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Don McLean discusses his career and his music

BROADCAST: 1980 | DURATION: 00:23:57

Synopsis

Don McLean discusses his career and his music. Don McLean discusses his influences, life experiences, and his songwriting.

Transcript

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Studs Terkel "American Pie" of course a song that has caught it would seemingly captured the impulse of a great many of young Americans and Don McLean who sang it and wrote it as my guest this morning. A number of songs this is one his most celebrated but he's been writing a number of other songs dealing with the theme of what living in this society. You've been asked as many times, Don, United Artists are the label and Don's passing through town and my guest. You've been asked this probably a thousand times what it means as though it's any mystery here.

Don McLean So it's obvious to those who know and to those who don't know they'll never figure it out. It's an abstraction on the world that we live in and in the times we've all faced and will face.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about the imagery used too, the, the jester singing of the king and queen wearing a coat of James Dean. Later on he stole that crown too.

Don McLean Yeah well people say that's Dylan but it doesn't have to be anyone. It can be young people in general. We all wore that coat.

Studs Terkel Well Don, Don, you yourself and the songs you write, and the songs we'll hear, "Magadalene Lane" in a moment concerning. It would seem in your poetic way concerning the impact of so much upon the individual picking up on the young. The age we live in, changes and the horrors and the possibilities. How'd you come? How'd you come to music and song and influences?

Don McLean Well the influences really began when I was when I was very young I could sing and was musical you know five six years old around that point but when I got to be about 14 or 15 I got involved with the folk music that was around then and the rock n roll both I was listening to Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers and Little Richard and people like that and rock n roll and I was very much into the work of the Weavers and Josh White and Pete Seeger of course and people like them people who I felt had a certain authenticity to their sound. I never

Studs Terkel Where'd you live?

Don McLean in New Rochelle, New York.

Studs Terkel In New Rochelle, New York. And what about I'm thinking about yourself just using you as a certain person who writes songs and sings songs and one of which became very popular indeed and justifiable you keep what sort of home, is curious know what it was influence you what sort of home do you come from?

Don McLean Well, I came from parents that were quite a bit older than most. They were in their 40s when I was born. I was a mistake. I had a sister who was 15 years older than me. She's now in her 40s and I was basically an only child with two mothers. My sister and my real mother.

Studs Terkel But the music you heard were, it was all sorts of music music.

Don McLean Oh sure, yeah.

Studs Terkel The 50's

Don McLean Right. I just. See, I, because no one in the family was musical. What I had what I did was seek out the people that I mentioned on records and just listened to them and gradually built up a variety of sounds and performers that I like to hear and listen to and then I started playing the guitar and of course they influenced me. I liked the way Josh White played the guitar and I like the way Bill Broonzy played the guitar.

Studs Terkel You like Bill, too?

Don McLean Oh very much. And Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Brownie McGhee and I and Sonny Terry worked together. As a matter of fact in 66.

Studs Terkel Also the songs though, your songs had something to say even though the image was abstract you know it was poetic imagery involved and there were songs about things happening, too.

Don McLean Well I guess that whatever experiences I've had certainly since I've been a traveling person those experiences have found their way into what I've been doing. But a lot of my work is just my own fantasies that somehow I adapt to reality.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of a song like your first album "Tapestry," [album], "Magdalene Lane"

Don McLean Yeah that was an ode to Los Angeles which I wrote after landing there the first time I was I was repelled by that city. Still am I find great sources of evil there, more so than any other place I've ever been to.

Studs Terkel I said why "Magdalene"?

Don McLean Oh I don't know. It seemed to fit the feeling for some reason. It seemed that if there ever was a modern day Sodom [laughter] that would be it or Gomorrah.

Studs Terkel So you, you're thinking of Los Angeles that way?

Don McLean Oh yeah.

Studs Terkel So you saw, you saw Sodom and Gomorrah but perhaps we hear, we hear "Magdalene Lane". Hear some of the lyrics. Some of the poetry of Don McLean and more about this and only the motel man knows my name. Magdaléne Lane, Don McLean I was thinking you, though you speak of this grotesque city Los Angeles yet LA LA LA LA LA is LA LA, too

Don McLean Right

Studs Terkel Same time, I suppose any large industrial city. Only the motel man knows the passing through man's name.

Don McLean That's right and probably that's all he knows about or cares about.

Studs Terkel You say also this is an early album of your style of singing somewhat different.

Don McLean It makes me nervous to hear that record because I don't sing with that sort of a sweet edge anymore. I guess I just lost it the best way by sort of just getting around a little bit more. But that's the way I heard it then and that's the way it is

Studs Terkel You say not singing with a sweet edge anymore.

Don McLean Yeah.

Studs Terkel Mean there is more bite,

Don McLean Well I feel like I feel like I no longer get wrapped up in, in the melodic quality of a tune as much as in the force of the impact of it. You know that that interests me more now. I'm not the kind of singer that gets involved in vocal acrobatics to any great degree unless I'm trying to keep something fresh, you know.

Studs Terkel So it's the content of the song then too.

Don McLean Yeah, I'm pretty concerned with that.

Studs Terkel I was asking you asking about "Magadalene Lane," the lyrics that I thought of a novel a generation written by a brilliant man, Nathanel West about Hollywood. It's called Day of the Locust. And you said that you don't read.

Don McLean No, I very rarely read. I mean I can read, but I very rarely read.

Studs Terkel Now this is a question that comes up often as far as young and many creative people about not reading. Why would that be?

Don McLean Well it's always another man's interpretation of reality whatever that is and if you feel you have your own interpretation of reality then your job is to do it. Spend your time thinking about what it is that you feel about about the things you are experiencing rather than trying to take anyone else's point of view. And I've always found that when I do read something I can get lost in the person's artistry and perhaps in his vision and in so doing sometimes that may even cloud or prevent me from seeing exactly what my vision is.

Studs Terkel Is this true of many young people you know?

Don McLean I don't know. I know I've been pretty much isolated from most things up until recently because of the fact that I've wanted to do whatever I did as purely as I could do it.

Studs Terkel But don't you think, see I thought one of the reasons is there's so much audio visual stuff to

Don McLean Yeah

Studs Terkel Much used phrase today. Things you hear and things you see.

Don McLean Well the oral tradition, too, as a precursor to that.

Studs Terkel The oral

Don McLean That was the beginning just the way folk songs would change from place to place in the same way. So people learn things a lot more from word of mouth. I don't think they believe advertising and I don't think they believe what they hear on records what they see in papers as much as they used to. And I don't think they believe what they read in books. I think that myths have been shattered and that they realize that there are places on this earth that can create magic that can make magic and that people have fallen right and right under the spell of that magic and been disillusioned by it many many times. So I think more often than not rather than say that people my age don't read that much. I would tend to say that they don't necessarily believe as much of what they read if they do and most of them don't read that much. I think they rely more on their own experience and on the things that they come in contact with.

Studs Terkel Because I mean the lies have been so pervasive through the years by powerful forces one way or another that people no longer believe whether it's whether it's a commercial or whether it's a political comment.

Don McLean Yeah. And that and also people want to step out. People want to put on their own show and express themselves. I think there's a longing for that. I think the percentage of people that do it is very small. But even so you can feel that it's present. You can feel that there is a trend toward that that people are tired of being anonymous. And there is a great anonymity in the face of America.

Studs Terkel "Three Flights Up" you speak of anonymity. There's a song you wrote on the early album which you feel self-conscious. Oh I think it's quite beautiful powerful in a powerful way. "Three Flights Up" spoke of anonymity also speak of people split off one from the other.

Don McLean Yeah. Well this was really all these songs are about me and about my life and about my family and about my experience. And that's one of the most painful ones for me to sing about because it's all about me.

Studs Terkel "Three Flights Up," that's [unintelligable] Don McLean album. Again, you felt, you felt you sing with a different with more bite. Now I'm thinking about the lyrics of the song "Three Flights Up" that I think is one of your strong songs again like three flights and the split.

Don McLean It was an experiment like "American Pie". Like a lot of my songs have been. I've always liked experimenting rather than finding a successful groove and sort of turning out ten "American Pies". I figured one is just enough and not go on and write other kinds of songs and experiment, experiment all the time with things that haven't been done before because I have not got no use to sit and write songs that have already been written.

Studs Terkel Why do you think "American Pie" caught on the way it did?

Don McLean Oh you know, I forget who said it but there is nothing as strong as an idea whose time has come.

Studs Terkel Hugo said it but that's OK.

Don McLean OK. Well he was right.

Studs Terkel You felt that it caught particularly the young of course, caught a certain feeling they had.

Don McLean Yeah I think so but, but it was only because I was feeling it. See a lot of people look at a musician in a duel is the duality in some sense once something has occurred. They look back and say well you think it caught on because they liked it or because they identified with it. But in my case I was them. I was one of them, and I am one of them. And I was just saying what I was feeling. It wasn't an effort on my part to try and write something that I thought people would identify with.

Studs Terkel A while way back about not reading and because I'm I'm bothered by this it's because I think vision can be helped by reading others even though you feel you want to be an untrammeled by something. But many what I'm curious about is many of the young who may or may not read are listening to songs that have imagery that predecessor songs never had.

Don McLean Well of course that's what the last 10 years has also been about. Music has become a, a capsulized form of education for a whole generation. And and no one can ever minimize the impact that it's had which is another thing that I was talking about in "American Pie". It just slipped right under the table and right past the eyes of everybody who thought they were knowing what was going on.

Studs Terkel Ralph Gleason who is my contemporary of one of the editors founders of Rolling Stone he says Rolling Stone has far more impact than any of the traditional magazines that we think have impact.

Don McLean Oh sure that they don't have any impact at all relative to Rolling Stone. And I think Rolling Stone in realizing that it's made their format far more broad based and their now including all kinds of artists and musicians who are on the scene but who aren't necessarily the hottest thing on the charts. That's a failing that one can get into.

Studs Terkel Don McLean is my guest songwriter singer and known best for "American Pie". But other songs play some others we go along and perhaps more aspects of the pie itself. The pie, even the very phrase "American Pie" where the guys would like people who are dispossessed like a piece of the pie, someone's piece of the pie. No one talked about changing the pie but they want a piece of the pie.

Don McLean Of course. Yeah and its just got 360 degrees and that's all there is to it. Once you eat them all up, there's none left.

Studs Terkel We return in a moment, and his reflections on how he writes those songs and why. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Don McLean we'll ask about influences as we go along. We'll come to the Weavers in a moment, and Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, who he knows.

Don McLean They were astoundingly influential in my beginnings. In fact in 1968 I was hired by the state to be the Hudson River troubadour and I travel the length of the Hudson River writing songs about it and bringing the people down to the river much the same way that the sloop was later to do. Pete heard

Studs Terkel You mean Pete's Clearwater

Don McLean Yeah

Studs Terkel and the boat that Pete has?

Don McLean He asked me to get involved with that boat in 1968 and I worked with it for three years and we made music and built that boat and tried to do what we could with the river and that's a lot of the inspiration for "Tapestry" [album] and that whole album came from my experience with the Hudson River Valley and the sloop and the festivals and the whole microcosm of America that developed within that organization. You could see every kind of minority trying to express himself and

Studs Terkel So that that that ship itself became the boat became the metaphor, in a way?

Don McLean In a way. Sure

Studs Terkel You worked on the boat with Pete?

Don McLean Yeah, I was very I'm on the board of directors. I've been there for four years.

Studs Terkel So funny. Pete's notes concerning the first album of Don McLean, "Tapestry" [album] before he'd written "American Pie," Pete writes, "Fifteen years ago I sang for the third graders of the New Rochelle schools. One of the snot nose brats from was Don McLean. Had I known he would turn to one of the most talented songwriters singers I met. I would have had Dash sing Boom Bing probably would have stopped mid songs she grinned. Don is just that normal, talented, unpretentious, nervous, relaxed, musician trying to use his songs to help people survive on these perilous times. I got no invested, volunteer crewmen aboard Sloop Clearwater in 1969 hauling in ropes by day singing every evening a different port and every morning upward scrubbed decks and raise sail again. It's a clear intense gaze, a clear voice and a clear head, enough said," said Pete Seeger and Pete obviously played a role. Before we hear the one of the songs a Woody song from the Weavers Pete and Lee and Ronnie Gilbert

Don McLean This is a, the one you're going to play now is from the "American Pie" [album]. It's one of my favorites.

Studs Terkel America. "Winterwood," you want to say a word about "Winterwood" perhaps?

Don McLean Oh I just this was inspired by my wife who was we were driving along one day and she said it was the dead of winter and there were the birds just coming laying in the trees and so they look like leaves and it stuck in my head for six months until I finally made it into a song.

Studs Terkel And so there again we come to something. How a song comes to be what leads to a song always just sometimes it might be an image you might be a phrase it might be

Don McLean But it consistently for me has got to be something that will not leave my head. Not something that I've discover and think is fun or nice but something that, that so consistently reflects the way I feel about things that even though it may have been just dropped in as a seed six months ago every time I see something, it, the phrase flashes in my head and I realize that it does reflect how I feel about this thing and eventually it finds its way into a song.

Studs Terkel Turned out to be a very gentle love song.

Don McLean Yep, it says turn it back to where it came from, that song.

Studs Terkel Winterwood. What is "Winterwood"? Winterwood kind of a

Don McLean Just a word I made

Studs Terkel I thought winter was kind of a tree or

Don McLean No, I invented that.

Studs Terkel It's a word you made, winterwood. And there again I suppose something a certain image comes to your mind.

Don McLean Hard cold outside weather beaten kind of wood

Studs Terkel Winterwood. I thought it was of these, thinking of my image, winterwood. I'll make things up as we go along. Winterwood, yeah, cold, bleak like the beginning of a film about Abraham Lincoln.

Don McLean Gray

Studs Terkel D.W. Griffith and it's Earth can somewhere border country along a road somewhere and it's cold morning misty yeah, Winterwood. So influences on you, you mentioned the Weavers and

Don McLean These were all the Weavers and Pete and all those that I mentioned were all beginning influences. But I never totally abandoned any of them because I always felt that within the form of acoustical music I could play anything I could think. You know I mean electric music and music that uses a great deal of equipment. Often people associate this kind of music with a certain musical form. Rock and roll but it doesn't have to be any kind of music can be made on any kind of instrument and that's was my theory that as long as I was portable that acoustical music would still be important to me because I didn't want to have to lug stuff around. I wanted to be able to play on street corners and in parks and beaches and any place I felt like unpacking the guitar which would be tough if I had to lug 10,000 pounds of equipment with me. And I just adapted whatever style I developed to that and that kind of instrumentation.

Studs Terkel It's very funny as you're talking on the very same day that we're doing this conversation, Don McLean and I. There was a roundtable with teachers of the Orff coll-, Orff method, teaching kids songs and being free and the very point that we're making is the instruments use a very simple instruments portable but free to use any part any part of the world is adapted that part of the world in a sense Don this is what you're saying to what acoustic instrument.

Don McLean Yeah, it was never any kind of an allegiance to traditional morays. You know most traditional musicians would cringe if you ever had an electric guitar or electrified banjo. It wasn't any consideration along those lines it was strictly along the lines of that it was portable and that the music could be as long as I could retain the essence of the feeling then I could do whatever I wanted on records because that's that's a different medium altogether and in person I just needed acoustical guitar work

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear some portable musicians the Weavers' album, the one that I happen to like very much, too, that has the Almanac, the Weavers' Almanac, Vanguard put out. You like

Don McLean It's one of my favorite records of theirs with Erik Darling, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman and they sing one of my favorite Woody Guthrie songs, too

Studs Terkel Jackhammer Jack, is that the one? Jackhammer Jack

Don McLean Right.

Studs Terkel As Woody sobs the voice of Lee Hays, the lead singer there. Erik Darling's banjo and Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. So these influences on. I remember this I had almost forgotten this album, "The Almanac". [album] The Weavers' "Almanac".[album]

Don McLean Ten years ago

Studs Terkel

Don McLean "American Pie" of course a song that has caught it would seemingly captured the impulse of a great many of young Americans and Don McLean who sang it and wrote it as my guest this morning. A number of songs this is one his most celebrated but he's been writing a number of other songs dealing with the theme of what living in this society. You've been asked as many times, Don, United Artists are the label and Don's passing through town and my guest. You've been asked this probably a thousand times what it means as though it's any mystery here. So it's obvious to those who know and to those who don't know they'll never figure it out. It's an abstraction on the world that we live in and in the times we've all faced and will face. I'm thinking about the imagery used too, the, the jester singing of the king and queen wearing a coat of James Dean. Later on he stole that crown too. Yeah well people say that's Dylan but it doesn't have to be anyone. It can be young people in general. We all wore that coat. Well Don, Don, you yourself and the songs you write, and the songs we'll hear, "Magadalene Lane" in a moment concerning. It would seem in your poetic way concerning the impact of so much upon the individual picking up on the young. The age we live in, changes and the horrors and the possibilities. How'd you come? How'd you come to music and song and influences? Well the influences really began when I was when I was very young I could sing and was musical you know five six years old around that point but when I got to be about 14 or 15 I got involved with the folk music that was around then and the rock n roll both I was listening to Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers and Little Richard and people like that and rock n roll and I was very much into the work of the Weavers and Josh White and Pete Seeger of course and people like them people who I felt had a certain authenticity to their sound. I never wanted Where'd you live? in New Rochelle, New York. In New Rochelle, New York. And what about I'm thinking about yourself just using you as a certain person who writes songs and sings songs and one of which became very popular indeed and justifiable you keep what sort of home, is curious know what it was influence you what sort of home do you come from? Well, I came from parents that were quite a bit older than most. They were in their 40s when I was born. I was a mistake. I had a sister who was 15 years older than me. She's now in her 40s and I was basically an only child with two mothers. My sister and my real mother. But the music you heard were, it was all sorts of music music. Oh sure, yeah. The 50's Right. I just. See, I, because no one in the family was musical. What I had what I did was seek out the people that I mentioned on records and just listened to them and gradually built up a variety of sounds and performers that I like to hear and listen to and then I started playing the guitar and of course they influenced me. I liked the way Josh White played the guitar and I like the way Bill Broonzy played the guitar. You like Bill, too? Oh very much. And Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Brownie McGhee and I and Sonny Terry worked together. As a matter of fact in 66. Also the songs though, your songs had something to say even though the image was abstract you know it was poetic imagery involved and there were songs about things happening, too. Well I guess that whatever experiences I've had certainly since I've been a traveling person those experiences have found their way into what I've been doing. But a lot of my work is just my own fantasies that somehow I adapt to reality. I'm thinking of a song like your first album "Tapestry," [album], "Magdalene Lane" Yeah that was an ode to Los Angeles which I wrote after landing there the first time I was I was repelled by that city. Still am I find great sources of evil there, more so than any other place I've ever been to. I said why "Magdalene"? Oh I don't know. It seemed to fit the feeling for some reason. It seemed that if there ever was a modern day Sodom [laughter] that would be it or Gomorrah. So you, you're thinking of Los Angeles that way? Oh yeah. So you saw, you saw Sodom and Gomorrah but perhaps we hear, we hear "Magdalene Lane". Hear some of the lyrics. Some of the poetry of Don McLean and more about this and only the motel man knows my name. Magdaléne Lane, Don McLean I was thinking you, though you speak of this grotesque city Los Angeles yet LA LA LA LA LA is LA LA, too Right Same time, I suppose any large industrial city. Only the motel man knows the passing through man's name. That's right and probably that's all he knows about or cares about. You say also this is an early album of your style of singing somewhat different. It makes me nervous to hear that record because I don't sing with that sort of a sweet edge anymore. I guess I just lost it the best way by sort of just getting around a little bit more. But that's the way I heard it then and that's the way it is You say not singing with a sweet edge anymore. Yeah. Mean there is more bite, would Well I feel like I feel like I no longer get wrapped up in, in the melodic quality of a tune as much as in the force of the impact of it. You know that that interests me more now. I'm not the kind of singer that gets involved in vocal acrobatics to any great degree unless I'm trying to keep something fresh, you know. So it's the content of the song then too. Yeah, I'm pretty concerned with that. I was asking you asking about "Magadalene Lane," the lyrics that I thought of a novel a generation written by a brilliant man, Nathanel West about Hollywood. It's called Day of the Locust. And you said that you don't read. No, I very rarely read. I mean I can read, but I very rarely read. Now this is a question that comes up often as far as young and many creative people about not reading. Why would that be? Well it's always another man's interpretation of reality whatever that is and if you feel you have your own interpretation of reality then your job is to do it. Spend your time thinking about what it is that you feel about about the things you are experiencing rather than trying to take anyone else's point of view. And I've always found that when I do read something I can get lost in the person's artistry and perhaps in his vision and in so doing sometimes that may even cloud or prevent me from seeing exactly what my vision is. Is this true of many young people you know? I don't know. I know I've been pretty much isolated from most things up until recently because of the fact that I've wanted to do whatever I did as purely as I could do it. But don't you think, see I thought one of the reasons is there's so much audio visual stuff to use. Yeah Much used phrase today. Things you hear and things you see. Well the oral tradition, too, as a precursor to that. The oral That was the beginning just the way folk songs would change from place to place in the same way. So people learn things a lot more from word of mouth. I don't think they believe advertising and I don't think they believe what they hear on records what they see in papers as much as they used to. And I don't think they believe what they read in books. I think that myths have been shattered and that they realize that there are places on this earth that can create magic that can make magic and that people have fallen right and right under the spell of that magic and been disillusioned by it many many times. So I think more often than not rather than say that people my age don't read that much. I would tend to say that they don't necessarily believe as much of what they read if they do and most of them don't read that much. I think they rely more on their own experience and on the things that they come in contact with. Because I mean the lies have been so pervasive through the years by powerful forces one way or another that people no longer believe whether it's whether it's a commercial or whether it's a political comment. Yeah. And that and also people want to step out. People want to put on their own show and express themselves. I think there's a longing for that. I think the percentage of people that do it is very small. But even so you can feel that it's present. You can feel that there is a trend toward that that people are tired of being anonymous. And there is a great anonymity in the face of America. "Three Flights Up" you speak of anonymity. There's a song you wrote on the early album which you feel self-conscious. Oh I think it's quite beautiful powerful in a powerful way. "Three Flights Up" spoke of anonymity also speak of people split off one from the other. Yeah. Well this was really all these songs are about me and about my life and about my family and about my experience. And that's one of the most painful ones for me to sing about because it's all about me. "Three Flights Up," that's [unintelligable] Don McLean album. Again, you felt, you felt you sing with a different with more bite. Now I'm thinking about the lyrics of the song "Three Flights Up" that I think is one of your strong songs again like three flights and the split. It was an experiment like "American Pie". Like a lot of my songs have been. I've always liked experimenting rather than finding a successful groove and sort of turning out ten "American Pies". I figured one is just enough and not go on and write other kinds of songs and experiment, experiment all the time with things that haven't been done before because I have not got no use to sit and write songs that have already been written. Why do you think "American Pie" caught on the way it did? Oh you know, I forget who said it but there is nothing as strong as an idea whose time has come. Hugo said it but that's OK. OK. Well he was right. You felt that it caught particularly the young of course, caught a certain feeling they had. Yeah I think so but, but it was only because I was feeling it. See a lot of people look at a musician in a duel is the duality in some sense once something has occurred. They look back and say well you think it caught on because they liked it or because they identified with it. But in my case I was them. I was one of them, and I am one of them. And I was just saying what I was feeling. It wasn't an effort on my part to try and write something that I thought people would identify with. A while way back about not reading and because I'm I'm bothered by this it's because I think vision can be helped by reading others even though you feel you want to be an untrammeled by something. But many what I'm curious about is many of the young who may or may not read are listening to songs that have imagery that predecessor songs never had. Well of course that's what the last 10 years has also been about. Music has become a, a capsulized form of education for a whole generation. And and no one can ever minimize the impact that it's had which is another thing that I was talking about in "American Pie". It just slipped right under the table and right past the eyes of everybody who thought they were knowing what was going on. Ralph Gleason who is my contemporary of one of the editors founders of Rolling Stone he says Rolling Stone has far more impact than any of the traditional magazines that we think have impact. Oh sure that they don't have any impact at all relative to Rolling Stone. And I think Rolling Stone in realizing that it's made their format far more broad based and their now including all kinds of artists and musicians who are on the scene but who aren't necessarily the hottest thing on the charts. That's a failing that one can get into. Don McLean is my guest songwriter singer and known best for "American Pie". But other songs play some others we go along and perhaps more aspects of the pie itself. The pie, even the very phrase "American Pie" where the guys would like people who are dispossessed like a piece of the pie, someone's piece of the pie. No one talked about changing the pie but they want a piece of the pie. Of course. Yeah and its just got 360 degrees and that's all there is to it. Once you eat them all up, there's none left. We return in a moment, and his reflections on how he writes those songs and why. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Don McLean we'll ask about influences as we go along. We'll come to the Weavers in a moment, and Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, who he knows. They were astoundingly influential in my beginnings. In fact in 1968 I was hired by the state to be the Hudson River troubadour and I travel the length of the Hudson River writing songs about it and bringing the people down to the river much the same way that the sloop was later to do. Pete heard You mean Pete's Clearwater Yeah and the boat that Pete has? He asked me to get involved with that boat in 1968 and I worked with it for three years and we made music and built that boat and tried to do what we could with the river and that's a lot of the inspiration for "Tapestry" [album] and that whole album came from my experience with the Hudson River Valley and the sloop and the festivals and the whole microcosm of America that developed within that organization. You could see every kind of minority trying to express himself and save So that that that ship itself became the boat became the metaphor, in a way? In a way. Sure You worked on the boat with Pete? Yeah, I was very I'm on the board of directors. I've been there for four years. So funny. Pete's notes concerning the first album of Don McLean, "Tapestry" [album] before he'd written "American Pie," Pete writes, "Fifteen years ago I sang for the third graders of the New Rochelle schools. One of the snot nose brats from was Don McLean. Had I known he would turn to one of the most talented songwriters singers I met. I would have had Dash sing Boom Bing probably would have stopped mid songs she grinned. Don is just that normal, talented, unpretentious, nervous, relaxed, musician trying to use his songs to help people survive on these perilous times. I got no invested, volunteer crewmen aboard Sloop Clearwater in 1969 hauling in ropes by day singing every evening a different port and every morning upward scrubbed decks and raise sail again. It's a clear intense gaze, a clear voice and a clear head, enough said," said Pete Seeger and Pete obviously played a role. Before we hear the one of the songs a Woody song from the Weavers Pete and Lee and Ronnie Gilbert This is a, the one you're going to play now is from the "American Pie" [album]. It's one of my favorites. America. "Winterwood," you want to say a word about "Winterwood" perhaps? Oh I just this was inspired by my wife who was we were driving along one day and she said it was the dead of winter and there were the birds just coming laying in the trees and so they look like leaves and it stuck in my head for six months until I finally made it into a song. And so there again we come to something. How a song comes to be what leads to a song always just sometimes it might be an image you might be a phrase it might be But it consistently for me has got to be something that will not leave my head. Not something that I've discover and think is fun or nice but something that, that so consistently reflects the way I feel about things that even though it may have been just dropped in as a seed six months ago every time I see something, it, the phrase flashes in my head and I realize that it does reflect how I feel about this thing and eventually it finds its way into a song. Turned out to be a very gentle love song. Yep, it says turn it back to where it came from, that song. Winterwood. What is "Winterwood"? Winterwood kind of a Just a word I made up. I thought winter was kind of a tree or a No, I invented that. It's a word you made, winterwood. And there again I suppose something a certain image comes to your mind. Hard cold outside weather beaten kind of wood Winterwood. I thought it was of these, thinking of my image, winterwood. I'll make things up as we go along. Winterwood, yeah, cold, bleak like the beginning of a film about Abraham Lincoln. Gray D.W. Griffith and it's Earth can somewhere border country along a road somewhere and it's cold morning misty yeah, Winterwood. So influences on you, you mentioned the Weavers and These were all the Weavers and Pete and all those that I mentioned were all beginning influences. But I never totally abandoned any of them because I always felt that within the form of acoustical music I could play anything I could think. You know I mean electric music and music that uses a great deal of equipment. Often people associate this kind of music with a certain musical form. Rock and roll but it doesn't have to be any kind of music can be made on any kind of instrument and that's was my theory that as long as I was portable that acoustical music would still be important to me because I didn't want to have to lug stuff around. I wanted to be able to play on street corners and in parks and beaches and any place I felt like unpacking the guitar which would be tough if I had to lug 10,000 pounds of equipment with me. And I just adapted whatever style I developed to that and that kind of instrumentation. It's very funny as you're talking on the very same day that we're doing this conversation, Don McLean and I. There was a roundtable with teachers of the Orff coll-, Orff method, teaching kids songs and being free and the very point that we're making is the instruments use a very simple instruments portable but free to use any part any part of the world is adapted that part of the world in a sense Don this is what you're saying to what acoustic instrument. Yeah, it was never any kind of an allegiance to traditional morays. You know most traditional musicians would cringe if you ever had an electric guitar or electrified banjo. It wasn't any consideration along those lines it was strictly along the lines of that it was portable and that the music could be as long as I could retain the essence of the feeling then I could do whatever I wanted on records because that's that's a different medium altogether and in person I just needed acoustical guitar work and Suppose we hear some portable musicians the Weavers' album, the one that I happen to like very much, too, that has the Almanac, the Weavers' Almanac, Vanguard put out. You like It's one of my favorite records of theirs with Erik Darling, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman and they sing one of my favorite Woody Guthrie songs, too Jackhammer Jack, is that the one? Jackhammer Jack Right. As Woody sobs the voice of Lee Hays, the lead singer there. Erik Darling's banjo and Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. So these influences on. I remember this I had almost forgotten this album, "The Almanac". [album] The Weavers' "Almanac".[album] Ten years ago now. Was Yeah.

Studs Terkel I look at these notes and their notes and I see their my notes. [laughter] Ten years ago I forgot. But so they a they played a role. Lee. Did you work a song with Lee?

Don McLean Yeah. Lee taught me a round called Babylon which he thinks was written by William Billings a man who wrote shape note hymns and rounds and stuff using biblical references to try and

Studs Terkel colonial America.

Don McLean Yeah that's right. And he's not sure of the source he thinks it was William Billings.

Studs Terkel So this is an adaptation of yours and

Don McLean That's right

Studs Terkel of a Billing's work.

Don McLean Well we're not sure it was Billings. See, he its not known.

Studs Terkel Babylon sort of a hymn?

Don McLean It's a round.

Studs Terkel Round.

Don McLean Yeah.

Studs Terkel We hear this from the album as "American Pie" [album] by the way "American Pie" [song] of Don McLean's is United Artists label as indeed his early album, his two "Tapestry" [album] from the pie album.

Studs Terkel Beautiful. Yeah it does have a hymnal quality to it. Again, here to an impression of another time of another era in this country which seen this feeling

Don McLean Yeah, it has another era. Certainly as a feeling but it has its same intense need to try and tell the truth in some way. That's what came through to me that he was just, if you, I'm sure you're familiar with a hundred and thirty seventh psalm in the Bible which that's taken from. It's powerful indeed.

Studs Terkel Don McLean is my guest. Perhaps before we hear the last part of "American Pie" [album] and now I quite understandable "American Pie" came to be written by Don that it's in a way a fusion of all all of thoughts and your own growth too as an observer and as a as a as a creative person. We have one from that album Vincent. Who was Vincent?

Don McLean Van Gogh. This is a story that I felt that he was a perfect example of someone crushed by a system and he came from a different period and a different life in a different time and different world. But he still didn't survive and for whatever reasons I felt the song was a very very good example and there are all sorts of examples on this record. Buddy Holly is an example, my dedicating the record to Buddy Holly was another. Another example of someone who was crushed by a similar system and not, not on purpose really. It's just that he didn't fit and he Vincent Van Gogh didn't fit many of the other people didn't fit. There are many people that America would call failures. Vincent Van Gogh in his time probably would have had been considered a failure.

Studs Terkel Wasn't Buddy Holly though before he was killed in a plane crash?

Don McLean Yeah. Wasn't he

Studs Terkel Wasn't he a commercial success?

Don McLean He was just on the verge of being commercial success. But it's that very, very machine that grinds up artists and spit them out and spits them out that killed him. It's that constant airplane flying, constant touring, constant from one thing to another with no time to live your life. No time to find out who you are as a person. All you are as a music machine you were walking jukebox and that's that system that got him.

Studs Terkel And here is Vincent whom a similar set of circumstances

Don McLean Another kind of artist in another world but he almost made it.

Studs Terkel Astonishing Vincent. This is about Van Gogh has becoming a hit song among the young, too. This is a real switch in events.

Don McLean Well this is also sort of an experiment to try to talk about a person's life using his work because any artist's work is in fact his life so it ought to work backwards. And I guess it did.

Studs Terkel Now thinking Don McLean guest, and I hope this is the first of a number of visits you pass through town songs influences upon you and the song that your best known yet we know there are many more to come. We end with the last part. We, we opened "American Pie" [song] and the last part of "American Pie" and you'll be obviously still continuing to experiment and look about you.

Don McLean Well I hope so. It's been a rather hectic year for me this last year but it's been an education that I could probably never have gotten any other way. So I'll see how that reflects.

Studs Terkel Good luck. Thank you. And "American Pie" [song].