Don McLean: American Pie (1971)

don mcleanAmerican Pie shouldn’t be here, as I usually try to feature songs that are not immensely famous. But this tune is so relevant to this theme, I couldn’t leave it out. Moreover, being an old one, you might be familiar with the chorus, but not with the story. McLean included it in his album American Pie; it was one of the two singles, and it went to #1 in many countries. It’s a very long (over 8 minutes), rambling song about… Well: there’s been a long debate about the meaning of the lyrics. McLean always refused to talk about it, saying that artists should not explain their work, especially when it comes to poetry. Very right. (My favorite Don McLean reply to that question is: “American Pie means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”)

Frankly, it seems pretty clear to me what this song is about: it voices the sense of loss that was in the air in the early 70s, with many references to earlier Pop culture (some hidden, others pretty clear). The most iconic of these is certainly in this verse, from the intro:

February made me shiver with every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.

I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride,
Something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.

The song recalls one of the most tragic events in the history of Rock’n’roll: “On February 3, 1959, rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with the pilot, Roger Peterson. The event later became known as The day the music died, after singer-songwriter Don McLean so referred to it in his song American Pie.” (from Wikipedia)

Then, in february 2015, the original manuscript of the song was auctioned (for 1.2 millions USD), and McLean promised to reveal its meaning in the auction’s catalogue: “Basically in American Pie, things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” According to McLean (as reported by the Washington Post), “The song includes references to Karl Marx; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (or, more likely, John Lennon); the Fab Four; the Byrds; James Dean; Charles Manson; the Rolling Stones; the ‘widowed bride,’ Jackie Kennedy; and the Vietnam War.” Plus the more obvious Elvis (the king) and Bob Dylan (the jester).

But the tune itself is quite simple and catchy, and in the USA everyone know its (rather cryptic) chorus, often used in advertising and film, despite ending with the line “this’ll be the day that I die”. It’s Don McLean’s only real hit, and it put him in the pantheon of 1970s american songwriters.

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Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly With His Song (1973)

roberta flackHere’s another hit single with a history. We’ve all heard Killing Me Softly before (in one of the two versions that went to #1, 23 years apart), but not many people know that the killer in the song is actually Don McLean: “According to Lori Lieberman, the artist who performed the original recording in 1972, the song was born of a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to the song Empty Chairs, written, composed, and recorded by Don McLean.” (From the song’s very informative Wikipedia page) The lyrics are very intense, and revolve around two key concepts in Pop music. The first is the “meaningful sadness” a song can plunge us into: I often say that some tunes (like Still A Fool☊ by Muddy Waters) kill me every time. Sometimes, this feeling comes from another very special experience we can have with songs (or poetry): the impression that the singer is actually talking about us:

He sang as if he knew me, and all my dark despair, and then he looked right through me as if I wasn’t there. And he just kept on singing, singing clear and strong: strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song…

As I said, the original was recorded by Lori Lieberman in 1972, credited to Charles Fox (music) and Norman Gimbel (lyrics). Later, Lieberman claimed to have written the lyrics, or at least to have inspired the key concepts. However, the song remained relatively unknown until it was picked up by Roberta Flack (who heard it on an airplane’s music selection). In ’73, Flack made it her own. Killing Me Softly stayed at #1 for five weeks, and earned Flack a Grammy for Best Pop vocal performance in 1973. Fox and Gimbel also got one, for Song of the year.

Fast forward to 1996, when the then very hot Hip hop band Fugees covered Killing Me Softly With His Song on their multi-platinum album The Score (it was the second single, going #1 in a number of countries). Their barebones version (basically voices, drums and bass – sampled from the 1990 tune Bonita Applebum☊ by A Tribe Called Quest) also won them a Grammy for best performance.

This song is not exactly simple to sing. According to Flack: “My classical background made it possible for me to try a number of things with the song’s arrangement.” The Fugees version features a magnificent vocal arrangement, and Lauryn Hill’s fantastic performance. But I still find Roberta Flack’s rendition more enticing – with a slight brazilian feel set on a very funky but subtle rhythm part. What did McLean have to say about being the subject of one of the most heartfelt tributes ever written for a songman? “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.”

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Gillian Welch: Elvis Presley Blues (2001)

gillian welchBy the number of Country songs I feature here, you might have guessed I’m a fan. I’m particularly fond of a style music historians call Old Time Music, which predates (and somewhat generates) Country, known as such only since the 1930s. It’s rural music, played on stringed instruments of European or African descent (like the Banjo), often made for people to dance to. It can be fun, but also devastating: listen to Roscoe Holcomb (a giant of the genre, and one of my heroes) sing Man Of Constant Sorrow.

There is something that makes Gillian Welch very dear to me. She’s an intellectual, and a trained musician: “After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in photography, Welch attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she majored in songwriting.” Now, if you major in songwriting at Berklee, my guess is that you’ve learned very sophisticated musical forms and advanced writing techniques. But then, Welch went another way. Along with her musical partner David Rawlings (who plays – marvelously – a 1935 Epiphone guitar with a very archaic sound, and sings harmony) she embarked on a journey into the past, creating songs with very sparse, and often ancient, musical parts and a feeling of antiquity that sounded more and more authentic. For a while it seemed that her work went back in time.

Elvis Presley Blues is included in her third album, Time (The Revelator), recorded (live, I think) in 2001 at the legendary RCA studio B in Nashville. An album made of guitars, banjo, voices and unusual tunes like My First Lover♾ (perhaps my favorite, with great Clawhammer banjo – Welch’s preferred, archaic style), the very modern, yet somewhat vintage Time (The Revelator)♾, or Elvis Presley Blues. Which is also a relic from the past, although not as much as some of her other music. It’s a sweet, bluesy, dreamlike remembrance of (and tribute to) the King:

Just a country boy that combed his hair, put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air. And he shook it♾ like a chorus girl, and he shook it like a Harlem queen, he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby, like you never seen, like you never seen, never seen.
(Full lyrics here)

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Runner ups

Duck sauce: Barbra Streisand♾ (2014) – Probably the most demented song ever dedicated to a singer. Yet it’s been a hit, and it makes perfect sense (as Streisand was actually divine).

Sinead O’Connor: James Brown☊ (2014) – An unlikely (but very funky) tribute to the Godfather of Soul.

Tom Waits: Satisfied♾ (2011) – A message to “mr Jagger and mr Richards”, who also plays unbelievable rhythm guitar in this track.

Bootsy Collins feat. Rev. Al Sharpton: JB – Still The Man☊ (2011) – Spoken word to the max, and funk to burn, in the ultimate James Brown tribute song (by one of his pivotal late 1960s collaborators).

Foo Fighters: Friend Of A Friend☊ (2005) – Dave Grohl wrote this song shortly after meeting Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, the other two members of Nirvana. He recorded it in 2005: by then it had become an eulogy.

David Bowie: Song For Bob Dylan☊ (1971) – More a mock than a tribute, this song is so bizarre that it has its own Wikipedia page.

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