A boomer laments: “Bye Bye Miss American Pie”

If you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket— and you’ve got to be a baby boomer to even know that phrase any more— you’re not alone. That’s what boomer Donald Haddix writes about from Riverside, California.

”Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But, that’s not how it used to be”

—Don McLean

After shots rang out in Dallas, a large framed photograph of John F. Kennedy appeared at our house. It had hung at the Post Office. Now Kennedy’s face— with gentle, calm, but alert eyes— kept watch over us.

Then in the summer of ‘64, a plain labeled box arrived from “back east.” Inside was a vinyl record. Without explaining why, Mom said, “Sit.”

She placed the disc on a phonograph. When the needle hit the groves, piano and violins played a slow-moving dirge. Dave Powers, a Kennedy assistant, choking back tears, spoke over heart-wrenching music. “Johnny we hardly knew ye,” he lamented. Denial of JFK’s death in ‘63 had bottled up my grief. Now I wept. Saltwater reddened my eyes. Crocodile tears splattered the floor as I hung my head, mourning with Powers and the music.

Years later, JFK’s picture highlighted a room filled with antiques and vintage collectables. It hung there until I rescued it at my parent’s estate sale. Nothing to do with politics or Democrats. It was like “Rose Bud,” the fabled lost snow sled from “Citizen Kane.”

“Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym”

Don McLean composed his epic 8-½ minute “American Pie” in 1971 as a tribute to his music idol, Buddy Holly. Like Kennedy in one way, Holly was on a meteoric rise with “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll be the Day” (till I die). In early ’59, “the music died” after a plane crash. Stunned by front page headlines, the news sent shock waves through Don McLean. Later he poured his grief into “American Pie.”

American Pie’s words are compelling and alluring. They are about the loss of innocence. Its fibrous strength is not in poetry but in the message. Dripping with metaphoric imagery and symbolic truths, it’s a delicious labyrinth of familiar iconic themes. He resolves the entire roller coaster chorus with a simple phrase: “The day the music, died.”

“Basically in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” McLean confesses. “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.”

Don Haddix at home in Southern California.

McLean sees disillusionment in contemporary generations. What happened? Kennedy’s ideology inspired—“And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”— but everything has gone off the rails.

“And while Lennon read a book on Marx the quartet danced in the dark.”

Remember John Lennon, the Beatles, and their famous quip that “We’re more famous then Jesus Christ?” With the mobs desecrating churches and threatening to tear down statues of Jesus, his 50-year-old lyrics are astonishingly prophetic.

A youthful Jack Kennedy inspired a generation with, “Ask what you can do for your country.” It’s never been the same since. Like a rippling effect, one crisis after another has divided us. Just as McLean said, “Things are headed in the wrong direction.”

When JFK said, “… my fellow Americans,“ I knew exactly what he meant. When pundits today speak of“Americans,” I have no idea what they’re talking about.

So, “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”.

2 Comments

  1. Donald you have brought back so many memories for me about a time that at least to me made some sense. Sure, we were just beginning to confront our countries past and deal with the concepts of justice and equality, or lack thereof, in our society that had been left unfulfilled by the generations before us; but still, there was an innocence about the world that was still flickering even after World War II, the Korean conflict and the looming Vietnam quagmire.

    And as you said, Kennedy’s ideology of hope and selflessness found in his call to action, “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”— has indeed “gone off the rails,” as many now demand that government do it all.
    Sadly, Bye Bye Miss American Pie may be more apt now than before.

    1. Eric. Thank you for your comments and insight. Your reply cut right through to the heart of the matter. I was lifted up by your analysis, especially speaking to relying on the government. “I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1849. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” are the two documents that are my compass in politics. Almost 50 years later after I first read them. Others would do well to discover them and understand their insight. The nation would be a whole lot better off if they did.

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