A Tragedy Becomes Pop Music History
"It was a serious country," he added. "And the stuff we focused on, the '57 Chevy's, the hula-hoops, the rock 'n' roll: that stuff was thought of as candy for children."
"But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step"
It's difficult not to wonder if by creating the song "American Pie," McLean single-handedly elevated a moment that would have been lost — or at least dulled — to the annals of pop music history into "the day the music died," something we collectively "remember."
McLean made it his quest to learn as much about Holly as he could, even though at the time "there was nothing available on anybody... You couldn't find anything." He hung out with musicians such as Pete Seeger and his beloved Everly brothers, learning more about Holly's life as he worked on his own folk music career. But when he learned the infamous laundry detail that contributed to Holly's death, that was it.
"I was up in my little room in a gatehouse in Cold Spring, New York, on the Hudson, and out of nowhere came this 'a long, long time ago,' right to 'the day the music died,' and I ran for my tape recorder and sang the whole thing. And I said, 'What the heck was that?'" McLean said. "It was like a genie came out of a bottle. And I said, 'This was so special, I'm not going to rush at all. I'm going to take my time and I'm going to let the song speak to me. I'm not going to try to call it what it is. I want it to tell me what it is.'"
While the creation story behind a song about rock 'n' roll myth sure sounds like a rock 'n' roll myth — the idea of one of rock music's most popular songs suddenly appearing in one's head might taste sweet but is a little tough to swallow — it's an intoxicating one that rock fans want to believe; it makes the whole enterprise feel bigger and more important than it is. And perhaps that's the most telling thing about that crash.
Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die
Some wonder if Holly, a groundbreaking musician, would have tried his hand at folk music and affected the groundswell in Greenwich Village, and others wonder if his career would have been so long and varied that he would have performed with modern musicians such as Jack White. Maybe he would have cut a track with Rihanna and Kanye West, à la Paul McCartney.
But legacies get complicated with time. The crash left space for mythologizing, and McLean dutifully served as author to the myth that is now forever preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant."