On Music: Rock Commentaries, Part One, Chapter One

                   Rock Commentaries:

               Chapter One 

                On the Meaning of Lyrics


                              A special sample publication, available here free for a limited time,

             from McDonald Philosophy and Politics


I. Introduction: The Meaning of Music and American Pie                2

The Meaning of  Music                                                                       3

American Pie                                                                                      21


…Songs, to me, were more important than just entertainment. They were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic. Grail Marcus, the music historian, would some thirty years later call it “the invisible republic.”

Chronicles I, pp. 34-35


So, let us not talk falsely now,

The hour’s getting late–

Bob Dylan


Remember what the door mouse said:

“Feed Your Head”

Grace Slick




Introduction: On the Meaning of Music

We rarely pause to think through the words of even our favorite tunes, although many surprising things, and occasional treasures, might be found there. Even when the words are clear, it is as though we were carried along on the music, half in oblivion and vaguely half aware of what we are singing or of what is being sung. Our music seems to affect us first through the sounds, and only later through the words and fuller meaning. We rarely talk about the meaning of the songs, as though we were all asleep. Then we are embarrassed that we are not already hip to the meaning before everyone else, without ever wondering about it. Yet in many instances, just to go through the obscure lyrics without comment, hearing what the words are without considering much yet what they mean, reveals many interesting lines that we had not yet heard, and sometimes wonderful things we had not yet seen or understood. The purpose of this book is simply to think through the meaning of the music we have listened to all our lives. We hope at least to think about music and the souls that produce and hear music, or the souls of man, in the colors of our characters and in our natures. At most, the hope would be to encourage a new kind of thoughtfulness about the meaning of our music, helping us to know ourselves a little better. In this way, a study of music that might be of general interest might also lead to philosophic inquiry.

Through the pages that follow, we will for the most part discuss songs that most have heard. Of these, we will, of course, consider the ones we have something to say about, spending time where commentary can be especially helpful. These are not quite the same as the most popular, or the number one hits. Of these songs that most have heard, we will especially try to find and address the best poetry, the lyrics or words, as providing the best window into what the music means. All songs say something, even if only the expression of an emotion, sorrow, though quickly the song will be trying to say what the sorrow is about. We will try to go as far as possible into the meaning of the songs, gathering help from anywhere that help can be found. We will consider too which songs seem best, and even try to show why these songs seem best, encouraging others to try the same with as many songs as we can understand. If we pay attention to the meaning of these songs, there are many things to consider and learn, and our enjoyment in hearing them will be amplified, deepened and increased. And now that most of us are aged and have heard the songs played so many times on our radios, it may be a welcome project to try to think deeply on the meaning of what we have chanted and sang all our lives, finding some new things there or finding anew the things that were always there, even remembering things we might once have seen, in the hope of the world when we were young.

Young poets, too, seeking to make a living like traveling bards and rhapsodist of ancient, or troubadours of medieval days, with their many ballads, may welcome an inquiry into what it is that makes songs lasting or perennial, and encouragement to cultivate these, the better songs. In a word, we say that these songs speak something to our souls, and even on occasion put us in touch with something of the permanent and universal meaning of human life, if not the higher mysteries, as poetry is inclined to do. If this work has a single teaching for future lyric writers, it is to mind the meaning. Of all things, it is the meaning that makes for good and lasting poetry and music. The meaning and its communication contain the orders of what is called the “art” of writing lyric poetry. Even the rhyme is secondary, not to mention the other embellishments. The best songs are carried by the content of what is being said, so that the best songwriters, like the best poets, are those that have truly lived and deeply considered the topics of the songs. As in all liberal arts, the best cultivation or education is to associate with the best, the great books and the best mind are the most important single thing in making us better.

The best songs come to us not by any writing technique that can be taught in a craft book, but by a kind of inspiration, as will be a leading theme of the present study, discussed in more detail below (p. 77). The songs may indeed be something like an attempt to replenish humanity from the unconscious. “Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?” So Stevie Nicks said, in calling her love to the enterprise of the band. The unconscious source is not the same as divine inspiration, but does not exclude divine inspiration. For, if Socrates is right, and as it seems to us, the human mind also contains knowledge, as though forgotten, within. And so, from the meaning of the poetry of our music, we may glean and gather an occasional insight for the studies of psychology, politics and philosophy. And it may be that more can be learned about the soul and love from modern music than from the products of modern psychological science. Whether music or art therapy can be an art is a similar question. Grazing about among the thousands of songs recorded especially by the British and American musicians in the past five decades, it is possible for each to take a kind of spiritual sustenance, a food of the soul, and an occasional drink from the pool, if not of the ambrosial nectar, of something sweet, as a horse in a pasture might find himself beneath an early autumn pear tree.

The best songs, then, seem to be written by inspiration and not by art or skill, like the knowledge involved in a trade. This is the reason that the great songwriters do not improve with age and experience, by some necessary progress, as do the craftsmen, through degrees. The poets rather have certain periods of inspiration or openness to certain perennial truths about human life, when they are able to conceive and write their best songs, usually near to each other in time, and when they are young. This openness allows them to express these things for others or for all humanity. Some musicians, too, like Dylan and Lennon, were able to write hit songs repeatedly, and some, like Neil Young, even have written hit songs well beyond the age of the inspiration of youth. Yet these are the exceptions. Lyric love poetry especially is a thing that occurs in youth, though inspiration mature and higher topics develop. By contrast Shakespeare, with his poems and plays, had both a period of young inspiration and still improved with age, indicating some combination of knowledge and inspiration, or the continuing of both, well through his fifties. And truly, if inspiration were based on knowledge within, and this were to become conscious, the question of an art of songwriting might be readdressed, though this art would be more than human. We will try to follow out this inspiration as we are best able, in the hope that this will lead toward knowledge.

In the documentary movie The Last Waltz, in response to the suggestion that Jazz is evil, a keyboard player for The Band, says that he found among the best musicians “The greatest priests, and the greatest healing work.” David, the author of many of the Psalms, would play the lyre for Saul when he was not well (I Samuel 16:23). The right kind of music, then, is good for the soul, and helpful in a kind of healing.

It is sometimes said, even by the musicians themselves, that the songs have no set meaning, but are spoken in a general way that allows us to insert a personal meaning or to understand each song in our own way. The songs become like a Rorschach blot or crystal ball, a mantra to gaze on as the inner things become manifest to our perception. For example, it is thought, if the poets speak in images about love, we each can understand these things and enjoy hearing them because of our own participation in all the things of love. Many people hold this opinion of our music, and resist the enterprise of commentary as though it must involve an attempt to set one personal reading up as knowledge in some final way. And if the truth were, in the end, as some think, that there is no such meaning, and nothing best, or that it is only for each to imagine their own meaning, what would be lost in thinking that we follow it out? And if there were no meaning in life itself, why should we then avoid the foolishness of thinking that there is? You see? There would be no reason. We, rather, hope to use our persons in the quest for knowledge, making our personal opinions gradually better, as in all learning.

The songs do mean one thing rather than another. An amusing website collects the funny things people think to be the lyrics of the songs, such as “’scuse me while I kiss this guy.” And just as the lyrics are one thing rather than another, the songs do mean something, some one thing rather than another, and we can learn a great deal by thinking about it. Bowie once said something like this– around the time of Aladdin Sane, that the songs had no meaning, or were intentionally accidental. He is known for using a cut up method of William Burroughs, in which a piece is written, dismantled, and randomly reassembled. And while this may be true on occasion, intentionally, or as a form of art or an artistic experiment, it seems to me that this was said as much to put off annoying questions about the meaning of his songs in a context where such questions cannot be answered. Dylan, in the documentary by Martin Scorsese, is shown attempting to respond to near-scholarly questions like, “is it true your songs have a hidden or subtle meaning.” In an interview, Dylan was asked something like “do you care about the meaning as well as the sound of your songs.” Dylan then appeared arrogant or obnoxious for answering “What kind of a question is that?” To a question of whether his Hard Rain referred to acid rain, a byproduct of burning coal that was then falling from the U. S. onto Canada, he once answered, beautifully, “Its not acid rain, its just a hard rain.” Near to the Cuban Missile Crisis, some thought the song was about atomic rain, and Dylan himself did not mind allowing the misconception.

And yet there is reason, and so we are left with trying to follow it out. The songs contain points of objective meaning that we can get at, advancing in understanding if we try to read and think about them. The hard rain is not some reference to acid rain, but it is prophetic of the tragic result of injustice that would fall to our nation, the more the more that injustice continues, and the less, maybe, the more we listen to our folk musicians. But indeed, if we are to have lyric interpretation or commentary of the acid rain sort, it may be better to have none at all. After all, does he, who denied that his songs have meanings, not, in the title song of the album Aladdin Sane, mean to ask, “Who will love a lad insane?”

And is this not like the question of Shakespeare’s King Lear, of who will love one that is divested of all? “…Will you still call me Superman?” Some meanings are obvious in some cases once one thinks about them, and appear as a flash, though not necessarily the first time that one hears a song. The most useful commentary uncovers things that seem obvious once shown.

Music is, like language, a particular articulation drawn, as if pulled from the sky, from meaning that is vast, and always there. Just as many languages, and an infinite number of stories and accounts, are possible, so too there is an infinity of great songs that are possible, and one can see how we do not have one zillionth of all the great songs that could be written. But there are different kinds of infinity, so that “infinite” does not mean limitless. Not all points are on any particular line, yet there are an infinite number of points on any given line. Music is like language, drawn from something vast. There are so many possible combinations of notes and words, even to describe the same old human experiences. At the same time, not any and every song is a great or good song, just as not every story is great, or every account. Not everything new is “creative,” but only new things with meaning. As every musician knows, some things written are musical and some are not. So, though not all new things are musical, there are an infinite number of new tunes possible. Yet it is not as though there were a limited number of possibilities, so that one could someday complain that all the good songs have been written. New melodies, for example, arise continually with very little direct copying or repetition. It is the songs with the most and the best meaning that are the most enduring among the hits. There is always room, especially now, for great songs to become “hits,” or a part of our common doings, and for music to enrich the happiness of humanity.

Music and songs are written about certain things and not about other things. We will try to follow out the order and categories of the themes. These can be mixed in many ways, and have many sub-themes, such as the different kinds of love songs. A good half of all songs seem to be about romantic or erotic love. Each moment or essential act of the drama of human love can be a theme for song, from the vague longing for someone to love or the first sight of the one loved, right through to the loss of love and the reminiscence of long lost love. There are songs in which the lover calls to the one loved, as do the birds. That is, love songs are involved in human courtship by nature, especially when the male persuades the female to love, in the ancient serenade. There are songs about the beginning of love in the admiration of the one loved, such as “Pretty Woman,” songs about the struggles involved in love, about leaving or losing one loved, about jealousy and infidelity, nostalgic songs of lost loves, even a few songs about happy loves that work out for a lifetime. There are some about filial love, such as “Father and Son.” There are songs about being a “loser,” songs about madness, loneliness and solitude, like Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” or the Beatles “Fool on the Hill.” There are songs of despair, as Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself,” and Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” But love songs are either sad or happy, and the vast majority of love songs are blue ballads. These come from and are about romantic difficulties. Great happy love songs that can, for example, be played at weddings are so rare that these could be collected in a short appendix [B] at the end, below. Other categories of the themes are songs about friendship, such as “Gypsy” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” or “You’ve Got a Friend,” about losing a friend. There are many good songs about music itself, such as Cat Stevens “Sweet Music,” or about the lives of musicians, such as “Turn the Page,” or changes in music, such as “American Pie.” There are songs about America, about liberty, about school, etc. Anything moving to us generally can be the theme of a song. There are also songs about stillness. There are songs about rain. Some songs tell a story, such as Rocky Raccoon” or “Don’t Mess around with Jim.” Some are topical or political, some are general reflections on various truths about human life, or philosophical in this sense of the word. Political themes are difficult to write genuine music about, although this is not impossible. Neil Young’s “Ohio” is an example. For us, since the moon landing in 1969, space songs, are about space and space persons. There are songs about the space age and spacemen, songs about cars, dogs, sunsets, getting high, etc, and the genres can be mixed in almost any way. The writers that live and love the deepest will be most deeply moved, and write the most moving tunes. What I will try to show is that it is meaning that moves music. And if one wants to sing the blues, one has of course to “pay the dues,” so that the best song writers are caught up in concerns in living that are much more important than writing hit songs. The traditional understanding of the divisions of music is that all music is either a) sacred or b) martial, and of the sacred, these are either religious or erotic, i. e., romantic. Band music, as the sort played at parades or football games, is martial music, though its presence in our popular music is still rare. When it does appear, there is something disturbing about it. Prior to sixties rock, music with a beat, and prominent drums, was martial. With Keith Moon, drums become prominent in romantic and spiritual music. The genres of themes can of course all be mixed, so that for example the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is both martial and sacred, and Tommy is both about wisdom and about the life and effect of the rock musician, etc. Some of my favorite themes are poetic teachings or a genre that could be called wisdom songs, even the most common sort, as in the Kenny Rogers proverb song The Gambler. Both the great rock operas, Tommy and The Wall, belong in a way to the wisdom genre. There is a thing that can be called liberal arts poetry, that is, songs that go well with the aspirations of the life of the liberal arts or the high life of the spirit, such as “Across the Universe,” “Achilles’ Last Stand,” or” “Kashmir.” many of the poets understand these things, such as who Achilles and brave Ulysses are, how “Morning has Broken” relates to the Book of Genesis, or which watchtower Dylan and Hendrix are singing of, etc.

This, our study, will be different from a work of music history, though in many cases clues in searching out the meanings of songs are given by bits from the stories of their production. We will assume, and try to show, that there is a surprising importance to the words in this popular music. In part because of the emphasis on beat or rhythm over the melody, the meaning of our music rarely occupies our thought. These, the rhythm, harmony and melody, are sometimes taken together as “music,” as distinct from the words and poetry, in one meaning of the word music, the ordered sounds. Another meaning of music refers to the whole song, the words and sounds together. The words are usually part of the melody, and conversely, in a song without words, the melody is the articulation. For a definition, music is especially the articulation, in metered flowing sound, as distinct from speech, of an imitation of the human soul, involved in the experience or perception of a particular meaning. Another meaning of “music” includes natural sounds, even the music of the spheres, so that music means a kind of harmonious sound, whether natural or artificial, human or animal. In this sense, some speech is musical, and some is not.

The original meaning of the word music, at the root of words like museum and musing, was more general than our English use of the word. “Music” for the Greeks referred to all the liberal arts, under the guidance of the Nine Muses. The Muses “taught Hesiod beautiful song as he was pasturing his flock in the foothills of Holy Mount Helikon.”[1] The Muses are the daughters of Zeus and Memory, which is not surprising if memory is like coming to know. Three or four of these nine are concerned with songs or lyric poetry, Euterpe is concerned with lyric poetry and the flute, Erato with love poetry sung with the lyre, Polyhymnia with sacred music, and Terpsichore with the choral dances involved in drama. Others are concerned with Astronomy, history, tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. Music turns out to be the most important part of education for politics and governing of every kind, utterly abandoned and underestimated by our contemporary education. Kallope, the ninth muse, attends kings, and “every Zeus-nurtured king,” those to whom they are gracious, is looked on with favor by the muses at their birth, and “he receives from them, on his tongue, a sweet pouring of heavenly dew,” and “from his mouth the words flow with gentleness.” The Royal speech gives kings the art of persuasion in solving even great disputes, and in gaining redress of the grievances for the people, who look to them in honor to interpret laws with justice (Theogony, 79-90). “For by the power of the muses and far shooting Apollo, men who sing and play the lyre exist upon the earth and kings are empowered by the Muses and Zeus.” This meaning of “music” is as another word for thought, musing, from a long time ago, when thought was still musical. We will have occasion below, in the final chapter, to consider the two parts of music, the words and sounds, and the three parts of the sound, melody, harmony and rhythm, in terms of the two and the three parts of the soul, reason, the heart, and desire or appetite. There too, after considering many songs, we will take up the philosophical arguments from which this account truly begins, and to which our inquiry must lead.

But what is often said is that we like these songs because of the sound and not the words, and even the beat or rhythm rather than the melody. “The heart of rock and roll is the beat” is how this is said, in the song by Sammy Hagar. It is the melody and beat, and primarily the driving, high energy beat that seems to have made “rock and roll” the abiding musical movement that it has proven to be. It has always been said by the conservative critics that the beat of rock music is an imitation of sex.[2] “Rock and roll” is even a phrase that refers to romping in the sack, and this euphemism may be the source from which the phrase was coined as the name for this new sort of music. The new music was a leading vehicle for a social revolution, so that it may be that the famous saying of Socrates to Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic (424 c) was never more applicable:

For never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved, as Damon says and I am persuaded[3]

“A New York poet,” Tuli Kupferberg, a member of a radical band the Fugs, is cited: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”[4] The question is of course whether the city will be better or worse. Unlike Socrates, we are not addressing a change from the best, so that all change is likely to be worse. The conservative critics saw rock music as a portent of the breakdown of Western civilization and a destruction of higher culture from which it may be impossible to recover. They are not optimistic about the possibility that a higher culture can emerge out of the democratic art of Great Britain and America. What seems more likely is that we develop kinds of democratic art, and leave aristocratic art for other ages. Jung too, notices that expressionism in art prophetically anticipated the turn from outward material things toward the inner processes and the growth of interest in psychology over the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Then he writes: “…all art intuitively apprehends coming changes in the collective unconsciousness.”[5]

Rock music has been questionable and even evoked anger and suppression, ever since Elvis first shook his hips. These critics usually choose the worst examples, but their arguments are not implausible if one sees only the worst strains to develop. And it is by no means assured that the worst will not become the most prominent. While these things are surely present, we will argue an opposite theory. The most important thing about our music, and even about rock music proper, in comparison with the popular lyrics of other ages, is the deep meaning of the songs revealed especially through the words. The liberalization regarding the body and sex proves to be part of a larger liberty. This liberty allowed, at least in one line of development, for a revolution in meaning concerning even some of the higher and rarer of human passions, and a new kind of poetry. What we will argue, through many examples, is that the worse songs do not last, while the better songs have become what we call “classic” rock. Examining the list of top songs on any classic rock station, or, in the top ten of one recent list, only one song could be said to be about “sex.” This is also to be noted by the aspiring troubadours among our readers: It is the songs with rare and high meaning that last, though the lesser numbers often achieve a fleeting success, and sometimes even make their authors rich. It is the authors whose souls are akin to this rarer meaning that are poets.

If the beat were the heart or essence of rock and roll, or if this were the whole story, it would be strange that there are so few purely instrumental songs. Surprisingly, there are some intricate compositions that even remind of classical composition. “Halo of Flies,” by Alice Cooper, is an astonishing example, and there are quite a few others. Yet songs without words, like “Frankenstein,” “Embryonic Journey,” or “Bron-y Ar Stomp” are the overwhelming exception. Some, like Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold,” or Alice Cooper’s “Killer,” are great musically, though one must wonder about the lyric. Yet “Journey to the Center of the Mind” is a great lyric, and even better musically. Regardless of how garbled, nearly every song has words. These say what the song is about, or over what it is that all this energy of beat and sound of harmony and melody are being made and spent.

Again, if it were true that the beat were the most important part of our popular music, or of rock music, it would be hard to explain why sixties rock is not dance music, and what occurred to dancing music when rock became most prominent. Early fifties rock, as in “Rock Around the Clock,” was dance music. But in the emergence of sixties rock, dance music disappeared for a while. There would have been no popular dance music at all, were it not for soul and Motown funk, and the great Sly Stone, with his beautiful sister Cynthia,[6] and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which he wrote with Jeff Beck in mind.”[7] For a while in the Seventies, from the waning of Motown until the emergence of disco, there was almost no popular dance music at all. These were appropriated by the popular rock enthusiasts, and would be helpful to have at our school dances, where the fast music was oddly defective as dance music. Strangely, while rock music is most lively, it is not especially dance music. Some of us may remember the awkward moment at the high school dance when Stairway changes from a slow to a fast song, and the couples are challenged then to come apart and dance to Led Zeppelin. Another Zeppelin song serves as an example: the song “Black Dog” has lyrics that sing of “the way you move,” making one sweat and groove, etc, and yet it is impossible to dance to the song, at least without complete abandon. Or remember dancing to “Born to be Wild?” Not that is was not fun to try. Rock dancing, as to the Byrds, was ecstatic, as to the Grateful Dead, but better described as the “Random outdoor motion” than rhythmic dance.[8] Dance music returned to “rock” when Stevie Wonder did “Superstition,” and when David Bowie appeared on Soul Train with a very rare combination of electric rock and dance music from his album Young Americans, in 1975, including “Fame” and “Fascination,” followed by Stay and Golden Years on Station to Station in 1976, and continued into Low with “Sound and Vision.” Bowie was then followed by a hit movie and the fashion of disco, which is no longer rock music. This is strange, a bit of a mystery, and calls for explanation. Why is Rock music not dancing music? From the big bands and the Jitterbug, if not from square dancing music, dance music is very much at the root of the music that developed into rock and roll. “The Twist” was one popular dance and song, and in the early sixties, popular music was still intended for dancing. But once the psychedelic music appears, dance music disappears. Rasta Music and the Grateful Dead were welcome exceptions to a music that was strangely not intended primarily for dance. Air guitar, and later a kind of bopping to punk, the Cretan hop, replace dance as the bodily movement that goes along with this music. This anomaly may be due to a kinship of the rock beat with jazz, which is also music with a beat that is not usually for dance.

Dance music was always questionable, and it is important to see the question as it appeared before the great controversy over rock music. There is a wonderful story from our local histories here in Michigan, of how, in the late eighteen hundreds, the students were forbidden to play dance music on the school organ at Farmington High school. One day they were caught in the enormous offense of playing the Blue Danube Waltz while the teachers were away at lunch.[9] The expression was “Dance music in the sacred halls of learning!” The punishment was severe. What was then acceptable in our trans-religious public education were patriotic songs and non-religious or sect-neutral choir songs, as those sung in music class when we were growing up, in elementary school, but not dance music. Some of the Protestant sects forbid all dancing, though nearly all allow sacred music. There is some question as to whether there should be secular music at all. By the time that Elvis shook his hips, the question had broken out into a public controversy, with conservatives appalled at the liberal direction of popular culture, and gravely concerned for our moral future. This liberalization continued into the sixties, and a question central to our inquiry will be whether and in what ways these changes were harmful or beneficial. But, to return, there is something more to the heart of rock music than the beat, and we will argue that the meaning, and hence the words, are what is most important.

And so, it does not seem true to say that the beat is most important in rock music, nor that the rock beat is primarily an imitation of the rhythm of sex. There are also natural beats that imitate walking in different gaits, not to mention the beat of the heart in its various modes. One early fan of the Byrds is quoted, on the back of the album, about 1965, saying “The music should have a strong beat, and the stronger the beat, the stronger the emotions that can come out.”[10] Rock is about strong emotions. There is anger, which at its best is the anger at injustice and frustration at the irrationality of an artificial world. Consider the Creed song “What if?” Strong emotions depend upon something significant, something that really matters, or the emotions would not fit the circumstance. Sex without love is quickly boring. We come nearly full circle, to saying something like “the beat of rock and roll is the heart.”

That it is not the beat that is most central to rock music appears in another way. The driving beat is sometimes absent. Classic rock includes Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues, slow and composed music without the rock beat. A good third to a half of popular music is what are called ballads or “slow songs,” and every one of the great rock bands holds a few of these among their gold records. These slow songs are more melodious, and the words more audible, and more important to the experience of the song. These are somehow included, from the influence of the folk music scene in the early sixties, in “rock” although they have little in common with the electric driving mode derived from rhythm and blues and rockabilly, at least regarding sound. The word “rock” is used in two different senses, which can become confusing or entangled. The division between fast and slow songs is inherent in music itself. Its presence in our music goes back at least to the old sock hop and school dances, where there was a need to change the pace, and bring the couples closer. Its pinnacle of development may be in the acoustic and electric combination of Led Zeppelin. The name means to combine the heavy and light paradoxically together. The slow songs are popular to the same audiences, written by the same bands, and played on the same “classic rock” stations. Some on weekend mornings, as our local WCSX, play only this “soft rock.” Since these are included as “rock music,” it becomes hard to say just what “rock” is. The word has two definitions, one contained in the other. “Rock and roll” also refers to the music of two different historical periods: first the rock and roll of the fifties and early sixties, and second, that of the sixties and following. What we mean is a certain kind of popular song that emerged in the fifties and arrived at its full character through the sixties, including though not limited to those having the rock beat proper. There are numerous tributaries or early influences in greater and lesser strengths, that led to the emergence of what is called rock: rhythm and blues, soul, rockabilly, blues, English pop, American vocalists like Sinatra, and American gospel music. Watching the great soul men, Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, it is clear that the excitement, expression and catharsis of the rock concert have a bit of their origin in the gospel music of the Africans in America. This enthusiasm is an especial contribution of the black Protestant churches to American culture, and to American pop and rock music in particular. The “mo-Jo workin’” for Muddy Waters, in the blues, is a similar sort of being moved and moving many through music. “Let me hear you say yea!” and “Clap your hands” or “Shake,” are not really lyrics, but the participation in the music reminds of the call to get up and get excited in praising the Lord. But in popular music, the communal enthusiasm becomes a secular enjoyment. Jerry Lee Lewis was raised on gospel music, and his turn to R&B was an intentional stepping outside, if not a rejection, of the gospel function of the music.

Just before the emergence of rock, the British musicians, Jeff Beck and Erick Clapton, were doing American Blues, the Beatles and Stones were doing Pop and American R&B, while Dylan and the American Folk scene were flourishing in New York City. In 1963, according to Pete Townshend, the Stones, playing R&B, were already the rising British band, and the Kinks were out.[11] Motown was just beginning to develop soul into popular music, and Phil Specter introduced the “wall of sound,” as Ronnie and the Ronnettes broke through the quietness of pop music with the new wave of sound and passion. Then in Britain, Eric Burden and the Animals brought blues and a powerful sound into popular music with their blues version of an old American folk song, “House of the Rising Sun,” as early as 1964. Soon, in America Roger McGuinn of the Byrds and others discovered the possibility or invented electric folk, turning Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn Turn” into pop hits. Writers, such as Greil Marcus and Richie Unterberger, are correct to see the performance of Dylan at the Newport folk festival July 25, 1965, as decisive in popularizing this new electric folk and indicating the future direction of rock.[12] The combination assures that the new pop music will retain a folk element. Instead of corrupting folk, as the folkies worried, the new “folk rock” seems to have fulfilled their intention to inform the popular imagination.

Suddenly, the Beatles, after Rubber Soul and Revolver, produce Sergeant Pepper and the Beach Boys culminate surf music with Wilson’s ingenious Pet Sounds (1966). Brian Wilson and Tony Asher are said to have prayed during this composition, among other things, for an album that would outdo Rubber Soul. Through early 1965, popular music was the teen targeted stuff called “bubble gum.” It filled a more limited function, or was for a different purpose. But by the end of 65, and then throughout 1966, a new sound emerged, an electric folk-rock blues that was instantly popular, or became also a kind of pop music. Around L. A., in 1966, The Doors play at the Whiskey-Au Go Go. By 1967, there is Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and Jimi Hendrix. As Hendrix says, in “Third Stone From the Sun,” “We’ll never hear surf music again.” The music now played on popular classic rock stations all leads back to this moment or the revealing of this principle as to what they were to be about, the fundamental principle of the sixties. From this place, this point in time, about 1966, just before the Summer of Love and the quick shattering of the illusions involved, now nearly a half century ago, what we call rock follows as emanating from it, for what is now almost a half century.

It is in America that many currents met, joining into a river, especially in the Height-Asbury district of San Francisco. The folk scene of Greenwich Village in New York City, in the early sixties, near the corner of McDougall and Bleaker streets, preceded the California scene, and moved out west to join the river, bringing the depth and meaning of folk themes to the west coast explosion. The PBS documentary on the Greenwich Village folk scene concludes with a history of the song “California Dreamin’,” as capturing this moment and this conclusion, in 1965. This folk influence, carried by Dylan, The Mamas and the Papas, and others from Greenwich Village, is very prominent in the beginnings of the anti-war movement that solidified a generation. The word “hippie” was apparently coined in the San Francisco Chronicle to describe this new sort of creature.[13] The peace and love thing is an American addition, the crystallization of many currents that met at once late in 1965 and early 1966, around Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco: the folk concern with civil rights, the free speech movement at Berkeley, beatnik poetry, Dylan and folk music meeting and converging with the Beatles and pop. The idea of peaceful revolution would seem to have come from Martin Luther King, and the folk music sympathy with the civil rights movement. Dylan had written the folk song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in 1962, from the melody of a song of runaway slaves, “No More Auction Block.”[14] The song was well known in other versions by 1963, before America was seriously involved in Vietnam. The peace and love principle of the hippies is different from the Mod scene that spawned Pete Townshend and the Who, and the English R& B scene that developed into the driving beat of rock. As an acquaintance points out, the difference between the London and the San Francisco scene at the crucial time in the sixties would be that America was involved first hand in the Vietnam War. The Americans were immediately facing the draft, as the British kids were not, and it is in 1965 that America begins to send in hoards of troops. The mod scene was into street fighting and smashing things up, speed and alcohol rather than pot and hallucinogens, and Mick Jagger would never quite be converted by the peacenik hippies, an ocean and a continent away in California. There is a competition and cross fertilization between the British and American bands, so that the two groups together make up the movement called rock and roll. The electric guitar replaced the folk guitar after the Beatles invasion of America in 1964, and then early in 1965, the Byrds begin to play electric folk, setting Dylan tunes to a new vibration. The Animals had done “House of the Rising Sun” in 1964, mixing electric blues and American folk lyrics. Imitating the Beatles, the musicians begin to grow their hair. It is said that Dylan introduced The Beatles to smoking pot, during his 1965 visit to England. Townshend was smoking pot, by late 1963 or early 1964.[15] While LSD may have made the hippies like the new electric sound a bit more, its influence is erratic, and may be overestimated in the history of rock, while marijuana is proportionally underestimated, especially regarding the words or lyrics. American Electric folk, after the Byrds, awakens the British folk of Donovan, and soon Cat Stevens. And so the music scene merged with the anti-war sentiment to become a comprehensive cultural or counter-cultural movement of flower power. The flower ethos quickly filtered back across the Atlantic, becoming central to the work of John Lennon and the music of the Beatles from 1967 on, and persuasive to bands like The Who and The Stones. At its beginning were the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead dances hosted by Ken Kesey, late in 1965 and into ’66. Kesey is the prankster who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, contrasting our psychology with one who can truly heal.[16] These currents seem all to meet in a general revulsion toward the events of the war in Vietnam, blossoming into a musical and political counterculture. The San Francisco Oracle first proclaimed the revelation of peace and love, and the “unity of all mankind,” in an advertisement for the “Human Be-in” to be held on January 14, 1967:

A new concept of human relations being developed in the underground must emerge, become conscious and be shared so that a revolution of form can be filled with a Renaissance of compassion, awareness and love in the revelation of the unity of mankind.[17]

The illusion of the hippies is the illusion of the Summer of Love, the illusion that began to crumble with the events of 1967, and the shocking occurrence of Charles Manson. Manson was a frustrated rock star, an artist, orphan and juvenile delinquent local to the California hippie scene, so that both music and the hippies must acknowledge him as in part their own. He was also an aspiring musician in the California music scene, and for a time a roommate of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Manson once threatened Wilson, which must in hindsight have been very disturbing. Wilson apparently recorded a song in part written by Manson, about a cult-like surrendering of the mind, applied to love. And this is not the only instance where the boundless liberty of the hippies seemed to provide an opening to evil. As usual, our principles do not provide us with the basis for a serious response. There was a left wing radical tributary that flowed into San Francisco in the mid sixties, one not opposed to violent revolution. The hippies were less into political action, and more into dropping out of society altogether, more “mellow,” as we would say. When the hippies did accept the principle that violence is sometimes necessary, they were not reconciled to the political process that bridles crime by public action and deliberation. Some were instead inclined toward anarchy or violent Marxist revolution. Despite the fears of the McCarthy era, communism or communist revolution never was an internal danger for America. Political liberty, if not the free market, prevents the buildup of very much oppression of a working class, so that “capitalism” does not produce anything like the required “revolutionary proletariat,” even in a great depression. At worst, we vote those in office out for poor reasons, such as bad weather, and then suffer the consequences, for which a whole new group of critics arise. Bourgeoisie oppression could never be a very moving issue in America, the land of opportunity, for most. A large middle class owns a great deal of stock in the “factors of production,” and mediates any polarized class interests. Instead of communist revolution, we get the struggles that led to the political influence of trade unions and the recognition of civil rights. Grievances can be redressed. Of more concern to us is the spiritual desert which seems to result from our single minded honoring of wealth and the banishment of the quarrelsome religiousness from public life. And instead of genuine tyranny, even of the old fashioned sort, we get various forms of the “soft despotism” of public opinion, which, as it seems, was then an outraged father, the challenged conventional authority, and now has emerged as the “great mother,” to care for us with smoking rules and to keep a close watch, all to prevent the terrible violence that is the only alternative to her gentle arms. But then, the revolutionary rage of the Weathermen–which today would be called a terrorist group–did not seem to be all that far away. The cities erupted in race riots, and Americans must have been gravely worried for the nation. My father took us, at age 7, to see the National Guardsmen walking over smoldering brick ruins in Detroit in 1967. The potential for violence was evident in the word “pigs,” once commonly hurled at the police. Violence by the police was intentionally incited by leaders among the antiwar protesters, at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Events like the shooting at Kent State, where four unarmed protesters were shot and killed by national guardsmen, brought the nation very near to civil war or violent revolution, as appears in the song “Ohio” by Neil Young. Violent Revolution seems not to have occurred because of the resilience of the American system, which allowed for the ultimate victory of the genuine principles of peace and the non-violent revolution of Martin Luther King, and the end of the Vietnam War. The American political system proved its resilience in the ability to absorb disparate elements, correcting itself according to the truth in the platform of the opposition. The attempt to suppress the political opposition traded a short term conquest for defeat in the longer term. But the music continued from this peak moment of “flower power,” with the paradox of peaceful revolution as its core. While war calls out certain virtues that do not appear in peace, all the best things cultivated by man flourish in peace. The enduring truth is that, of the two ways depicted in Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles (Iliad, XVIII, 475 ff), war and peace, the human good is found in peace.

If the hippies were in part right about this particular war, it now seems obvious that they were forgetful of certain necessities. Robert McNamara is the most eminent of the “establishment” to switch sides, admitting that the war was “terribly wrong.” The opposite also happens, those originally opposed to the war come to see the purpose and admit the necessity. The whole conflict of World War II that set the stage for the Cold War, and the reason for the now vindicated policy called “containment,” is not apparent to the hippies. It is as though in a single generation, just twenty years, we had forgotten the horrors of Auschwitz, and the things that had just occurred on the face of the earth, beneath the sun. They were the first generation to grow up after World War II without knowing the struggle at first hand. In their defense, our education was not able to make these things apparent. A generation quickly forgot the horrors their parents had defeated, and the necessity to fight in order to prevent these things from occurring, ever again. Rarely, for example, did the educators think to ask the peaceniks what they would do in the face of the advance of a Hitler, or whether they would take up arms to oppose the Holocaust. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had to break the news to the universities in the West, in his Harvard Address and in his books, that there was in Russia an operational Gulag, and remind those who had defeated Hitler with their Russian alliance of what it looks like when a nation of a population similar to the United States kills an average approximating one million of its own people each year– and this when it is not even in civil war. This harsh truth is the reason that we must fight on occasion, and cannot always literally choose peace. Will we not stop things like the killing fields of Cambodia, whenever possible? But this means many unpopular things: That war is sometimes necessary, and therefore potentially noble, and that we must sometimes fight where no national or self interest is otherwise evident. It is difficult or impossible to be both a pacifist and to say “never again.” But war can and must be conducted nobly, as an exercise in virtue, or its purpose is defeated beforehand. It is the responsibility of the American people to see that things like the Mi Lai massacre– in which unarmed civilians were murdered by U. S. troops– never occur. We forget that our soldiers are drawn from a relatively violent population, with a virile criminal element. And though these things continue on occasion to occur, they would happen even more without the anti-war opposition and the pressure of opinion through our democratic processes. What occurred in the sixties, culminating in the event of Nixon and Watergate, is that the opposition was suppressed by the establishment, contrary to our constitution, subverting the process of national deliberation, through which extremes make their points and cast their ballots, usually resulting in moderate public policies and decisions approaching some mean. The conscience of America was divided, between patriotism and compassion, and instead of admitting the dialogue, one side attempted to shut the other down, in what was not a failure but a subversion of the Constitution.

As part of what must appear as the failure to understand the necessity of arms to defend innocence and liberty, the hippies seemed to assume with Rousseau that all things are good that come from the hand of nature, while the corruption of man comes from the cultivation of civilization (Emile, Book I). William F. Buckley commented: “The hippies are trying to forget about original sin, and it may go hard with them hereafter.”[18] What arises from nature in the sense of what grows up from the ground is assumed to be good. And so they would say “do what you feel,” accepting whatever arises from chance, and the soul of man. But the soul and nature prove to be more complicated, or to contain heights and depths unimagined. The sexual revolution, which had appealed to nature and the natural, ran into nature in another way with the explosion of AIDS, and the unnatural, with an explosion of pedophilia. Academic opinion remains reluctant to identify a pedophilia peculiar to our age, let alone to blame this on the discarding of the old morality before the emergence of a new. The openness that allows this to be revealed is thought to reveal what has always been there. “Safe sex” replaced moderation to some extent. But due to AIDS and things of this sort, sexual habits will surely change. A joke is that we might soon forget the reason and have morality again. That is, the old ethics were developed over thousands of years from the experience of problems mankind had run into otherwise, and these reasons had largely disappeared or been obscured by the very success of civilization. When the ancient conventions are discarded, these reasons quickly reappear. The hippies thought people could go naked and defenseless without rape and murder, underestimating the human capacity for evil. The truth is that there are beautiful and vulnerable persons who must have armed protection to avoid being harmed by other members of their own species, even in their own community. All of civilization may be rooted in a continuous human enterprise of fighting human crime. The police in San Francisco wore a button that said next time you’re mugged, call a hippie! But the permanent political problem, at least from the American point of view, is that we are caught between the need to avoid crime and the need to avoid tyrannical government. The work of our constitution is not only to enable the government to control the governed, but also to oblige the government to control itself, and it is the latter that makes the U. S. Constitution and the American experiment different from that of other nations (Federalist 51). But in a kind of innocence, the hippies thought that the permanent political problem could be solved by simply denying the existence of one or both horns of the perennial dilemma, as though government itself were not necessary. Even Rousseau knows that government is necessary. Our system is based on a trust, and when powers are abused, great harm is done to the strength of law itself in our polity. The hippies might respond to the police button that the next time one is tyrannized by the powers of government in America, he probably ought not call a cop. One must rather take his chances with the judicial or legislative branches than the executive, and probably rest contented with imperfections. But as Americans, we require both that government protect the governed from crime and that government refrain from tyranny. Government must obey the Constitution, preserve political liberty, and refrain from suppressing political opposition under the auspices of fighting crime or defending the nation. It appears in hindsight how the political liberty upheld by our constitution allowed our nation to absorb a cultural revolution and emerge intact. Even when subverted, its truth remains, shining into American life, so that eventually the Constitution and its principles prevail.

While the movement of the hippies could not last, enduring elements were absorbed into American society, leading in some ways to a degeneration but in some ways to an improvement. One most enduring element of the more general revolution of culture is the emergence of the music of the sixties. The music that we are to consider is especially British and American, and it took over the world in a certain sense, taking the lead in culture or holding the position of leadership that for example French culture once held at the close of the eighteenth century. Italian culture, too, during the Renaissance, held this place, when some of the finest painting and sculpture of all time were accomplished. This leadership in culture of one nation or another is similar to the leadership in fashion of the American business suit, now worn by most leaders of nations. Old ripped up American blue jeans once would command a fortune when sold in Russia. While there is of course, rock music in German, Norwegian and Dutch, and each language has it own popular folk music, classic rock continues, some forty years later, to be especially British and American. It is from the English speaking peoples of Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Canada, lands that were once part of the British Empire. Consider, for example, the popularity of American music and fashion in Japan, where continental European fashions would likely be in most cases unknown. So it is, ironically, that rock music has been the Ambassador of liberty and even free government throughout the globe, with a rhetorical effect that rivals the founders.

Meanwhile, the Brits are strangely absent from the list of great classical composers. These are all, like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, from continental Europe or Russia. And if it is so for the Brits, it goes without saying that there is no Mozart or Verdi from America. Pete Townsend comments on this rarity of great British classical music, and the surprise that British music should emerge fully formed with the Beatles, as if out of nowhere,[19] from the American influence of folk, blues, jazz, rockabilly and soul. And why are there not great Austrian rock bands? The greatest or most prominent of the bands are British: The Beatles, the Who and the Stones, and the bands of Eric Clapton. Even the second wave of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and others, Moody Blues, Bowie and Elton John, are greater in sales and achievement than are the American rock bands. Some songs are hits in England though not in America, and so oppositely. The American Bands are great, yet just a bit less: arising somehow from the folk of Dylan and the pop of the Beach boys, when mixed with the British influence. Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, are the most enduring of the early American Rock bands. The American bands are more self-destructive, their careers cut short by personal disintegration. Dylan, Grace Slick, Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and are exceptions, survivors among the American superstars, and these continue to play as we write. Marc Bolan and Nick Drake are tragic exceptions among the British musicians, along with the drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. The music that suddenly emerged at just this time has proven to be more enduring than that of other times. There are still kids today who, in addition to the newer kinds of music, still listen, even primarily, to what has come to be called classic rock, and this British and American music continues to dominate popular music throughout the world, carrying American influence into the dark corners of the crudest tyrannies, promoting the hope of Jefferson that the American example would become a beacon of liberty to the world..

We, too, think that those who study the poetry and literature of other ages do not yet see that our music will have a place among the perennial products of human art. It will be obvious to literates of future ages that these songs are a part, and not the least, of the tradition of English poetry. In each age there are different arts that the age or its leading nations do well, cultivating these into a certain flowering that comes to characterize the nations and the age. In addition to movies, the literature professors and students of the future may be studying these songs of ours as we still read the Renaissance plays, the English lyric poets, or see opera and hear the compositions without words of the European classical music tradition. Artists have continued these traditions, though their pinnacle, as in Mozart, Bach and Verdi, seems unsurpassed. It is especially this popular music, like professional sports and movies, that seems to have reached some flourish, if not its peak and full development, in modern America and in the democratic age.

David Crosby catches just what new thing it is that was happening when he teaches that while poets all through history have “been willing to tell the truth about their environment,” so that… “It ain’t just us that are doing it now …”

…What the trick is with us is that we’re mass artists, and there’s never been that kind of stuff before until Gutenberg, y’ know, and that didn’t really happen until you get up into the electronic mass. And that’s simultaneity and interaction on simultaneity and numbers of a very wide scale. It’s far out, man. That’s the main difference.[20]

Gutenberg is of course the inventor of the printing press, in the Fifteenth Century (about 1450). What is new, Crosby realizes, is not that there are poets, but that their influence, through the new media of records, radio, and an industry, can be popular in a new way, or as never before. And in this, pop music is born. In an interview in the Scorsese biography of Dylan, David Crosby denied being a poet, recited a few lines of Dylan’s “Tambourine Man,” and said “that’s a poet.” “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free…” If one compares the poetry in the lyrics of our modern popular music with the great popular songs or even the lyrics of the rarer songs of other ages, our age does appear supreme. With a rare exception or two, there seems to be no comparison.

It is a different question whether the lyrics alone would stand among the greatest poets, say, with something like Keats’ four odes, as great poetry, without the music. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” he says in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” These contain a silent music within themselves, and as classical music needs no words, these need no audible music. Much of Shakespeare too is like that, as are the words of Homer and some others, winged words, carrying the music complete within them. The lyrics of songs, by contrast, are not entirely audible without the music, as though the notes and melodies were an essential part of the communication. As Goldstein too comments, the audible songs with words do not transpose directly into verse.[21] Without the music, the words cannot quite be heard. This may be why Greek lyric songs are lost to us despite our having some of the words. On the old ballad collections, Judy Collins comments that the problem with ballad collections is that

“…it doesn’t have melody. You can’t collect language without melody. Song is not poetry and vice verse. I firmly believe that lyric and melody belong together, and cannot be separately presented or separately studied…”[22]

Perhaps for our sequel we will include a CD. We write for those who have long heard these songs, to consider the verse, like a play, in order to return to the experience of the song, with our apprehension of the meaning expanded. The work as a piece goes with the music, and what we will be doing here is to try to understand the meaning of the songs through the words, returning to better understand the songs. It is not the wordless part of music, nor the history of the music that we are about, but rather, an attempt especially through the words, to think through the meaning of this popular music.

It is sometimes suggested that rock music and the rock concert are a secular replacement for religion. Something new and strange began with Sinatra or Elvis and reached its extreme with the Beatles, where the rock stars are followed by female admirers, and capture the romantic imagination of their fans, so that women swoon and fall, as for example over the Beatles. Young girls literally fell in love with the Beatles, though the rock star phenomenon only begins with this captivation of the love image of the fans. Admittedly, the musical enthusiasm comes in the rock concert to remind one of some pagan religious celebration, complete with the rock star as some sort of god-player, moving the many as one under the magic spell of the notes, inspiring the participants to Bacchic frenzies of wild enthusiasms and catharses. The similarity to ancient Greek and Roman performances, and to pre-Christian religious festivals, is also worth thinking about. Where rock music is corrupt or perverse, the only thing like it in all of human history would be the drama and gladiatorial contest of Imperial Rome. By comparison, we must be glad to have even T. V. movies and Professional football. All that the worse strains now lack for things of the Roman sort is a change from democracy to tyranny. For his ability to move the many, Bowie said that Hitler was “the first rock star.” Pink, too, seems to discover this, in The Wall, when the substitute shows up (So, you thought you might like to go to the show?) Interestingly, the image of Hitler was the first thing beamed from earth into space when T. V. was invented, lest we be concerned to make a good first impression on the rest of the cosmos.

The public event feeds on, and may somehow be based on, the very private imagination of each, a wish to actually be the loved and nearly worshiped singer, commander of the notes, to express our deepest emotions to the approval, admiration, and adoration of fellows, who now see the truth or vindication of these, our private loves and passionate visions that have made us so rich and famous. There was a time, until about 1990, when air guitar was a private embarrassment few would publicly admit. This then gradually came out of the closet, blooming into Karaoke and American Idol. Now this wish for fame has captured a majority of Americans, with TV Talent shows and such. At best this is a wish to be the cause of enjoyment and benefit for many. Perhaps it is that then, as the Counting Crows song says, if I were a big star, “I would never be lonely.” This illusion, called by Styx “the grand illusion” is sometimes addressed directly, as in the song of that name. Just what it is that is going on here is not wholly clear, though it is similar to the solitary sports fantasies of the young, related to the secret love of glory. The aim of excellence or virtue might be hidden within. But we most like the songs that we can imagine ourselves singing, with meanings we would ourselves intend, or of the highest things that we ourselves have seen. Even more, we would hope to be heard, or imagine ourselves to be heard especially by one we love or have loved. The addressee of the song is both collective and particular. A good example of this is the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a George Harrison tune. It says: “I don’t know why nobody told you / How to unfold your love” and “Look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping.” So the wish to be a star is at best a wish to speak to the one loved, and simultaneously to be one that awakens the best things in the souls of others. And it may be that if we consider this, it somehow is ourselves that we are seeing, whether our true selves or our vain or petty wishes, there for our own examination and reflection.

Rock has a strange and intriguing relation to Western Christianity or the Biblical tradition, which is worth considering whether one is Christian or not. The opposition to rock music was at first centrally a Christian opposition, in the alliance of things Christian and things conventional and traditional. Christian rock music usually does not work, as the rock mode seems unsuited to Christian or religious themes. At the origins of rock music and rock culture there is a rejection of Christianity along with the rejection of the “establishment,” in an amalgamation where the Conquistadors, the cowboys, and those approving of the Vietnam War are the bad guys and the natives and Indians are the oppressed and the good guys. Christendom is somehow thrown into the mix on the side of the bad guys, perhaps as the religion of the establishment, the Conquistadors, or that in the name of which we fight wars. Meanwhile, elements of Christianity are often cited in vindication for example of the concern with peace, love and justice that characterized the cultural movement of the sixties. These principles are something of a secular version of peace and love and righteousness in the New Testament. Yet when it becomes spiritual, the rock culture movement goes East, to Baba Meher and the Maharishi, transcendental meditation and the I Ching. This is strange because peace and love are especially the Christian principles, and would seem to have been suggested by the Christian tradition. In a popular comedy skit, Cheech and Chong, present Jesus as a long-haired “Senior Peace” trying to cross the Mexican border. Jesus seems not to have sported the Roman haircut of St. Paul, but rather, the usual Hebrew style, if not the extreme rabbinical style of his apparent elder step brother James, and to have been very unconventional in some senses. The French too seem to have adopted the Greek and rejected the Roman haircuts, while our long hair of the eighteen hundreds is an adoption of the French or even American backwoods styles in rejection of the British. Our long hair was at first a rejection of civilization and military styles, and a protest of the war. The first rock opera was titled “Hair,” as hair had become the symbol of our involvement in the emergent new age of Aquarius. The song “How can people be so heartless” exemplifies the compassion awakened with the new “consciousness.” Our radical fashions, though, were as much conformity and fashion, as by the seventies, every kid had to have flared pants and some hair, as our old psychology teacher Roloff Bijkerk ingeniously pointed out to us in 1980. To be radical in the early eighties, my artist friend Chris Mullane sported a crew cut. But to return, the hippies seem to take pride in their vindication according to part of the Christian teaching, and there have always been a few “Jesus hippies.” One of only four rock operas was Jesus Christ Superstar. Here there is some attempt to incorporate the rock mode with Christian themes, though the best song from the piece is the soft vocal song “I Don’t know how to love Him.” In one line at least, the strange relation between Christianity and rock music or the new music is a rejection and then a reconciliation or fulfillment. There is at least a reconciliation on certain points in the development of rock music in relation to Christian inspiration, and this will be a sub theme of the studies presented below. The two at some point cease to be entirely contradictory, so that Christians can listen to rock music, much as there came a time, about 1980, when the new music could be played at baseball games. Until this time, new or popular music was never played at baseball games. The entire writing career of Pete Townshend leads up to the call of “Love, reign o’er me,” and here the journey that began as the rebellion of rock and roll has in one sense come full circle, with cathartic effect. Finally there is a Christian rock band, Creed, which has managed successfully to join hard rock and Christian poetry in popular music. As is evident in Clapton’s In the Presence of the Lord, or the Journey of Bob Dylan through the seventies, the recovery of a living spirituality turns out to have been there from the beginning. For some, this proves to have been their pilgrim path all along, if it was a sort of wandering.






American Pie

To conclude our introduction, we will begin our series of interpretations with a song about music, and about the changes in music that we have been considering. Don McLean is a songwriter of the older folk style that was being replaced by the new rock music. In the song “American Pie,” McLean famously treats the theme of the things occurring in music in the sixties, referring to the change about the time of the death of Buddy Holly as “the day the music died.” A disk Jockey, Bob Dearborn, began the tradition of interpretation, near the time that the song was first released, in Bob Dearborn’s American Pie Special Feb. 28, 1972 (cited by David Halberstam from his book The Fifties (excerpted and printed at understandingamericanpie.com). While “American Pie” is one of the most interpreted of our popular songs, the majority of listeners have never noticed what is going on in it, beyond the vague rumor that it has to do with the death of Buddy Holly. Holly, together with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, were killed in a plane crash February 3, 1959, taking out a good half of the developing Rhythm and Blues, and changing the direction of American Music. Holly’s band was one of the first to write all their own songs, and the Beatles had their records. The song “American Pie” instantly became a classic on the FM Rock stations, paradoxically, since it turns out to be deeply critical of the changes in music that occurred through the sixties. While Bloom’s criticism has a classical Greek basis, that of McLean has a Christian basis. In a word, the three men he admired most, “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” “caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.” the Lord has abandoned American music, and possibly America herself, when the folk musicians left New York for California dreaming. The question is whether Music, and possibly America, has left something behind. As is indicated by the fact of the success of this folk song with the rock audience, and as is the argument of this book, the death McLean feared only in part occurred.

But let us read through the lyrics. The copyright was owned by United Artists in 1971. In the version printed on the internet,[23] only the word Bible is capitalized, though we have added some capitalization and punctuation:

Long, long time ago…

I can still remember

How the music used to make me smile.

He opens, in the first six lines, remembering his setting out on the path to become a musician when, in the fifties, the music would make him make him happy…

And I knew if I had my chance…

…That I could make those people dance

And maybe they’d be happy for a while.

As the music made him smile,  he knew he could make other people happy with music if he were given a break. Happiness is the reason for becoming a musician, in agreement with Aristotle and with common sense. Though beyond the scope of our psychology, Aristotle calls happiness the good, and the goal of politics the highest good, because it tries to achieve the good not only for one but for a whole city (Ethics, I.2). Hence, music is a part of politics from the start, and the old musicians know or intuit this goal.

But February made me shiver

With every paper I’d deliver.

Bad news on the doorstep;

I couldn’t take one more step.

In the next four lines, He had to deliver papers for a living, and in the papers there was a lot of bad news. It is the winter of 1959, as we are soon to learn:

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.

He reads about a bride, and describes not the death of her husband, but the widowed bride, as what touches him deeply. As Dearborn deciphered, He read about the widowed bride of Buddy Holly. He calls this “the day the music died.” As noted in The Story Behind the Song, the refrain references the last line of Holly’s hit “That’ll Be The Day,”[24] which is “That’ll be the day That I die.” Now reflecting back on the events that have intervened, he describes what he sees in an image that is like a dream, and alludes to an ominous significance for our nation. Then comes the refrain:

So bye, bye miss american pie.

Drove my chevy to the levee,

But the levee was dry.

The phrase “Miss American pie” was found or invented by McLean himself, and seems to intend to combine images that describe what America was, somewhat as a contraction combines letters into a shorter word. The phrase even became the title of a movie about the fifties, and captures the essence of the America of the drive-in restaurants, the superficial beauty of the Miss America contests (the winner of which is called a “queen”), and the down home prosperity of apple pie. Only baseball is absent, though we are soon to have a football game attended by a king and queen. It is said that the Levee was a bar where the writer used to drink, no doubt with live music, but that with the change in music, the place went out of business. The levee is also an image from New Orleans Blues singers that shows up again in the Zeppelin song When the Levee Breaks. (It is surprising that this did not occur to anyone during the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina, as that is just what happened, due to the storm surge following the Hurricane, and the New Orleans levee that gave way is the same as the one that, years earlier, inspired the blues song.) Levees are both embankments to hold back water and used in irrigation to contain and channel water. Water held back is like the unconscious, and “when the Levee breaks” is an image synonymous with madness, threatening to arise, in the Zeppelin song, from sorrow. The unconscious is also the source of inspiration, as in “a spring of water rising up…” (Proverbs 21:1; 16:22).

And them good old boys were drinking whisky and rye

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.

This’ll be the day that I die.

As when interpreting a dream, one can ask what the particulars might be symbols of, and here the suggestion is that the good old boys are both an actual group of good old boys that drink and sing and they are music itself. Hence, on the day that the music dies, they are singing this will be the day that I die. There was an actual folk group called “The Three Men,” and there was an appearance to Abraham as three men or three angels (Genesis 18). The dry levy suggests that the source of the inspiration of American music has evaporated. The good old boys are drinking whiskey (maybe instead of the water once held by the levy) and, as though they were the music, they are singing that they will die this day. Dearborn notes that their idea of a good time in the late fifties was drinking whiskey and dancing real slow. Whiskey would also be what the fifties guys did instead of grass, and being “lost in space, the hippies’ replacement for the downer, toxic, addictive and destructive, but inprohibitable alcohol, as we are soon to hear about.

From these first stanzas about the old world, the song abruptly shifts its topic, and we say that it now addresses those in the new music, or America under the influence of the new music:

Did you write the book of love,

And do you have faith in God above,

If the Bible tells you so?

The question is who is the “you” of the first six verses of the stanza. The “Book of love” was a 1957 song by the Monotones, which asked “I wonder… who wrote the book of love.” Who is he asking if they wrote the book of love, and do they have faith in God according to the Bible? This “you” would seem to be America. As Glenn Beck comments, “…its not really about the girl, its about America.”[25] He is touched deeply because there is an analogy between the widowed bride left the day that Buddy Holly dies and the America left the day the music died. Otherwise, there would be no continuity between the widowed bride of the first verse and the “you” of the other verses. He does not ask the widow if she wrote the book of love, nor is she “miss American Pie,” the girl from the fifties, but he is touched because of the analogy.

Now do you believe in rock and roll,

Can music save your mortal soul,

And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

America must now be asked if she wrote the book of love, an apparent swipe at the hippies teaching of “love.” She must be asked if she thinks she is the cause of the highest teachings, or the one who determines the way love is to be. He then asks her if she now believes in rock and roll. The next verse is strange: Can music save your mortal soul? Has music replaced the teaching of salvation? And do they need to be reminded that their souls are mortal and in need of salvation? Is it love and the music of love that save the mortal soul, as the teachings of the book of love save the immortal soul? Or is it rather the mortal soul in need of immortality, which is somehow sought in music? Is the new thing about this music that it replaces faith in a way that, prior to this music, it did not, or kept within its own bounds? The souls of nations are surely mortal, in a way that it is hoped the human souls are not, and the suggestion may be that the nation cannot be saved by music or the new kind of music. He then asks her if she can teach him how to dance slow, apparently in contrast to the fast music of rock. Are the slow dances, or is courtship, related to salvation, of the mortal soul or nations? Love, served by the old music, is the salvation of the mortal soul, as religion or faith is the salvation of the immortal soul. The slow dances especially are the songs that accompany us in courtship, or bring the couples together at the sock hop. The six lines together seem to ask America if she has not replaced faith with rock and roll music, and whether this can save her soul, or even provide the music of love, as the old music had done in the slow songs.

The lyrics continue:

Well I know that you’re in love with him,

Cause I saw you dancing in the gym

You both kicked off your shoes.

Man I dig those rhythm and blues.

Is he still talking to America when he accuses her of being in love with “him,” the one with whom she was seen dancing to rhythm and blues in the gym? Rock is understood here to arise out of these Rhythm and Blues. He follows his own biography through the time of the high school prom, when he had a pick up truck like the guys from the fifties with Camels rolled up in their sleeves.

I was a lonely teenage bronc’in buck

With a pink carnation and a pickup truck,

But I knew I was out of luck

The day the music died.


Dearborn also traces the pink carnation to a fifties lyric. He was lonely as a young musician, but knew he was out of luck the day the music died, as America would be dancing with the one she now loves. The connection by analogy between the lover of the poet and America, as the consort of music, is the key to the meaning of the song. It raises the possibility, or indeed reveals the dual meaning of the widowed bride of Buddy Holly. On the day the music died, it is America that is also widowed. My mother always thought of Jackie Kennedy as the widowed bride that represents America, and this too shows up in things McLean said recently about the meaning.

The image presented in the next 14 line section is like a dream, and can be read as one tries to read a dream. In some dreams, the mind produces symbols, as though grabbing about for a way to express something unknown. The attempt to make these things known is a kind of interpretation that is like dream interpretation:

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own

and moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone,

But that’s not how it used to be.

In the third verse we learn that it has been ten years since this high school time, when music began to change. The song was written by 1971, and so he refers to the decade of the sixties. The “we” who have been on our own are the old style musicians, from before this popular rock movement thing. America jilted the old style musicians for the Rhythm and Blues that is the origin of sixties rock when it began to develop among the British R&B bands. There follows what is generally recognized to be some symbolic treatment of the events in the world of music surrounding the emergence of rock and roll. That moss grows on a rolling stone contradicts the proverb behind the Dylan lyric “Like a Rolling Stone,” used to describe the condition of one who is homeless or a stranger or sojourner in the world, unattached even to any place, and so avoiding the accretions that develop on the soul from the more rooted way of life. The phrase became the name of Jagger’s band, and the leading rock music magazine. The meaning of the euphemism for sex that may be the source of the name of fifties rock and roll is expanded to mean something like “git and go.” The Zeppelin song the rover uses the words this way, sayng “sometimes I’m rockin’ when I oughta be a rollin’ darling, don’t know which way to go.” The allusion is to the failure of our loves to last, as serial monogamy became the best one could hope for from love. The radical new music is becoming conventional. The moss now grows, or things in music, or with the rolling stone himself, have become more settled, but “that’s not how it used to be.” It has been suggested that the moss now grows on the rolling stone because the Jester is on the sideline in a cast, that is, Dylan has not done much since his Motorcycle accident. Things were unsettled in the revolution in music that followed the plane crash and the emergence of Dylan. Dylan was heavily criticized by the old folk crowd for his attempt to embrace the new electric music, and the song may agree with these critics. That would be another key to the meaning of the song: McLean sides with Pete Seeger and the old folkies in their disagreement with Dylan over the new direction of the music with electric folk. Unlike the fifties music, the rolling stone in the Dylan song has no direction, or is a rolling stone because he does not know where he is going. The Dylan song is his first spiteful love song, and asks one who was once rich or rooted, but has suffered some misfortune, how it now fells to be like a rolling stone. The same could be asked of those who once thought they knew how it feels to now be in the motion of the seeking of philosophy, when false certainty is dispelled, and one sets off on the quest. The Dylan reference continues:

When the jester sang for the king and queen,

In a coat he borrowed from james dean

And a voice that came from you and me,

Before the moss was growing on the rolling stone, the Jester, said to be Dylan, sang for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean. Dylan may have called himself the Jester, as, in All along the Watchtower, it is the Joker who says to the thief that there must be some way out of here, this confusing place where one can get no satisfaction or relief. (The thief here is Jesus.) It is commonly noted that Dylan appears on the cover of Freewheelin’ in a red windbreaker that is like the one worn in this movie by James Dean, in the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Dean also wore the black leather jacket of the first motorcycle guys, imitating the World War II airforce jackets, which is where the fashion comes from, though leather also helps avoid burns from the ground when one dumps the thing. James Dean set a kind of rebellious fashion, brilliantly described in a documentary as rebelling with one hand while pleading for sympathy with the other. This is the regard of youthful rebellion for the paternal or the old society, casting off authority in the name of liberty, yet pleading, their suffrage for a kind of spiritual or filial assistance that is needed, and is their due, because in the end they are the good in its new form. Dylan borrows this coat or borrows this appearance. (There may be yet more to the image, since the one in the movie Rebel Without a cause is named Plato, the near mad young friend of the hero who is accidentally shot by the police. He is shot when, contrary to an argument or teaching in a book of Plato (Republic, Book I), the Rebel, James Dean returns the gun to a madman, though having taken out the bullets. Plato is killed by police when he appears with the unloaded gun. Is the borrowing of the coat on Freewheelin not then ominous?) His voice, however, comes from the common people, or “You and Me,” and he is the expression of the popular voice. (Curiously, the one blamed for the killing of the Kennedys in Sympathy for the Devil is, after all, “You and me.”) The Dylan section continues:

Oh, and while the king was looking down,

The jester stole his thorny crown.

The court room was adjourned;

No verdict was returned.

In the guise of the rebellion of the fifties, the Jester steals the crown of the King. Some say this refers to Dylan taking over from Elvis, and B. B. King would be a logical possibility. But the image may be more fundamental, referring to the music of a certain sort taking over as the ruler of the kingdom or the guide of public opinion. It is a thorny crown, intimating the religious aspect of the authority of the crown. The meaning is then indicated by the allusions of the previous verse, to the book of love. The king and queen may be the same as the Queen of Light who took her bow and turned to go and the Prince of Peace, who embraced the gloom and walked the night alone, in Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore.” The Jester who came to perform for the king has usurped religious authority as the guide of the people. The courtroom, where the Jester had performed for the King and Queen, was then adjourned without a verdict, as though some question were being tried. The question is mysterious, and does not appear. Bob Dearborn writes: “The public was the courtroom that adjourned without returning a verdict on the leader and direction of the music of that era,” or the era itself, before the moss grew on the rolling stone, or rock became the settled custom. The question was whether the new music was to be a spiritual benefit or whether this thing was to go the way of Altamont, to be described below. Here, the lyric continues, following the history:

And while lennon read a book on marx,

The quartet practiced in the park,

And we sang dirges in the dark

The day the music died.


The next verse rather obviously considers the emergence of the Beatles. John Lennon is the reader of Marx, and by the striking similarity of the name to the once more famous Russian revolutionary called Lenin, the question of the influence of Communist ideology on the hippie movement is raised. (Lenin adapted the Marxist thought of a necessary historical dialectic where industrialized nations would be led to revolution and communism, to fit the pre-industrial revolution of Russia, so that the few might be killed by the many in undeveloped nations as well. The song Imagine, produced just after the Beatles broke up, is a very nice song, though it shows elements in common with Marxism, especially in the dream of “no heaven” and “no religion,” as though these were our problem. There is of course a sense in which this, that religion is our problem, is true, as those who do harm are not worthy of the spiritual things, though they take the banner. One can blame the spiritual things, as religion, or one can blame human unworthiness. There was also the famous unfortunate incident in which a statement, that the Beatles were more popular now than Jesus, was misunderstood as advocating the circumstance. The hippies, in their flirtations with Marxism, were generally blind as the intellectuals were, to the connection between Marxist ideology and the communist tyrannies the world was seeing. Millions were killed and millions more imprisoned in the Gulag, the system of Soviet prisons, as anyone can read in the books and speeches of Solzhenitsyn. Fellows like the Marharishi and Mr. Lennon would not be much tolerated around Moscow, and one wonders if they realize this. Had Lennon read the writings of Marx directly, rather than reading secondary sources, as is now done in the modern university, he might have known that Marx calls for as much, with his “death to the Bourgeoisie,” “torrents of blood…” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” and such. The Beatles had to explicitly address their distance from revolutionary communism in the song Revolution. In the song, they refuse to lend money or support to a Communist cause, citing its link with Chairman Mao of China. By contrast, Lennon showed up in Detroit for a benefit concert to help free John Sinclair.

The day the music died, the musicians receded into the dark where they, the adherents of the old kind of music, sang funeral songs. Commentators on “American Pie” mention the dirge for “Abraham, Martin and John” by Dion, in the style of the good old boys or the older sort of music. This is what McLean was doing while Lennon wrote things like “Imagine.”

There follows a section in which the dream-like image has developed into an American style football game, with allusions to the marching band costume of the Beatles fictitious Sgt. Pepper. There is reference to the song Helter-Skelter and the Bird’s song “Eight Miles High:”

Helter skelter in the summer swelter,

The birds flew off from a fallout shelter,

Eight miles high and falling fast.

Helter Skelter also reminds of the Manson murders, in which this and “Pigs” was written on a wall in blood, apparently to deceive the investigators into blaming the murders on the Black Panthers. The Birds song “Eight Miles High” is recognizable, though it is not clear why these things are connected with the fallout shelter. Does the music of the Byrds come out of the modern fear of nuclear war? Everyone was quite shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Townshend relates. This new awareness of potential disaster does seem to affect everyone, some with abandon, some with a cynical punk edge. Here the image is as of doves flying out of the fallout shelter, indicating a relation between the Peace movement and, falling fast, the awareness of impending doom. The landing of the Byrds in this song is the arrival of American electric folk back across the Atlantic, about 1966, as the writer describes in a documentary.

It landed foul on the grass.

The players tried for a forward pass,

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast.

This may be like the foul punt, though it is not clear what it means that the players tried to play a ball in this way. Maybe they tried something proceeding from this electric folk that didn’t work, perhaps due to being on the grass, or marijuana, while Dylan was inactive. The air was sweet, as at a rock concert, from pot, as the history continues:

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume

The sergeant played a marching tune.

we all got up to dance,

but we never got the chance!

Does he refer to the disappearance of danceable music? Dearborn writes that this is the meaning. As noted too above, martial music is rare in our music, but martial fashion accompanying our music is first seen here, in the neighborhood lonely hearts club band. The fashion shows up again occasionally, as in Michael Jackson or in the bad dream of Pink in The Wall, and when this becomes serious, there may be brownshirts again.

The image is that of a football game at which the marching band refuses to leave the field so that the second half can be played. This is related to the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper:

When the players tried to take the field;

The marching band refused to yield.

Do you recall what was revealed

The day the music died?

The question of what was revealed, on the day that the music died, is addressed in what is like a dream image in which the band refuses to get off the field after halftime.

We started singin’,…


This is just what occurred when McLean’s song, prophetically, becomes a hit. The drama, like a dream image, reveals something that can be recollected. The whole thing mixes the scene of an American school football game, complete with king and queen, with the images of various performers, such as the Jester, and mixes these in the way that an actual dream would quasi-rationally mix things, in order to address something that can only be addressed through the symbols. When the serious actors, as distinct from the halftime entertainers, attempt to return to play, the performers refuse to yield the field. The serious players would seem to be not the musicians but those who have devoted their lives to politics, and so what was revealed would be that the genuine players are being replaced by the musicians. The king and queen seem not to be musicians, like Elvis and some other, as is sometimes attempted in interpretation. In the context of the dream imagery of a high school football game, these would be the homecoming king and queen, again reminding of Miss America contests. The dream image sets up an analogy. If the serious football players are to the marching band as the political persons are to the musicians, then popular music has usurped the place of something like the genuine soldiers or political actors. These may be not literally the king and queen of England (there was no king at this time of Elizabeth) but the King and Queen that once ruled opinion, the one with the thorny crown, and his bride. After all, Lennon had suggested that Christianity was on the way out, and that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.[26]

Oh, and there we were, all in one place,

a generation lost in space

with no time left to start again.

The time is that of the moon landing, in 1969.

So come on: jack be nimble, jack be quick!

Jack flash sat on a candle stick

Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.

The Lost in Space T. V. show provides only the words. The whole generation, all moving together, was stoned, and it was too late to try to deserve another verdict. The lost character of the generation provides the opportunity for “Jack.” Jumping Jack Flash is of course, Mick Jagger, mixed with the rhyme of Jack jumped over the candlestick. There is a story about the record company intentionally cultivating the “bad boy” image for Mr. Jagger. Prior to this time, some of the early songs like “Dandelion,” “As Tears Go By,” and especially “She’s a Rainbow,” are very nice, and everyone loves “Wild Horses.” Some of this earlier poetry, as well as the song Sympathy for the Devil, will be considered below. Bloom indicates the “nasty little appeals to the suppressed inclinations toward sexism, racism and violence, indulgence in which is not now publicly respectable.” At the Altamont music festival, in 1969, the Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired for security, and a rowdy spectator stabbed to death. Still, the line that he sat on a candle stick is very obscure, and may refer to a spiritual equivalent of intercourse with demons.

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage

My hands were clinched in fists of rage.

No angel born in hell

Could break that satan’s spell.

The poet was outraged when he saw him on the stage, and none of the Hell’s Angels could break the demonic spell of his performance. Did the show simply continue despite the murder? Dearborn cites Tom Gitlin:

Who could any longer harbor the illusion that these hundreds of thousands of spirited, star-hungry children of the lonely crowd were harbingers of a new society? The suburban fans who blithely blocked one another’s views and turned their backs on the bad trippers were no cultural revolutionaries.

As the flames fly high into the night

To light the sacrificial rite,

I saw satan laughing with delight

The day the music died.

A night bonfire there was seen as being like a sacrificial rite. It sounds as though McLean himself were present, and the sight may have led to the conception of the song, produced two years later. Satan is seen laughing, delighted and singing along, on that day in which the music died. The result of the change in music is the ascent of the diabolical. It remains to be seen to what extent this will prove true, but the sight of the poet is prophetic. McLean may here chronicle the first appearance of the diabolical in our popular music. What can be said is that this may indeed be the first time this strain was seen, with some possible exceptions in the Blues, and it has been with us ever since. The next verse continues he was singin…

He was singing…

bye bye miss american pie

Drove my chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

Then good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye…

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die

This’ll be the day that I die.

It is the apocalyptic appearance of satan that leads ultimately to his defeat, after the millennium, but it is not clear that the song means that this is what was revealed. In the fifth trumpet, in the Revelation (9:1-11) locusts fly out of the opened shaft of the bottomless pit, and these look much like the lead singer of a heavy metal rock band. Is this what was revealed the day the music died?

The following verse is said to remind of Janis Joplin:

I met a girl who sang the blues

And I asked her for some happy news,

She just smiled and turned away.

The sorrow of the self destructive children is presented in the image of Janis Joplin. Her turning away when asked for happy news is a haunting image of her brief appearance. Halberstam connects this mention of happiness here at the end to the mention of happiness at the beginning, “contrasting his hopes for the muysic with what actually occurred.” McLean continues:

I went down to the sacred store

Where I’d heard the music years before,

But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

Halberstam also notes that record stores once allowed customers to listen to the records, though this practice stopped about this time. The customers may have begun to cause too much damage, or the stores may have become too commercial. The sacred store may be the Levee music bar, referred to earlier, as well as the sacred store, the source of the vision of poetry, so that when the music won’t play it is the same as when the levee, or the water it would hold back, dries up.

And in the streets the children screamed,

The lovers cried and the poets dreamed.

But not a word was spoken;

The church bells all were broken.

While the children screamed in the streets, the lovers cried, and poets dreamed, not a word was spoken by the true musicians. The music was dead, even on the churches.

So, Don McLean is much harsher in his criticism of the sixties revolution in music than even Allan Bloom. The basis of his understanding of music is Christian, as he ends the song:

And the three men I admire most:

the father, son and holy ghost,

They caught the last train for the coast

The day the music died.

And they were singin…


The evacuation of America by the persons of the Holy Trinity is shown in the particular that “the church bells all were broken.” The divine has left American music. And if he meant to say that the divine departed and went into the California music scene, he might have spoken truly in a small part, but this does not seem to be what he means to say– at least intentionally. We will try to follow out, and to cultivate this small part, leaving others to consider other things. At just about the time “American Pie” was written, Roger Waters was writing of the tolling of the iron bell heard far away across the fields that “calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spell,” at the very end of Dark Side of the Moon.

The death of Holly was the culminating event in series of misfortunes in which Richie Unterberger indicates, “found many of the best early rock singers dying, retiring, imprisoned or neutered,” as Jerry Lee Louis and Chuck Berry were involved in scandals, Eddie Cochrane died in car wreck, and Elvis entered the Army, to reemerge two years later as an actor in “silly movies.”[27] The rock of the intervening years is characterized as an attempt to package a watered down version of the original inspiration of rock. Unterberger comments, “From the time rock histories started being written in the late 60’s, a virtual party line has been solidified maintaining that rock and roll died in the five years between Buddy Holly’s death and the maiden arrival (almost five years later to the day) of the Beatles in the United States….That theory, while containing some elements of truth, is in dire need of re-examination.”[28] Something was no longer, yet a “sea change” was to occur, a transformation into what today is called classic rock.

It is amazing or paradoxical that such a criticism of popular music ever became so popular. People like the religious imagery, and intuit the presence of something, even while few think out its meaning. McLean famously went silent on the meaning, except for a few helpful hints. Halberstam notices the clue on the inner sleeve of the album, where, referring to the song about the comfort of having Hopalong Cassidy when he was a kid, writes, “So long, Hoppy. Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.” Dearborn writes: ” The paradox may be why McLean has notoriously refused to comment more on the song, at least yet. But McLean and Bloom seem to refer to something very beautiful that was present in the music prior to these changes, and rightly to fear certain developments, if they are wrong to despair of the music as a whole. While McLean liked the Holly style rhythm and blues, since the emergence of rock he has found refuge solely in the Greenwich Village style popular folk music. For McLean, it is a connection of the music to the religious things, and perhaps the bringing of the things of the mortal soul, such as courtship and marriage, into harmony with the things of the immortal soul above them. It is the kind of a muse, as Greek scholars would say, that allows him to write a song like Vincent, a dirge sung in the dark, which we will consider below among the candidates for the best of all songs ever written.



[1] Hesiod, Theogony, line 22, 1-34, 50-60, in The Poems of Hesiod, translated by R. M. Frazer.

[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 73. Bloom’s chapter on music, which made his book a best seller, stands as the background and foil for the inquiry of the present work. Bloom is nearly unparalleled as an American educator, and his arguments seem never to have been addressed sufficiently, let alone answered. He writes that the three great themes of rock lyrics are “sex,” “hate,” and a “swarmy hypocritical version of brotherly love.” In response, we will begin to take up the lyrics that are exceptions to this rule, and continue through an entire book, demonstrating that the heart of rock or of our music is elsewhere. In his experience, his students who became angry at the critique and censorship of poetry were “little able to defend their experience, which had seemed unquestionable until questioned, and it is most resistant to cool analysis” (p. 71). His work, will be addressed directly, and a fuller, more philosophic response attempted in the final chapter.

[3] Translated, with an interpretive essay, by Allan Bloom, p. 102.

[4] Mick Farren, Get On Down: A Decade of Rock Posters, p. 6. See 20 Years Of Rolling Stone, p. 324 and p, below.

[5] C. G. Jung, “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man,” Collected Works, Vol. 10; The Portable Jung, p. 466.

[6] I am envisioning a scene from their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show when, just after Jim Morrison had offended the producers by keeping the word “higher” in the phrase from “Light My Fire,” Sly and his sister go out into the audience to tell them to “Get up! And dance to the music!” Soon everyone is dancing to “Let me take you higher.” Both scenes are from the PBS documentary of the Ed Sullivan show. The dual meaning of the word allows the hippies to sail right past the question of “drug use” to become the messengers of a spiritual ascent.

[7] The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, p. 1091.

[8] Richie Unterberger, citing his son, describing the live Byrds at Ciro’s in L. A. , in Turn! Turn! Turn!, p. 114

[9] Debra Ann Pawlak, Farmington and Farmington Hills, p. 85

[10] Cited by Bill James, Byrds National Fan Club, 1966.

[11] Pete Townshend: Who I Am, p. 53. The Who backed up the Stones in December of 1963, and the Kinks in February of 1964.

[12]  Richie Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn! pp. 1-20, Etc.

[13] Hunter S. Thompson, “The Hippies,” in Colliers Encyclopedia Yearbook, 1968, Reprinted in Microsoft Encarta.

[14] Greil Marcus, Invisible Republic, p. 21. Marcus understands the folk revival as part of the civil rights movement, and both of these as a revival of the constitution.

[15] Pete Townshend, Who I Am, p. 57-59.

[16]  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, p. 211. An interesting political allegory appears. Society, that always had been something like the “combine,” the machine that killed the fathers of the Chief, becomes more like Nurse Ratchet, with her medicines and therapies. One fellow says “I want my cigarettes” when the nurse has seized them to prevent McMurphy’s gambling, and the fellow is offered other cigarettes. There is a glaring problem with the modern science and practice of psychology. At its roots are the limitations of the understanding of the soul accessible within what Bloom and others call “modernity,” in contrast with the ancient and the medieval.

[17] Perry, Charles. “From Eternity to Here,” in 20 Years of Rolling Stone, p. 2.

[18] Hunter S. Thompson, “The Hippies,” loc. cit..

[19] Jann Wenner, “Pete Townsend,” in The Rolling Stone Interviews, p. 126.

[20]  Jann Wenner, “David Crosby,” in The Rolling Stone Interviews, p. 411.

[21]  Richard Goldstein, The Poetry of Rock, pp. 32-33. p. xi. Tolkien, before writing out the song of the Dwarfs, sung in the home of Mr. Baggins, writes: “this is a fragment of their song, if it can be like their song without their music” (p. 26). Mr. Donahue, who taught the Poetry of Rock in a class attended by my sister, in about 1976, made this book available, and can be credited with sparking an interest in these things which continues in the present study. We recall from his class, for example, that the four thousand holes in Blackbird Lancashire, in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” are holes in a cemetery, that were counted in a macabre way, by inserting a metal rod into the ground. He made us realize that our music could be thought about and understood in certain ways.

[22]  Cited by Richie Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn! p. 49.

[23]  http://www.DonMcLean.com.

[24]  Richard Barnet, Bruce Nemerov and Mayo R. Taylor. The Story Behind the Song, p. 197.

[25]  Glenn Beck, AM 1600 February 10, 2012.

[26]  As was reported in the U. S. press, Lennon had said: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that, I’m right and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus Christ right now.” In America, there were some consequent burnings of Beatles records. (Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, p. 60).

[27]  Richie Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn! p. 31.

[28]  Ibid, p. 31.

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