Note to readers: I’ve written an essay on the parable of the good Samaritan (called, “Good Neighbor Sam”), which I will post in a week or two. But since today is Memorial Day, I thought it more appropriate to write about America and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.
I’m not referring to a recent series of films but to a classic song written and released in 1971, a retrospective on America in the decade 1959-1969 by Don McLean. The song is a ballad, a lament about things lost. It’s not just about the music and how it “died.”
The music is a metaphor for an America and a way of life that disappeared along with the music and died in a real way—at least in the perspective of 1971. The sad longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time is palpable. It looked to the time when America had saved the world and savored the happiness of music that made us smile and dance. It’s a song worth reflecting on.
So why am I writing about this on Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead? Because Americans of my generation have a visceral attachment to the song, this ballad of the 1960s, this song expressing how things felt to us as we went forth doing our duty to preserve freedom and justice for our country and for struggling democracies around the world. But, in the end, it seemed that the fate of Vietnam and the fate of America itself were one and the same: hopeless and not worth our sacrifice.
Many conflate Memorial Day and Veterans Day. I certainly enjoy being thanked for my service, especially since that never happened until seven years after I came back. But Memorial Day is about ultimate sacrifice, about losing one’s life for one’s comrades, about dying for our country.
Those of us who returned, however seriously wounded or hurting, did in fact return. Most of us went back to civilian life, raised families and lived in their communities and led productive lives. But we were all deeply affected by the experience in some way, some more than others. In a very real sense, we all died, in part, in some fashion. We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us.
I have my own memories of the men I served with, the men who died, especially my company commander, Capt. David Walsh, (pictured below, KIA June 10, 1969) whose story will always be with me—a man who led a small group out from our perimeter to take down snipers, who singlehandedly killed two of them before himself being brought down by a third. He almost certainly knew that he wouldn’t come back, but he went out to keep safe the men he loved.
The Vietnam War is not explicitly mentioned in the song, but it hangs over every bit of it like a dark, ominous cloud. That war was still going hot and heavy when Don McLean first sang the song in 1971. Most troops would not be out until 1973. Perhaps most Americans were thinking that we had already lost the war: Newsman Walter Cronkite told us so. After all, he was the most trusted man in America, (no irony intended). He came to that conclusion when he visited Vietnam following the ’68 Tet offensive.
I played and sang American Pie in my first guitar recital on Friday night. Before that night, I must’ve read and thought about the words every day for over a month. Recitals like that are mostly about young people (middle and high school age), but the parents seemed at least familiar with the song. I explained before starting that I had come home from Vietnam in 1969 wounded and disillusioned with an America that I loved: I think I shared the same outlook then as Don McLean did in the song—an America on the verge of self-destructing.
Vietnam may be fading from our collective memory, but it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of everyone who lived the confusing time McLean sang about.
He begins his ballad “a long, long time ago,” referring to “the day the music died,” his take on what happened in February 1959 when his hero Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, were lost in a single plane crash.
The song traces the course of the ten following years when we were “on our own,” going through a series of days on which, he says, is “the day the music died”: After Holly, McLean loses his girl to another guy at a sock hop and knows he’s “out of luck.” Bob Dylan (the “jester”) steals the “thorny crown” from Elvis (the “King,”). Lennon reads Marx and the “quartet” (Beatles) practiced while “we sang dirges in the dark” (a possible second reference to the death of JFK). As the culture and music was more influenced by drugs, the birds (Byrds) are “eight miles high an’ fallin’ fast” like bombs over North Vietnam. The Jester is on the sidelines and the Beatles are becoming Sgt. Pepper, who “refuse to yield” to other groups while the “sweet perfume” of marijuana is pervasive. (Or, is the reference to “sergeants” to the military controlling demonstrators or the Chicago police dropping “sweet perfume”—tear gas—at the ’68 Democratic convention?)
On another day in December, 1969, there was the tragic Stones’ Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell’s Angels did security, people died, and, McLean says, he saw “Satan laughing with delight….” “Jack flash” (Mick Jager) “sat on a candlestick.” We were, as he said, “a generation lost in space with no time left to start again.”
McLean is a master at using double entendre. Many have tried to figure it all out. Don McLean himself has never explained it all, though he has mentioned some things.
His final verse was a retrospective on the era, and he has a line about the “three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.” After ‘Nam, I was doing my own search for God, and I kept hearing the question—not, “Is God dead?” as Time Magazine famously asked on its 1967 cover—rather, “Has God finally given up on America? Is he getting out while the getting’s good?”
After Tet ’68, America seemed to begin its fall into what we later called “Vietnam syndrome”: God is no longer blessing America, we can’t win a war against a “little” enemy like this, and we don’t ever want to get stuck in a quagmire like that again. How could America actually lose a war?
American Pie seems (chronologically) to end at Altamont in ’69. But before the song was released we heard the revelations about My Lai, and young Americans killing other young Americans at Kent State in 1970. Those, for me, were the final straw … at least until Nixon’s resignation.
The chorus of a song is generally key to its understanding, to getting the main point:
‘Bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,
An’ them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, and singin’,
This’ll be the day that I die… This’ll be the day that I die.
I’m a couple years younger than Don McLean. He was 13 when Holly died, I was almost 11. But many of our experiences were the same. For example, listening to Dinah Shore, the very popular all-American girl who had her own variety show sponsored by Chevrolet. The Chevy song she sang played for about a decade. One heard it everywhere all the time: “See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call. Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all! On a highway or a road along a levee, everything’s completer in a Chevy….” This was America, even if you were a Ford man.
When Holly died, he was famous for the song, “That’ll be the day.” He was singing about his girl, that, if she left him, “that’ll be the day-hay-hay … that I die!” The good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye were lamenting his death.
Judging by all that Don McLean put into this song, they were lamenting much more: the death of America itself. While the metaphor of the music standing for America, our way of life and our religion may seem a bit overdrawn to people now, it was very real in 1971. It was not just a phase that we were going through and got over or grew out of. Something real died, and those of us who returned from that war at that time know that something died in us as well.
That’s why I’m thinking that, on Memorial Day, it’s very appropriate to remember those of us who came back. And it’s okay to mourn. You may not be able to understand what died. Just know that it did.
I find it greatly ironic for me personally that, in the year I came home (1969), I was just beginning to discover that those “three men I admire most,” as he called the godhead, were not getting out but were very much still around and interested in us personally and individually. In the year he released American Pie (1971), I became a Christian. And I began to live.
If you would like to read the complete lyrics of American Pie, you can do so here: https://web.archive.org/web/20141129095635/http://www.don-mclean.com/viewsong.asp?id=89