On a warm Pacific Northwest summer in 1981, the dark blue camp van had its windows rolled down and fifteen campers stowed away as we rode to the trailhead of our four-day hike. Our driver and camp-mom, Debbie, had the radio at full blast and she and two other counselors were singing at the top of their lungs, “Bye bye Miss American Pie, drove the Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, and them good ole boys were drinking whisky ‘n rye singing, ‘This’ll be the day that I die, this’ll be the day that I die.’” It was my introduction to “American Pie,” by Don McLean. There was something magical and lyrical about the story the singer laid out. After it was over, Debbie and the adults discussed what the song meant. In true Episcopal camp style, they did not agree but appreciated each other’s thoughts.
In February, 2015, I was driving Ethan home from school and the same song, American Pie, came on the radio. We listened for a while but when I reached to change the channel he stopped me because he wanted to hear the rest, which was:
“Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?”
Later I heard the same song from Ethan’s room. He found it on YouTube and was playing it and singing along to the lyrics on screen. Later that evening, I asked what he liked about that song. He said it’s a good tune and he likes the lyrics. When I asked what he thought it meant, he was not sure. Last week, Christi and I were watching David Letterman on YouTube. Celebrities are coming by to say goodbye during his last twenty shows. We called Ethan in to watch John Mayer say goodbye to Letterman by playing American Pie. The song brought about a big emotional reaction in the crowd – and not only because Mayer sang it so well.
Don McLean has been very coy about the meaning but just a few weeks ago, after the rights were sold, he told the story. Early on February 4, 1959, the fourteen-year old McLean was folding papers for his route. The headline read that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson had died in a plane crash. Each paper repeated the same line and that was the day the music died. Throughout his life, he recorded in his mind more episodes like that fateful morning -- the deaths of JFK, Elvis Presley, Meredith Hunter, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Also in his mind were images of Vietnam. He wrote American Pie in 1971 with the idea that things in the U.S. were heading in the wrong direction.
When I watch what has happened in Baltimore, I can’t help but think, “Bye bye Miss American Pie.” The last stanza of the song goes, “And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died.” Obviously I disagree with McLean on that, provided he was serious, which I kind of doubt. Although we’ve watched horrible things unfolding on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, and other American cities, God is still here, in the Vietnam veteran who risked his own safety by telling rioters to go home or the mom who pulled her son out of the riot and in many others who we have not seen on television but are trying to calm the situation. This is not the day that America dies. God has not caught the last train for the coast. Instead, God is right in the middle of the situation and inspiring people to bring peace.