Don McLean: The FolkWorks Interview

Part 1

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. However, there were some things he did and said that made me sore as hell. That’s the kind of thing that was bound to happen with somebody who was controversial. Throughout the following years we remained friends and though I criticized him sometimes it was always to his face and I think he appreciated that. I never lost my affection for him and the world will be a lonelier place, for me, without him.

I would like to pass on to any young performers a few things that he taught me:

Firstly, he taught me how to perform and make a living with a guitar when I had no money and only dreams.

Secondly, he taught me how to survive success, the most important thing he taught me of all. Because I learned from him that you have to love your music and audience and everything you do, big or small, moves you forward. Everything does not have to be important and major. All the little things add up.

Finally, he said to me once, ‘If you’re going to criticize the government [which I’ve done frequently] make sure you never even spit on the sidewalk.’

Pete will become a statue now, but I remember the living man who, with all his faults had a character that was finer than anyone I ever knew.

- Don McLean, February 3, 2014

Don McLean with Pete SeegerRA: Hello. This is Ross Altman and I’m talking to ..?

DM: Don McLean.

RA: And this is, in fact, the Folk Works interview and we’re talking on Sunday morning, January 12, 2014, and I’m just delighted to be able to talk to Mr. McLean, one of America’s supreme recording artists and singer/songwriters, and what most engages me, a real folksinger. There are not many left. And that’s what has kept me involved in your work over these many years.

DM: Thank you.

RA: Very few singer/song writers sing anything but the songs they’ve written and in my experience, they don’t know many songs, if any.

DM: Oh really?

RA: Well, I might as well – I can always edit this out, but I heard a few years ago the very highly touted concert at UCLA that was based on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which I’m sure you’re familiar with . . .

DM: Sure.

RA: …and they had a lot of celebrities doing songs that they had never even heard before with the lyrics on music stands and that was what filled Royce Hall, including Tom Chapin, Harry’s brother, and at the end, they had Tom Chapin leading This Land Is Your Land and reading the lyrics, reading the lyrics to This Land Is Your Land, like it was the second time he had sung it.

DM: Something that I tell audiences and that is that everyone’s worried about the learning curve. What they need to worry about is the forgetting curve. We’re forgetting things a lot faster than we’re learning new things because we’re relying on technology knowing more and, of course, one form of technology becomes obsolete very quickly and there is, for example, no way of determining much of the information that came from the moon landing because they haven’t figured out how to access that information because it’s so antique.

RA: Oh really?

DM: There are parts to nuclear warheads that they don’t know how to fix because that information has gone the way of the dinosaur very quickly and so my son, for example, is a musicologist of sorts, and a poet and I told him, I said, “You’re doing the world a great service by learning all these obscure songs and knowing them.” He knows thousands of songs, from all genres.

RA: Really?

DM And so that’s – I said, “You know, you’re doing the world a favor because people are not going to. . .” but I didn’t realize it was at that level.

RA: Well, it’s been the job of a folksinger. I mean, the folksinger’s role is to remember.

DM: Well, you know, there you go. And so I . . .

RA: I mean, I’ve just been listening to Black Sheep Boy from Favorites and Rarities, and I’ll be honest. I assumed it was one of your songs and I wanted to double check, and I found out it’s an old Tim Hardin song and it is just beautiful and you do it with such feeling. You’ve made it your song.

DM: Well, I take songwriting and singing very – they call me a singer/songwriter. I take both of those categories seriously. But I’m primarily a singer and I’m what I call a songster, kind of like Lead Belly or Mance Lipscomb.

RA: Yeah, that’s exactly what Mance Lipscomb called himself.

DM: Yeah. they sang a lot of different things, you know, and they also wrote songs and they were – but they were tagged and put in a certain thing – area, but I’ve been able to have some fairly big records; that are in all different genres through the years, and so that’s been nice because it’s kind of confused the hell out of people and that’s basically why, when you say that you sing many different kinds of songs, I often tell that to the audience at the beginning of a show– I sing a lot of different things, I write in a lot of different styles. I think in the movie, The American Troubadour, I say that basically I’m a fusion artist. I fuse old fashioned popular music with folk music and with rock and roll that I could understand, you know. Country rock and roll, the kind of thing Elvis Presley did and Buddy Holly and stuff like that.

RA: So rockabilly.

DM: That’s what I do. And sometimes I do my own thing completely off the walls, and that I invent and that I hear coming in my head and I just turn my radio on and things come into my head on my radio station and I write them down. And sometimes they would fit into category of being a fusion artist, and then sometimes it’s completely in another place altogether.  I don’t even know where it is.

RA: Well, I mean, that one tape that I have from 1992, it’s almost an encyclopedia of American music that has things – it has a traditional Irish song, Mountains of Mourn. I’m sure it’s a hundred years old, but all the way up to a modern bluegrass song. It’s got novelty tunes that sound like they could have been from the…

DM: Right. It’s a song called The Profiteering Blues which was supposed to be on an album of mine and a lot of that stuff I never thought I’d ever hear again. When I heard that package many years ago, I hadn’t heard that song in twenty years.

RA: Whose song is that?

DM: It’s a song sung originally by Billy Murray. And Billy Murray, at the turn of the century, had more hit records than almost anybody. All these amazing songs, Paddlin’ Madelyn Home, I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover.

RA: Oh, he wrote those.

DM: All these songs. He only – he never accepted royalties. He didn’t believe in them. He just got like $50 a side and Billy Murray – and the thing about that song is that it parodies a whole lot of other hit songs of that time period. Over There and When You and I Were Young, Maggie and all these other different songs, so we got in the great piano player, a guy named Dick Hyman and – an unusual and unfortunate name for the poor guy – but anyway, he knew all the parts and played the thing absolutely beautifully.

RA: Oh, the musicianship in your recordings is just all top...

DM: Well, I’ve always – I’m very good at…

RA: You’ve put a lot musicians to work…

DM: I don’t listen to them. Every now and then I grew this - The last package they put out with American Troubadour, there are a lot of recordings on there that I can actually listen to and enjoy. A lot of them were discovered in the last seven or eight years by me, because I’ve been doing a lot of my own archiving, just because nobody else cares that much.

RA: Yeah, I saw that in the long interview on your website.

DM: Pardon me?

RA: I saw that. You talked about your archiving.

DM: Yeah, photographs, videos, all kinds of things, mostly spurred by the wonderful late Joel Dorn who was a brilliant genius and a great producer and a lover of musicians and of songs, and who was a great friend of mine and produced the Homeless Brother, and I wish I’d made more records with him because he was the kind of guy I could really get along with.

RA: Uh huh. Well, what year was Homeless Brother? Was that, you said, the third album?

DM: About 1974 or 5.

RA: You sang that in the concert. It’s just a wonderful…

DM: Yeah, Homeless Brothers….

RA: Wonderful song.

DM: A lot of songs on there I don’t do, but it can be done with whatever.

RA: You did a song in the concert that was very stark and I didn’t mention it in the review. I hadn’t heard it before, but it was very moving, and that was I’ve Grown Old Missing You.

DM: Yeah, it’s called I Was Always Young, and that song…

RA: That’s the title. I Was Always Young.

DM: Yes, and the last record I made called Addicted to Black.

RA: Uh huh. Well, that’s just a great song.

DM: Well, thank you. And I want to say that I’m having a wonderful time right now getting to work with and to know Judy Collins, who is on a double bill with me around the country often. I’ve always loved her music, but I didn’t really ever get to know her and I’m a little standoffish when it comes to women singers a lot of times, but she has become a person that I always look forward to seeing and to hearing and she’s a lot like me. You know, she sings a lot of beautiful songs and with beautiful melodies and she sings them so well. I just wanted to mention that.

RA: I have a review of her show in Los Angeles.

DM: Yeah, she’s become a good friend of mine and we’ve worked together a lot, and we’ll be working together more, and we did Wolf Trap and Rivenia and all these big places last year, and we’ll be doing, I think a lot more of that in the coming year. So I just wanted to mention that. She’s very…

RA: Do you sing together at all in concerts?

DM: No, we don’t sing together. I haven’t found anything I can do with her because her sense of time is different than mine. I don’t know – I’m sort of a slammer, you know. I’m kind of a rock and roller in a certain way, but I also – I’m thinking about that, you know. I’ve been thinking about it. I haven’t worked out anything yet, but anyway I just wanted to say that. But I wanted to say something to you about how wonderful it was, and exciting it was for me back in the late 1950s and the early 1960s to discover folk music.

RA: I’m glad you brought it up.

Caravan Magazine

DM: Well, I used to read a magazine called Caravan; I don’t know if you ever heard of it. It was kind of a Sing Out! magazine, but it was out of Chicago.

RA: Oh. I have a bunch of Come For to Sing magazines.

DM: Yeah. I know I have that one, but I have these Caravans and I love these magazines. And of course, I like Sing Out! magazine and the first place that ever published me was Broadside.

RA: Oh, really?

DM: Yeah. They put a couple of my songs in there. One called The Talking FBI Blues and the other one was a song called Mister Shadow and it was very exciting as a young teenager to get published for the first time.

RA: Did you meet Sis Cunningham at all?

DM: I think I did. I met all these people at one time or another. Millard Lampell and…

RA: Oh my God, for…

DM: …and I knew – but anyway, the person that got me started and helped me the most in those days was a banjo player named Mike Kropp.

RA: How do you spell the last name?

DM: K-R-O-P-P.

RA: K-R-O-P-P, okay.

DM: And he was, I lived in New Rochelle and I had a friend who I grew up with and his name was Peter Scheckman. He became a doctor and he was a classical musician. He used to play the cello, and I would pick anybody I could find and play music with them. So I’d go over to his house and ask him if he would play the cello like a bass. Like he’d know … [laughing] completely the wrong thing to tell a classical musician, but he actually would fool around with me sometimes.

RA: To back you up?

DM: And he knew a guy named Mike Kropp because he had gone to Horace Mann. He left the New Rochelle school system and high school and went to Horace Mann and there was this guy named Mike Kropp at Horace Mann. He introduced me to Mike Kropp and this guy, I mean, has got to be one of the greatest banjo players that ever lived.

RA: Wow.

DM: He was in a group called Northern Lights for a long time and you can see him on the internet. Anyway, I never could drive.

RA: Did he play folk style?

DM: He was a genius banjo player. He didn’t care about high school, he didn’t care about college. All he cared about was the banjo and he and I were really good friends and he had – he lived in a great big house. His father was very wealthy. His father was the guy that used to make Fisher cabinets for stereos, and so he’d invite me over to this gorgeous, big ranch house and he had copies of these different magazines and all these great records. I mean, Folkways records and Stinson records and he drove. I didn’t drive. We’re talking about 1961 now, you know.

RA: Oh really?

DM: I didn’t drive. I was a terrible driver. I kept failing my test. Everybody had to drive me everywhere, and so he drove me into the city one day and brought me to the Folklore Center.

RA: Izzy Young.

DM: And I met Israel Young and saw this amazing place. And this is the beginning really of . . .

RA: In 1961 you did this?

DM: Yeah.

RA: Okay, so that’s the year Dylan hit town.

DM: I saw Dylan when he first came to town at the Hootenanny at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seeger.

RA: Wow.

DM: And by that time, he was already – he had his first album out on Columbia and he was causing quite a sensation that he still causes. He’s continued to do that without a break continually from that moment on. Now I saw him at Carnegie Hall and he came out and gave a beautiful performance. He sang a talking Bear Mountain Blues.

RA: Oh, yeah.

DM: Hard Rain’s A-Going to Fall and he had that incredible Gibson guitar that just rang out like a mother. And sang these amazing songs and so I became aware – a fan of his, and aware of him from that point on. But the point I’m making is that . . .

RA: And you were just 16 basically at the time.

DM: Yeah. And I was already calling Fred Hellerman on the telephone and the Weavers. I was calling them up. My father had died when I was 15 and my father would have killed me if he ever found out I was talking to Communists. He was a Republican. And my father died and I just went with my feelings, you know, and my mother was not in the picture because she really wasn’t a political person, and wasn’t around too much anyway.

RA: And you had known the Weavers from the 1955 recording The Weavers at Carnegie Hall.

DM: Yeah. I discovered them. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie American Troubadour.

RA: I haven’t gotten to see it yet.

DM: You should see it.

RA: I’m planning to.

DM: Fred Hellerman’s in the picture. He talks about that, receiving phone calls from me when I was 16.

RA: You just called him out of the blue?

DM: I’d call him out of the blue, yeah. I was very – I was a lonely boy, you know. I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. I have a much older sister who left home long before, and I was by myself and it was little old me against the adult world really, and I would make up things to do. I would follow things much farther than normal kids would do, and so I would lock onto something and I would lock onto it, you know, into a subterranean level rather than just on the surface, and I fell in love with the harmonies and the warmth of the Weavers and those Vanguard records, especially At Home and Traveling On and to this day, I still listen to them.

RA: I have all of them.

DM: Oh, you have to.

RA: It was really Vanguard…

DM: They were so far and away superior to any other folk group was then or ever has been musically, period. They were all four of them were geniuses in their own way and…

RA:  Vanguard really rescued them from the blacklist.

DM: Yeah. That’s right.

RA: They were there to record.

DM: Vanguard rescued – Vanguard and Elektra Records were set up really to - Josh went to Elektra Records and the Weavers went to Vanguard. And you had all these other acts and no one knows about them. Marais and Miranda, you know, and Cynthia Gooding and all of these artists that were well known at the time. Richard Dyer-Bennett.

RA: Oh God, he was my favorite folksinger. He was my ideal.

DM: You don’t hear about these people anymore, but they were all part of this universe.

RA: Yeah.

DM: You know, Brother John Sellers, many, many, many others, and the thing about it that was so wonderful is that it wasn’t as commercial. When the Kingston Trio came along, they made it sort of go above ground and everybody started to – and by the way, I love the Kingston Trio. The original Kingston Trio was a brilliant group…Dave Guard and those guys, because they were an organic natural group that got together. Peter, Paul and Mary were a formed group. They were formed by the management – Albert Grossman—and I never kind of felt the same way about them as I did about the Kingston Trio because the Kingston Trio were coming from Hawaii. I spoke to Dave Guard near the time that he died.

RA: Oh really?

DM: Yeah, and I was kind of helping him out a little bit and he said, you know, we were discovering America. Nick [Reynolds] was from Coronado and they were from Hawaii, so they really weren’t on the mainland and they suddenly were discovering America and they were having a ball, you know, until the music business got them, which happens a lot and they kind of hurt them quite a bit. But anyway, I just wanted to mention that. I’m not down on the Kingston Trio at all. I think they were a phenomenal group and that…one of the things about them that was very interesting is that they came along at the time when stereo came in. Because most records were mono and when you spray out – they had a – every great vocal group, the Kingston Trio, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Weavers, they have a sound. When they sing in unison, it’s almost like they’re still in harmony. That’s how the timbres of their voices work so that when they do go into harmony, the spread on their sound is enormous. More than just three normal people singing the same notes. And so when –the Kingston Trio were very popular, but when stereo came in and Capitol put those records out in stereo, they were huge. Huge in your living room.

RA: Speaking of harmony, let me ask you quickly, did you have any feeling for the Everly Brothers and for Phil’s passing?

DM: I shed a tear over that. I loved the Everly Brothers. When I was a little guy, we had a small house in New Rochelle and my room was about the size of my office, and I had a little single bed and at night, I would listen to the fabulous style of the Everly Brothers every night. And that’s what I went to sleep with, and I would sing the third part. I would make a trio out of it.

RA: Oh, my goodness.

DM: Till I Kissed You and all these songs, so I cried a little bit when Phil Everly died. I really did.

RA: Well Don was apparently – no Phil was a pallbearer for Buddy Holly and Don said he couldn’t even get out of bed to even go to the funeral he was so devastated.

DM: I’m sure Phil…

RA: It’s a direct link. So anyway, back to folk music. At 16, were you playing an instrument by then?

DM: I was playing an instrument at 14. I got a Harmony Sunburst F-hole guitar and I had a friend of mine, his name was Brad Bivens, and his father lived around the corner from me. His father and mother and his whole family. He lived around the corner, and his father was an announcer on the Tommy Dorsey television show.

RA: Okay.

DM: And he had a kinescope of Elvis Presley and he would run it, and I saw it many times in their living room in 1958, ‘59 and Brad Bivens was into a lot of guitar players. Josh White and Johnny Smith and Chet Atkins and a lot of rock and roll. He had a little rock and roll band. I was in a few of his rock and roll bands as a rhythm guitar player and we’d go around and do Ventures’ music and all the rock and roll electric guitar songs. You know, Pipeline, Wipe Out, all those songs.

RA: Is Bivens spelled B-I-V-E-N-S?

DM: I think so.

RA: So you started with a Harmony guitar.

DM: Yeah and I was in a rock and roll group.

RA: Before you got…

DM: Before that, I was really crazy about Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent and, but basically I’ve never let go of anything that I ever heard. Because that’s the difference. I followed a lot of people as I went along. For example, my producer, Ed Freeman on the America Pie album. He also did Playin’ Favorites and The Don McLean Album. Ed Freeman was a guy who was folk-based as well, but also was involved with the Beatles at some point and different things like that, but he was always worrying about whether what he liked was hip. And I thought that was really strange. I didn’t care about that. So he would hear a song and he would really love it and he would say, “I can’t record that. That’s not good enough. I can’t do it. I’ll get laughed at if I do that.” You know? But he would like something, but then, you know, he would think…“That’s not cool. I can’t do that.” So I never thought that way. That’s why I wrote a song like Vincent. I mean, who would write such a song? I had nothing telling me don’t do that, you know? I didn’t care how it looked. It was something I felt. It was something I loved. I follow things. I don’t care about where they lead.

RA: This was written when you were living in the Berkshires?

DM: Yeah. I was living in the home of Edie Sedgwick.

RA: Andy Warhol’s circle.

DM: Yeah, her. She ended up as one of the Brahman’s that dropped, kind of Pete Seeger in a way, you know? A Brahman that left, decided to go against his class and she did the same thing. There was a lot of that around.

RA: What else were you doing in the Berkshires at that time?

DM: I was singing in the school system.

RA: You were actually getting paid to sing in the schools?

DM: Yeah. I was living in their house and in this apartment in this gorgeous house, beautiful furniture. I still remember it very well and this wonderful woman who was – I just know her as Mrs. Sedgwick, but she was this very cute, little old lady who would always do Yoga in her part of the house, and I liked her a lot. And she would rent out this apartment in the house which was like six rooms or something, and two people that were – had something to do with the arts. What I was doing was something to do with the arts and in the Berkshires. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but she let Yo Yo Ma live there and some other people live there, when he was at Tanglewood.

RA: Wow, a personal artist in residence.

DM: Yeah, that kind of thing. And they paid her and the people that worked with me. But the thing I loved about the odyssey of my journey was that everywhere I went, I was appreciated. But in New Rochelle, I wasn’t. You know, nobody understood. I was a joke basically, you know, a kid who was playing guitar and not studying. A kid who would drop out of school. A kid who…

RA: When did you do that?

DM: I dropped out of college in 1963.

RA: And that was in New Rochelle?

DM: Correct.

RA: I see.

DM: That’s where I was brought up.

RA: And you dropped out to be a singer. Does that mean?

DM:  I dropped out to sing in coffee houses and become – and try to make a living with singing.

RA:  And that was one of the things that was most endearing to read on your website, that you had gotten some significant opportunities, a scholarship at Columbia.

DM: That was in college. After high school – right after I went to college, I quit and I spent a year trying to do something in music, and that’s when I met Howard Leventhal and a man named Charles Close, who worked with Howard Leventhal, and they worked with me for a year but didn’t – and I worked at a lot of places around the country, but I didn’t really – that’s how I first met Judy actually, when she was in her early twenties and I was a teenager. She was hanging out in Charles Close’s office at Harold Leventhal’s place.

RA: Uh huh.

DM: But Charles came to me and said, “You know, I think you should go back to school for a while. You’re a little too young,” and so I didn’t think I was getting anywhere, anyway, either. So I went back and I’d lost a year of school and I went back to Iona College at night, and then I graduated in 1968 and I went back into the music business at that point again. But during those years I was not taken very seriously. I was thought of as kind of a loser.

RA: But you turned – it said that you turned down a scholarship to Columbia.

DM: That’s correct. By the end of – by 1968, ‘67, I took an entrance exam to get a Master’s degree in business because I actually was good at this. I didn’t know I had this business acumen, but I did.

RA: [laughing]

DM: And it was a total surprise to me. I would go to the finance classes and man, I’m looking forward to this. This is interesting. I like it. And so someone said, “Why don’t you take the exam and see if you can get a Masters at Columbia.” So I did and I did very well, and they accepted me. But then I said, “No, I can’t give up what it is I’m put here to do. This is what I’m supposed to do and not to be in a bank somewhere.”

RA: So that was really your road not taken moment.

DM: Yeah, the second time, too.

RA: Well, sometimes it takes two.

End of Part One; in Part Two Don McLean talks about his father, and about Erik Darling and the banjo; in Part Three he talks about Pete Seeger and his time on the Clearwater.