Don McLean: American Troubadour

The word troubadour comes from the 12th and 13th centuries and refers to the lyric poets who roamed between the courts of southern France and northern Italy, singing songs they had composed which were musical commentaries on the times. It is evident from this collection why Don McLean became known as an American Troubadour. Songs like “Prime Time” and “Headroom” are biting social commentaries while the title song from the 1974 album Homeless Brother tells the story of American hobos and was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s book, The Lonesome Traveler.

McLean has performed on every major world stage but began his musical journey playing small clubs and coffee houses in New York. His breakthrough came with a record contract with Mediarts in 1969 and the release of his first album Tapestry. This included an early attempt at an ‘American Pie type song’ –“Magdalene Lane” – and two classic love songs “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love You So”. The latter was recorded by Perry Como and Elvis Presley and has been played on US radio more than three million times (as have “Castles in the Air”, “Vincent” and “American Pie”).

Another love song – Don’s interpretation of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” became one of Don’s biggest hit records in 1981. “Since I Don’t Have You”, also from the Chain Lightning album, providing further chart success.

Don McLean’s story telling is brilliantly highlighted in “Sea Man” – a song based on the life of a man McLean met on the beach in Haifa, Israel. In June 2011 McLean performed this song for an audience of 100,000 at the Glastonbury Festival in England. This huge crowd was captivated and listeners to this collection will recognize why.

McLean had lived in Israel in the early ‘80s and the song “Jerusalem” captures the magic and mysteries of that time for Don. His first live performance of the song became famous as the venue – a Jerusalem nightclub – was bombed the day after.

McLean is a masterful interpreter of other people’s work. In this collection we have “Crying” and also “Everyday” – a hit for Don in England in 1973 – which provides a connection back to his hero Buddy Holly.

In total this collection features songs originally recorded for 11 different Don McLean albums between 1970 and 2010.

In 2010, his latest studio album Addicted to Black charted in Europe and “I Was Always Young” was described as McLean’s best composition in 30 years. From this album “Lovers Love the Spring” is an adaptation of a sonnet by William Shakespeare.

However it is as a songwriter that Don McLean is most acclaimed and in 2004 he was inaugurated into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. “American Pie” was the big breakthrough song and 30 years after its release it was voted one of the top-5 songs of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The follow-up single, “Vincent”, was an even bigger international hit and was written by McLean in 1970 after studying the Van Gogh painting “Starry Night”. The American Pie album also included other timeless tracks like “Winterwood” and “Crossroads”.

Don McLean’s music continues to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience.

Alan Howard
Published 2012 for the CD American Troubadour liner notes.