Press release issued by United Artists, 1972
Don McLean is an enigma. He’s been making music on and off for about ten years; all during high school, in college and out. He sings like a pop singer but he sounds like a folksinger and looks like a dishevelled choir boy. He’s crazy and gruff sometimes; but he’s also shy, and he’s used to being alone for long stretches. If you meet him you might think he was quiet and thoughtful – and he is, but not always. When asked about his music he says, “I see music as form and colour, not sound. Painters influence me sometimes.”
You should really listen to Don McLean’s albums if you want to know about him. “Tapestry”, and “American Pie”, give a good picture of his ideas but they don’t tell where the ideas come from.
He was born in New Rochelle, New York, and attended schools there until 1963, when he first started playing in clubs. He was eighteen when he started playing around New York State, The Gaslight , Bitter End, clubs in Philly, in Baltimore and Canada.
It was during this time he met some of his mentors: Lee Hays, Brownie McGhee, and Josh White.
“It was a far cry from Buddy Holly. He was the person that made me learn the guitar. I loved the way he played and though for a while that I might dig playing rock and roll, but by the time I was eighteen I was deeply into folk music.”
If folk music has been the prime influence in his writing, pop music has had a place as well. He loves big bands and he likes pop singers. But he also likes jazz and Tim Hardin and Monk and the blues and Clarence Williams, Leadbelly and Bessie Smith. It wasn’t until the Beatles that Don was pulled back into rock. “I became a Stones freak for a time and I also dig James Brown – his band is fine!”
He likes perseverance in a person and it is evident in him although those who know him say he can be extremely lazy.
“Lee Hays taught me the value of constructive loafing. Why, I could call him up now and he’d be home taking it easy just sitting around and getting all that input straight from the source.”
Don has been songwriting for about three years and his solid musical background reinforces a highly inventive style. Some songs seem to flow. Others are done in patterns and each song is quite different.
“I’m just a vessel that is filled and emptied by whatever muse is in town at the time. I don’t give myself credit or blame for my work.”
Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t let himself get in the way of what he’s trying to say that makes what he says meaningful. It’s pure, that’s why all the threads come together.
On both “Tapestry” and “American Pie”, the songs are programmed into a total statement.
“I don’t write ‘singles’, I write whole stories that take a few songs to complete.”
“American Pie” is the story of the last ten years. It’s our story and Don’s. For Don it is the death of Buddy Holly and a world without music. It’s the end of a lot of things and the beginning of others. For us it’s what we’ve been through and what the people have seen and what they hoped for. There is so much here that it might have been better spread over two albums. “American Pie” is a slice of what Don McLean has been thinking about since “Tapestry” and it is because of the variety of moods and the unique points of view that are taken, that make this record communicate. Besides “American Pie” there is “Vincent” written for Van Gogh and “Crossroads”. “Empty Chairs” is a story you might be telling. There is life and death and heaven on earth on this record.
“I did some of my best loafing this year”, he says.
In 1968, he made Café Lena his home base and it was through Lena Spencer that he became the “The Hudson River Troubadour”.
“It was the summer of ’68 and I was broke. Lena got me a job with the State, figuring I’d make a good bureaucrat. I had to play in 50 river communities, three a day for a month or more while the state paid me $200 a week. Man, they got their money’s worth. I sang about 40 songs a day, sometimes 60. That’s cheaper than the juke box.”
Pete Seeger liked the idea of someone crazy enough to hitchhike from Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks to Riverside Park on 125th St., in six weeks; in fact, he had a similar idea. He wanted to sail a boat down the river and visit these same towns carrying the message of ecological salvation to a river community about to be destroyed by industrial pollution.
“Pete heard about what I was doing and asked me to join in his effort to save the Hudson. I did”.
The next year the sloop CLEARWATER was born and Don was one of the crew members who raised $40,000 to finish paying for her.
“We sailed from South Bristol, Maine, to New York City in six weeks and snag twenty-five concerts on the way. It was one of the best times I can remember. Jack Elliot, Gordon Bok, Len Chandler, Lou Killeri and the rest. We sang our heads off.”
Don edited a book on the trip called “Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew” which contains some of the “Sloop Singers” best concert songs. Later, the TV special “The Sloop at Nyack” was shown as part of NET’s Sounds of Summer series.
“The Clearwater was the first grass roots movement to fight pollution and educate a community about the environmental crisis in the proper context. The environment is merely a symptom of the kind of social decay that poverty, Vietnam, racism are all examples of.”
He’s been playing concerts with Laura Byro, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dionne Warwicke and “lots of other acts that I was never into but who have taught me things anyway.”
He’s been doing TV too, from one of the first Sesame Street shows in 1969 to Dick Cavett, the Great American Dream Machine and more. Films interest him and he is making a feature with Bob Elfstrum (“Johnny Cash – A man and his world” and the Academy Award nominee “Other Voices”) using 25 of his songs as a script. He is a favorite among even the most hardened critics within the music industry and has been helped by many.
His songs are honest and real and if he seems to defy categorization, it is because he is his own man. He does what he believes in and says what he feels.