Making it perhaps the priciest slice of pie ever, an anonymous buyer paid more than $1.2 million for the original manuscript of Don McLean’s 1971 epic hit song “American Pie,” an impressionistic recounting of the musical, social and political upheaval in American life during the previous two decades.
The manuscript and McLean’s supporting notes “achieved the 3rd highest auction price for an American literary manuscript, a fitting tribute to one the foremost singer-songwriters of his generation,” said Tom Lecky, head of the books and manuscripts department at Christie’s auction house in New York. “This result is a testament to the creative genius of Don McLean and to the song’s ability to still engage and inspire.”
The 8 1/2-minute single, which famously opens “A long, long time ago, I can still remember...,” took over the pop radio airwaves after the close of the tumultuous 1960s. McLean created a mosaic that became as much a mystery to be solved as an instantly hummable singalong thanks to its catchy chorus that featured the lines “Bye bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry…”
McLean told Rolling Stone in February that because he is nearing 70 — he will reach that milestone on Oct. 2 — he wanted to get top dollar for the manuscript to provide for his family.
“I love the English language as much as anything in life and words really do mean something,” McLean wrote in a statement that Christie’s posted when the auction was announced this year. “I thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product on the song 'American Pie' so that anyone who might be interested will learn that this song was not a parlor game.
“It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music and then was fortunate enough through the help of others to make a successful recording. I would say to young songwriters who are starting out to immerse yourself in beautiful music and beautiful lyrics and think about every word you say in a song."
The record sale price for a pop music manuscript is the $2 million paid last June for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” one of many songs closely or loosely quoted in “American Pie.”
Dylan also may — or may not — be one of the numerous musical heroes that McLean alluded to in the song’s lyrics when he sang about “The jester on the sidelines in a cast,” widely presumed to be a reference to the near-fatal motorcycle accident that Dylan suffered in 1966.
The ongoing popularity of the song was demonstrated last year when McLean performed at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio and was joined by onlookers from their teens to those in their 70s who sang along.
“It’s important to think of ‘American Pie’ as one would of Henry Longfellow’s ‘Evangeline’ or Johnny Mercer’s ‘Moon River’ — an essential Americana poem emanating wistful recollection, blues valentine, and youthful protest rolled into one,” Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley wrote of the song in an essay that accompanied the auction. “The song is alive and joyful, yet fretful about a world gone wrong. It is a song that will never die.”