The Hippo


Jul 21, 2019








Courtesy photo.

Don McLean

When: Saturday, Aug. 26, 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., Derry
Tickets: $63-$78 at

A slice of Don McLean
Singer-songwriter comes to Tupelo

By Michael Witthaus

 For Don McLean, all roads lead to “American Pie” — few songs accomplished more than his 1971 hit. In eight and a half minutes, it defined a generation and made “the day the music died” synonymous with the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Holly’s catalog sales surged in its wake, as did plenty of oldies stations. 

This begs the question: Did McLean have dreams of rock and roll immortality as he recorded the song? The short answer is no — and if he had known what would happen, he might have waited.
“I was getting a lot of what was called underground and college airplay” on his first record, Tapestry, McLean said in a recent phone interview. “A bunch of these stations would play the whole album. So I was building something that was very cool, and ‘American Pie’  ruined it.”
The last words come with a laugh, as McLean talks about a “startling, frightening, exhilarating type of experience that catapulted me very quickly to the front ranks of singer-songwriters immediately.” The consequence, however, was fans moving backward and sideways to find gems like “Vincent” and  “Castles in the Air,” or to learn that the title cut from his debut helped launch Greenpeace.
Yes, along with chronicling the ’60s in a single iconic song, McLean was a midwife to the environmental movement. It came out of his experiences sailing with Pete Seeger to protest water pollution in the Hudson River in the mid-1960s. The two met when he began a correspondence with the folk legend while he was in middle school. Seeger became a mentor and friend, though McLean recalled more than a few good-natured arguments. 
“I’d say anything to him, and he’d laugh about it and we’d discuss it,” he said, noting that Seeger’s politics came up often, or more accurately, the songwriter’s choice of targets. “He never criticized the Communist regime, never wrote a song about anything that happened in Vietnam ... but if it was a right-wing junta in South America....”
Seeger’s cover of Malvina Reynold’s “Little Boxes” was not one of McLean’s favorites. 
“My mother’s parents came from Italy, and that is a very condescending song,” he told Seeger. “My grandparents would have been very happy to send their kids to summer camp and have a little box to live in and go to the university that this song mocks. ... You should get your shit together.”
However, their relationship had more love than sparring, McLean said. 
“He was so terminally upper-class that he couldn’t even realize when he was saying something that was revealing that; but by the same token, he was the sweetest, most generous, most open person, and his talents were a wonder,” he said.
McLean shared Seeger’s activist spirit, and despairs of its seeming disappearance in today’s culture. Though “Dixie Chick” is a verb for career ruination invented by the right, he believes there’s shared responsibility for what he views as an excessive reticence. 
“We live in a time of Teutonic fascist conformism and it comes from both sides; it’s the polarization of different parties,” he said. “Political correctness is at a point where it’s become almost fascism. Really, don’t you think it’s Orwellian that there are all these words that you can’t say?  ‘What is that word you’re talking about — why don’t you just say the word? Oh, my God, you said the word!’ It’s almost like a Lenny Bruce routine come to life.”
For this reason, McLean is eternally grateful that he’s a performer. 
“I could never work in a corporation, I am completely unemployable,” he said. “I’d hear something absurd or ridiculous and I’d say something and I’d be fired.” 
Instead, he gets to write and play; during the interview, he expressed excitement about a new album, Botanical Gardens, long in the works. He expects to play selections from it at his upcoming Tupelo Music Hall concert.
McLean is also famous for something he didn’t write. “Killing Me Softly” was a 1973 hit for Roberta Flack born from a poem that singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman wrote in response to seeing him perform his song “Empty Chairs” in concert. How did McLean feel about being immortalized in such a way?
“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “I’ve just tried to do the purest, best thing I could do, in the recording studio and on stage, and it’s caused these things to happen. It was never planned, I never had any support, Rolling Stone never put me on the cover. Every time I was down I came back; it’s the damndest thing. ... I never had a show, I still don’t. I go out and lose myself in my own world and go from one song to the next, and somehow it caused these things to happen.” 

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