“American Pie” is perhaps one of the most compelling, beloved, and cryptic songs in the American songbook. Written by Don McLean in 1970, the song sprang from the Folk Music movement in Greenwich Village. Izzy Young, well known to musicians and music aficionados around the world, whose Greenwich Village shop, the Folklore Center, was the beating heart of the midcentury folk music revival, was a champion of McLean and helped to launch his career. With the help of Young, McLean’s song American Pie catapulted precipitously from obscurity to the top of the charts in a few short months, reaching #1 on the Billboard charts on January 15, 1972.
The story of Don McLean’s magnum opus begins almost 13 years before its release, on a date with significance well-known to many Americans. On Tuesday, February 3, 1959, a plane crash killed Buddy Holly (a Village resident), Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson as they were on their way to a concert that was a stop on their “Winter Dance Tour” through the midwest. This date would be imbued with transcendent meaning by Don McLean when he labeled it “the Day the Music Died.” The song has become emblematic of the unfulfilled promise of the 1950s Pax Americana, loss of innocence, and the spiral into the disillusion of the 1960s.
Izzy Young’s Folklore Center was located at 110 Macdougal Street, between Bleecker and West Third Streets. Established in 1957, it was nominally a music store, selling records, books, instruments, and sheet music. But in actuality, the center was as much of a hiring hall; a kind of “Schwab’s Pharmacy,” where young hopefuls awaited discovery. It had matchbox-sized recital space for organized performances and impromptu jam sessions, and was a nerve center for spirited debate on the all-consuming subject of folk music, which was, thanks in no small part to Mr. Young, enjoying a rebirth.
It is purported that Don McLean met Izzy Young at the Folklore Center. In an NPR interview from 2011, McLean recounted a 1970 concert in the Village that Young had arranged:
“I do remember this church in Greenwich Village…This is probably one of the most important shows I ever did, and that was before I was ever really famous. It was around the time of the first album I came out with called “Tapestry.” And there were people in Greenwich Village who were – who would basically – they were the backbone of that whole music scene. And one of them was a guy named Israel G. Young, and he ran a place called the Folklore Center, which was on Bleecker Street.
It was as different from Larchmont or New Rochelle, where I came from, as anything possibly could be. And, you know, I started to come down there a little bit. Friends would take me because I didn’t drive. And when I started to perform, he suddenly liked me. And it was a little bit like, you know, like Lena (of Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs). You know, I was kind of a, you know, a scrubbed-up white kid from Westchester, and they were used to a lot of hippies and stuff. But something or other in what I was doing struck a chord with Lena and with this guy. He said, I want to have the Folklore Center actually put you on in a concert. And it was – people still come back and say that they saw that or – and it really started me going in New York City. And those were the days when, you know, the music business was a secret business. And people knew talent and record companies knew talent. And there were only a few radio stations that if you were number one in 1970 or ’71, especially also the ’50s, ’60s, whatever, you were the biggest thing on the planet, and everybody knew your song. Everybody knew you, and it was a huge thing.”NPR “Talk of the Nation” December 1,2011
In the wake of the success of “American Pie”, McLean became a major concert attraction and toured with material not only from his two albums but from a repertoire of old concert hall numbers and the complete catalogs of singers such as Buddy Holly, and another influence, Frank Sinatra. The years he spent playing gigs in small clubs and coffee houses in the Village and beyond in the 60s paid off. Ironically, the enormous success of “American Pie” drew ire from others of his Folk Music community who declared that McLean had become a “sell-out.”