“A long, long, time ago…” Those five words, when uttered or sung, make Baby Boomers immediately think of Don McLean’s pop masterpiece “American Pie”. There has never been a popular song quite like it. For more than 40 years, its lyrics have been an enigma wrapped in an eight-and-a-half minute long rock ‘n’ roll puzzle. Argued over by generations of fans, deciphered and re-deciphered by code-breaking rock nerds it is considered to be a poetic reflection on mid-20th century U.S. social history. And this week its lyrics, hand-written in 1971 by the folk singer, were sold at auction by Christie’s in New York for $1,205,000 million dollars
That’s a lot of money for 16 sheets of paper, albeit with a lost seventh verse. But, in this age when song lyrics have all but become meaningless, American Pie illustrates, in a series of images, metaphors, and allusions, just what can be done within the frame of a melodically straightforward pop song.”Don McLean’s manuscript of ‘American Pie’ achieved the 3rd highest auction price for an American literary manuscript, a fitting tribute to one the foremost singer-songwriters of his generation,” Christie’s Tom Lecky said in a statement.
Since debuting on the airwaves in 1971, Don McLean’s “American Pie” has stood as one of the most important icons of twentieth-century American music. The song, composed in Pennsylvania and at McLean’s Victorian cottage in Cold Spring, New York, was recorded in May 1971. The single achieved number-one status in January 1972 and remains the longest track to ever hold such a distinction.
The lyrics to “American Pie” that have continued to enthrall successive generations of audiences. “People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said. “Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.” From a reference to February 3rd, 1959—the “day the music died”—when the musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash, “American Pie” follows the social, cultural, and political trajectories of the 1950s and 1960s. The song comes to mourn and mythologize the hopes and aspirations of American popular music. Shifting national mores, Vietnam, the Beatles, and even the violent 1969 Altamont Free Concert are, like underpainting on canvas, among the many influences that harbingered McLean’s sprawling opus of joy and loss.
“American Pie” has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was named a “Song of the Century” by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The popularity of the song also earned Don McLean an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award.
The draft that was auctioned is 16 pages: 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text, according to Christie’s. It includes lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes — all of which should be revealing, McLean said.
The record for a popular music manuscript is held by Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which sold for $2 million in June.
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