A long, long time ago...
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.
But 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,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music… died.
- Opening to “American Pie,” by Don McLean (1971)
That “the day the music died” is February 3rd, 1959 is undisputed. On that day, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson went down in an Iowa cornfield, killing all three. Their fans, and the music world, were stunned by the loss of three rising stars in the still-infant Rock ‘n Roll movement.
The next five verses are a rather more enigmatic - yet brilliant - history by metaphor of what was to follow that reflects the perspective, and how it shaped the views of their author. Looking at perspective – and how it influences worldview - is the purpose of this article, so I’ve chosen to take the same time period to serve my own purposes.
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The first reason I chose 1960 is because it marked an seminal time in McLean’s mind as he penned “American Pie.” The music, or rather the artists behind the music, died in 1959 and the oft-revered decade of the fifties and all it represented was about to give way to something unrecognizable. Just as important as the deaths of Holly, Valens, and Richardson was what they came to represent to McLean as he looked back ten years later at the storminess of the sixties: the loss of his, and his generations’, innocence and a nation’s character and identity forever changed.
The years just prior to 1960 have that effect on a lot of people, does it not? The fifties are often idealized, in mind and media, as an era of innocence, stability, American fortitude and national resolve. The post-war years had been good and, even though we knew we had to keep a sharp eye on the godless Reds, our military was more than ready and willing to wipe the map with them if they got out of line! And then the sixties happened: stability gave way to unrest, innocence to worldliness and promiscuity, and resolve to dissension and self-doubt. In “American Pie,” McLean traces the decade through sometimes cryptic imagery, referring mostly to the music and artists of the day, to record and mourn the loss of what was – or, at least, the way he remembered it.
His song reflects his perspective, and it’s one many easily relate to. It’s a perspective a lot of us share whether we lived during those times or not. It’s a perspective that, in the minds of many, reflects an inviolable truth.
Of course, if you really look at the decade of the fifties historically there may be other perspectives, too. If you really look at it historically, maybe what happened in the sixties wasn’t such an anomaly. Perhaps, looking at the post-war era historically undermines the perspective of stability, and its underlying fault lines made the tempest of the sixties inevitable. Maybe perspective is fluid?
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The second reason I chose the year 1960 for our study of perspective is because of more empirical considerations. In 1960, the population of the United States (per US Census figures) was 179,323,175. And though the US population has continued to grow tremendously since then – at the precise moment I sat down and began writing this article, it was estimated by the US Census Bureau to be 314,854,577 – the geographic area has not changed since the statehoods of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959. That is an increase of 135,531,402 people over 52 years. Of course, the nation’s area in square miles is the same but the population distribution has shifted – and continues to shift - significantly in the intervening years. Regardless, most Americans are probably living in ever closer proximity to their neighbors.