homeless Brother and American Pie is unafraid to speak truth to power—the hallmark of every great artist. Fasten your seatbelts—you are in for a wild ride with the man who once drove his Chevy to the levee. This time around, I was thrilled to go along for the ride.

Here is Part 1 of my FolkWorks interview with Don McLean.



By Ross Altman

Don McLean with instrumentsIn the following interview Don McLean has a few things to say about Pete Seeger that may raise some eyebrows, especially since the interview was conducted well before Pete passed away last January 27; so I want to preface it with this lovely tribute by Don McLean for Pete and what his loss meant to him; it is copied directly from his web site and shows how complex love can be.

Thank you, Don.

Pete Seeger

For about seven years from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, I knew the Seegers (Pete and Toshi) about as well as anybody. I worked with Pete Seeger frequently. He was very generous and encouraging at a time in my life when it meant a great deal to me. 

Here is Part 2 of my FolkWorks interview with Don McLean.



By Ross Altman

July 14, 2014, Woody Guthrie’s 102nd birthday—a day to celebrate folk music.

Don McLeanRA:      Let me ask you about your father. You said at some point in the interview that I read that you were being encouraged to quit music because you weren’t making enough or weren’t successful enough and then the way you looked at it was you were making more in a day than your father made in a week…

RA:      Okay, so to repeat that you were making more in a day than your father was earning in a week, which was about $150, and so you couldn’t see the argument. So I wanted to ask you, what did your father do for a living? And what influence did he have in terms of values and the things that you saw around your home?

DM:     My father was a district manager for Consolidated Edison, the utility.

RA:      Oh, okay.

DM:     And he sold gas heat to people. And I never knew one single thing about what he did. He never spoke about what he did. He never talked about himself too much at all. He was taciturn in some ways, but near the end of his life when we were together, he told me all about childhood which was very tough. And then he died when I was with him.

Here is Part 3 of my FolkWorks interview with Don McLean.

Don McLean: The FolkWorks Interview

Part 3

By Ross Altman

Don McLean with Banjo at LenaRA:      How did you get acquainted with Pete?

DM:     I got acquainted with him because, well I always loved his records, and loved that image which I felt was the perfect image for me, you know, because I was always kind of an outsider. I didn’t really want to work with people. I didn’t get along with people. I was always getting punished for things I was saying, you know, even at home. In school, at home, whatever, I would say something that was the truth, but it would get me in a lot of trouble and it kind of continued right on.

RA:      Can you think of an example off the top of your head of that kind of thing?

DM:     I can – wow, I mean, no. But I was always being impertinent, let’s say.

RA:      Okay.

DM:     The biggest example was American Pie, you know, where everybody sort of crucified me for – Rolling Stone crucified me for trying to take over the telling of the history of rock and roll.

Don McLean and Judy Collins will appear in concert at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside on Friday, July 25. For further info and tickets see www.DonMcLean.com

Ross Atman will perform a tribute to Pete Seeger on Saturday, July 19 at 2:00pm at the Santa Monica Public Library; sponsored by the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest Free Family Concert Series; on the patio outside the library.

Saturday July 26, 8:00pm Ross Altman and Jill Fenimore perform at the UnUrban Coffeehouse Gallery Opening for an exhibition of the late Change-Links Editor John Johnson’s paintings; 3301 W. Pico Blvd. Santa Monica, CA. 90405; 310-315-0056 ; Jill will play Don McLean’s Vincent in honor of John.

On Thursday evening, July 31 Ross will appear with the Geer Family Singers and other performers at the Theatricum Botanicum Re-Pete concert for Pete Seeger. See their website for tickets.

Saturday afternoon August 9, at 2:00pm on the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Ross performs Countdown: The Cold War Hit Parade at the Allendale Branch Library in Pasadena; 1130 South Marengo Ave. Pasadena, CA 91106 626-744-7260 ; it is sponsored by the library; free and open to the public.

Sunday morning August 31 at 10:30 AM Ross performs his annual Labor Day Sunday Program at the Church in Ocean Park, 235 Hill Street in Santa Monica 90405; free and open to the public. 310-399-1631 .

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com


All Columns by Ross Altman