Tucker Carlson recently found himself quoting the lyrics from Don McLean’s smash hit “American Pie” without quite knowing what they meant. Being an inquisitive fellow, Tucker thought to go to the man himself to ask (video below).
I am a long-time fan of Don McLean and could not have been more delighted to see him. He is now 74 years old. Having watched Mike Douglas interview him on Douglas’s daily show back in the day, I think his politics were of the angry socialist variety and they may still be — he came up on the music scene as a student and follower of Pete Seeger — so I was pleasantly surprised to hear, as he states at the top of the interview, that he watches Tucker’s show often. He is in any event a thoughtful guy.
I want to take the occasion to close out the year with a few videos of McLean playing songs beyond the hits just for fun. Thus no “American Pie” or “Vincent” or “And I Love You So.”
When Don McLean came to Dartmouth in the spring of 1972, he might have been the last performer on the college circuit I wanted to see. I was done with folk music, so I thought. I had moved on to the Grateful Dead and John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Jefferson Airplane and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. When a classmate gave me his ticket to see McLean in Spaulding Auditorium on a Saturday night, I had a bad, bad attitude.
In performance the man just blew me away. He had arrived with “American Pie,” but he was no one-hit wonder. He had a great catalog of songs to play on guitar and banjo and he would not quit until he had won everyone in the (large) audience over. He wore down my resistance. What Sammy Davis was to the nightclub scene (I had seen him in Las Vegas with my parents and loved him too), McLean was to the college crowd. I left in awe.
When McLean released an album of his favorite songs a year or two later, I was interested. I bought it on vinyl and couldn’t wait to pick it up on compact disc years later, which I did, though it has long since gone out of print. He included one song on Playin’ Favorites that I have never heard performed by anyone else. The song is “Mountains O’Mourne” (video below), a sly gem that seems to have been awaiting McLean’s heartfelt interpretation.
Where the heck did that song come from? I had no idea. Now you can check it out with a click. McLean had found the song on a Kingston Trio album, but says he didn’t fall in love with it until he heard an unnamed coffee house musician sing the fourth verse that the Kingston Trio had omitted. It made him think he could do something with the song.
I last saw Don perform live at Minneapolis’s old Guthrie Theater on a Monday night in February 1979. He opened the set with “Bronco Bill’s Lament” (video below), a song that had become a staple of his live act. Where the heck did that song come from? McLean wrote it, but still.
When I saw him in 1972 I thought that “Babylon” was one of the show’s highlights. As in the recording below from his Solo double album, he divided the audience into three parts and had us singing in rounds. It was (and is) beautiful. Where the heck did that song come from? It is, I believe, a 17th century song with words taken from Psalm 137, arranged by Lee Hays of The Weavers in the 1940’s and McLean himself.
I said no hits, but Don’s version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” got some air play in 1980 and reminded me why I enjoyed him so much. There is a complicated story behind the album for which he recorded it. I will only say: the music business — what a business.
Playin’ Favorites was a revelation to me. I loved his version of “Lovesick Blues.”
Homeless Brother is one of McLean’s best albums. He wrote some inspired songs for it and you can check the entire album out on YouTube. I want to go with his cover of Sonny Til and the Orioles’ “Crying in the Chapel.” We know the song best by way of Elvis’s improbable hit version. Here Don picks up the tempo and gives it an a capella treatment backed by the Persuasions. Not a bad way to start a Sunday morning.