Clearwater and Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was responsible for promoting the project to build and launch a boat that would sail along the Hudson River, and, at every port of call, disseminate information about the environment and the perilous state of the Hudson River. Don McLean was a member of the first Clearwater Sloop crew in 1969.

McLean says: “This boat is an example of the Seeger genius because it combines the fun of boating with the seriousness of environmental degradation and gets everyone involved at the same time while also being a public relations dream.”

McLean’s work as the Hudson River Troubadour in 1968 and his experiences with the Clearwater Sloop in 1969 proved inspirational learning experiences for him.

He is particularly proud of a song that he wrote aboard the Sloop, called “Tapestry.” Its powerful lyrics are as relevant today as when he first wrote them. They provide a warning of the consequences of humanity’s exploitation of the environment. “If man is allowed to destroy all they need. He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed.”

clearadDespite its powerful message, the song is one of Don’ lesser known compositions, overshadowed on the Tapestry album by the giants, “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love You So.”

Don McLean has never seen himself as any type of ‘environmental activist’ and has avoided becoming a spokesperson for the environmental movement. He says, “Political people bore me, and I don’t want to be one. I’ll settle for being a decent citizen.”

After the first Clearwater Sloop voyage in 1969, McLean left the crew. Before he left, Pete Seeger told him, “Don, I think you’re a genius. You’re like a wonderful chef who serves a great meal once and never repeats it.” Don returned from time to time to perform at Sloop concerts. He also recorded a version of “Tapestry” for the 1974 Clearwater album and edited a book entitled Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew, with sketches by his friend Thomas Allen.

Later, in 1984, McLean played Carnegie Hall with the Jordanaires for a Greenpeace benefit. After the show, David McTaggart, the Canadian co-founder of Greenpeace, came backstage and told Don that his song, “Tapestry,” was one of the factors that got him involved in the environmental movement.

sloopsingers

Don McLean 2nd from left with the Sloop Singers 1969

Adapted from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard
Copyright © 2007 Starry Night Music, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or translation of any part of this work without the permission of the copyright owner is unlawful. Used by permission.

The “Killing Me Softly” Story

kill

Daily News, April 5th 1973
Most people would be able to recognise that verse right away. Anyone within earshot of a radio or a jukebox over the last few months couldn’t miss hearing roberta flack’s beautiful version of it, done with style and taste and just the right amount of world-weariness. She does it so well that any listener would think the song had been written just for her. But, oh, how wrong they would be!

The words were written by Norman Gimbel and set to music by Charles Fox, tailored specifically for the gentle unaffected voice of a young folk singer from the West Coast named Lori Leiberman. And what’s more the feelings described in it were Lori’s true feelings; the story is hers and the mood and thoughts were hers too. Even the first recording of the song was hers, though it was not until Roberta Flack cut her version that it became and international hit.

Lori was talking about it the other day. She’s happy the song has caught on, of course, but she’ll be less than human if she didn’t wish it was her version that made it so big.

The song is a strange plaintive one, a ballad in the dictionary definition of a ballad: ” a narrative composition in verse of strongly marked rythym, suitable for singing.” and I asked Lori how it came about – what or more specifically who was the inspiration for it, and her answer was so right. I wondered why I hadn’t realized it before.

“Don McLean,” she said simply. “I saw him at the Troubadour in LA last year. (“And there he was this young boy / A stranger to my eyes”) I had heard about him from some friends but up to then all I knew about him really was what others had told me. But I was moved by his performance, by the way he developed his numbers, he got right through to me. (“Strumming my pain with his fingers / Killing me softly with his sond/ Telling my whole life with his words.”)

Norman Gimbel picked up the story. “Lori is only 20 and she really is a very private person,” he said. “She told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean” (“I felt all flushed with fever / Embarassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud / I prayed that he would finish / But he kept just right on…”)

“I had a notion this might make a good song so the three of us discussed it. We talked it over several times, just as we did with the rest of the numbers we wrote for the album and we all felt it ahad possibilities.”

“Norman had a phrase he liked, ‘killing me softly with his blues'”, Lori went on to explain. “But I didn’t feel the word “blues” was quite what the effect was. It wasn’t contemporary enough, somehow. We talked about it a while and finally decided on the word “song” instead. It seemed right then when we did it.”

It must have been. Capitol Records like it to so much they released it as a single as well as on the album. Billboard liked the album so much they selected Lori as their Star Awards artist.

Don McLean would like to meet her too. He didn’t know the song described him, and when asked about it, he said “I’m absolutely amazed. I’ve heard both Lori’s and Roberta’s version and I must say I’m very humbled about the whole thing. You can’t help but feel that way about a song written and performed as well as this one is.”

Lori you may have picked the wrong man. That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’d kill you, however softly, with his song, now, does it?

The Hudson River Clearwater Sloop

 

Aboard that sloop, Don McLean wrote several new songs (including ‘Tapestry’, which featured o­n his first album and was an inspiration for the formation of Greenpeace) and edited a songbook entitled ‘Songs ands Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew’.

Since that first voyage, the Clearwater sloop has continued to make its annual journey with its crew of volunteers. The Clearwater Organisation has grown into a major environmental group that has lobbied Government and public opinion with great success.

In 2002, Pete Seeger was named a ‘Clean Water Hero’ “for promoting passage of and keeping alive the promise of the Clean Water Act, o­ne of the most successful
environmental laws in this country”.

You can learn more about the activities of Clearwater at www.clearwater.org.

 

Don McLean’s PBS TV special, 2000

pbspic“Though it wasn’t originally planned that way, DON MCLEAN: STARRY, STARRY NIGHT, a concert special filmed in Austin, Texas, turned into a tribute to o­ne of the most popular singer-songwriters in pop music history. The program, which also features superstar Garth Brooks and acclaimed singer Nanci Griffith, airs o­n PBS as part of the March 2000 pledge drive (check local listings). Surprisingly, it is McLean’s first television special – ever (Editor’s note: Nonsense. Don has had several TV specials!).

“I have done very little TV,” McLean admits. “I’m a live act, always have been. I’ve been constantly o­n tour for 30 years. But I think this is the most perfect project of mine, outside of an album orconcert, that I’ve ever done.”

Among the songs he reprises in front of 1,200 fans at Austin’s historic Paramount Theatre are some of his most popular, including “Vincent,” Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and “Castles in the Air.” Both Brooks and Griffith join him o­n the reprise of his classic “American Pie.”

Back in the summer of 1997, McLean performed at Brooks’ landmark Central Park concert; Brooks introduced him as his “idol” and had him close the show with “American Pie” (a staple
Brooks sings at his own concerts). But he also wanted to hear another McLean song, “Empty Chairs.” So he asked him to play it for him in his trailer backstage. “He recounts this story to the audience in Austin,” recalls McLean, “and all I could say was, ‘Now you’re the o­ne who’s going to sing ‘Empty Chairs.’ He did, and he did a great job o­n it, too.”

Though the concert was the first time McLean had met Austin native Nanci Griffith, they each earned their first break at the legendary Cafe Lena in Saratoga, New York. In fact, at the Austin concert, Griffith presented McLean with a photograph she had taken of the cafe’s owner, Lena Spencer. For STARRY, STARRY NIGHT, Griffith sings a pair of duets with McLean: his hit “And I Love You So” and Buddy Holly’s “Raining in My Heart.”

In addition to performances, DON MCLEAN: STARRY, STARRY NIGHT includes photo montages of McLean’s career and interview excerpts. “There’s a life-spanning feel to it,” McLean says, noting that the program is dedicated to his parents.

Says producer Terry Lickona, a veteran of AUSTIN CITY LIMITS, “After 25 years in this business, it’s a thrill for me to get to work o­n a project like this with someone I consider the quintessential American singer-songwriter. I was amazed that this is Don’s first major television special. It’s an honor to be producing such an exceptional program. My goal, as always, is to create a comfortable environment where an artist can do what he does best – sing and play to an audience of adoring fans. This show captures the ultimate Don McLean in performance – it’s a must-see for all fans of great, original American music.”