The day the music died


If you’re north of 60, you recall a world in which people read poetry, even if only when forced to in a classroom.

One of the cultural artifacts that may have been dragged before you was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It was a biggie in the 19th century, but chances are the “Ancient Mariner” didn’t float your boat.

The chances were better that you were more intrigued by Don McLean’s more contemporary 1971 pop single “American Pie,” with its equally cryptic, symbolic content.

Of course, be they ancient or modern, you may have felt the same about both — “Who the hell wants to actually understand this crap?”

But understanding takes many paths, and what McLean’s plaintive lyricism and nostalgic imagery certainly made you feel was a sense of loss — of something you probably couldn’t claw your way back to.

At some point the music dies, and as Thomas Wolfe put it, “You can’t go home again.”
This of course is the oldest literary theme there is, but what pulls Coleridge and McLean together is that they’re speaking not of personal loss so much as of civilizational, or cultural, loss.

Written just 9 years after the commencement of the French Revolution, which sought to bury both Christianity and the class structure, Coleridge’s poem puts us on a ship that sails perilously around the Cape of Good Hope to a point where there is no hope, after having lost the benevolent albatross that had sustained its passage. From that point on, “The very deep did rot” and “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung.”

You get the drift.

Similarly, what McLean may have been deeply mourning is not so much the loss of three rock-and-rollers in a 1959 plane crash, nor even the losses incurred in the three momentous assassinations during the 1960s, but rather the loss of “the three men I admire most / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” who “caught the last train for the coast.”

In our world, of course, one can’t speak of such things, and McLean didn’t. When pressed about the meaning of his poem, he simply said, “It means that I will never have to work again.”

He might have said, it means that nothing will ever work again.

“The church bells all are broken.”

— Chad (“Bitter”) Klinger

P.S. The lyrics of American Pie and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

11 thoughts on “The day the music died

  1. So what happened in 1961 that left us on our own? I’d thought McLean was singing about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, but was 1959, and too obvious a reference for the music dying for McLean, I guess. I never have figured that one out.

  2. 8-and-a-half-minute folk rock tear-jerker. As presumed, the “Ancient Mariner” didn’t float my boat, but that isn’t Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s fault – purely mine.
    Interesting comparison, Glenn. So, who played the parts of The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost?
    In this order (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper)?
    Don McLean, III is gratefully still amongst the living, and still performing. Old guys rule!

  3. I would definitely agree with the loss of Father, Son & Holy Ghost as being a major reason for the decline in our country and the world. We are a ship adrift, claiming women are men, “love is love” no matter who or what is involved, and the delusion that children need to learn about the intricacies of non conventional sexual practices at age 5….when as I recall I was playing with blocks and Lincoln Logs. Even though my parents were not religious, it was imbued into the culture and kept the ship on course.

    • Yes, and when I graduated from playing with Lincoln Logs to dating girls, I was imbued with the romantic, courtly love ideal that grew directly out of Christianity — Christ the bridegroom dying for his bride, the Church, etc. Courtship with a white sports coat and a pink carnation, turning the pages in “The Book of Love,” and so on. By the late 60s, all this had given way to Woodstock-era promiscuity, “free love” enabled by birth control, and the erosion of family. Concurrently, post-1965 church attendance began to crater, following its all-time high in the late 50s.

      All this — together with the loss of whatever political virtue that was embodied in “Bobby, Martin, and John” — is what McLean’s sentimental ballad attempts to chronicle.

  4. If you are willing to give up your God given rights over a fake “emergency,” then the tyrants will create more emergencies.

      • Yeah, hanging out waiting for COVID 22 or 23… Now that the CCP knows they can shut down our civilization with a random bug I expect it to happen more often.

      • And notice, Bill, how easily they shut down our churches, which barely put up a fight.

      • Bill, you said the CCP, but I was thinking of the CDC (Fauci et al) when I wrote the previous comment. Yes, China unleashed the bug, but most of the disruption to our way of life was engineered domestically. It was our own governors and bishops who shut down our churches (and schools and small businesses, etc.).

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