Our day at Glastonbury (with Don McLean)

Don McLean came to Glastonbury and sang folk, pop, country and rock. He even sang “Sea Man” – an acapella song he wrote 30 years ago while living in Israel.

He sang songs from five decades.

He sang Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and demonstrated his own legendary singer-songwriter status with four of his top-10 hits, three of which reached number 1.

Don sang for an hour – just 12 songs – to an estimated audience of 100,000.

I was honoured to be there with my wife as Don’s guests. It was an extraordinary day: surreal, exciting, amazing and a truly unforgettable once in a lifetime experience. Finding ourselves on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury was a jaw-dropping moment.

We watched as the crowd increased by tens of thousands in the 20 minutes or so before Don was due on stage in the early afternoon “Legends” slot. My unsteady video captures the moment Don took to the stage and, later, part of American Pie. The sight and sound of that huge crowd singing along with Don was a sensory overload (in a good way!)

Watching the BBC coverage later, I noticed Don say “wow” as he came out on stage and clocked the crowd for the first time. Wow is a good word for it.

A big name in the UK music industry advised us that Glastonbury crowds will vote with their feet if they don’t like an act. They stayed with Don throughout and the big roars of approval weren’t just reserved for the classics – Vincent, American Pie and Crying – but relatively little known Don McLean songs like “Love in my Heart (Food on the Table)” also went down a storm.

Don and his brilliant musicians nailed every song; they were clearly determined to do their best performances. As always, Don was tuned into the audience; he chose to sing American Pie slightly earlier and surprised everyone by finishing with “Sea Man”. The crowd would be dancing all day, but this song gave them something to think about.

For someone so often associated with just one or two songs, Don has a back-catalogue of hits and other influential songs that surprises many. Beneath the Pyramid Stage a huge Greenpeace banner was visible for all to see. However few present would know that a Don McLean song, “Tapestry”, was an inspiration for that movement’s formation after the co-founder David McTaggart heard Don perform the song in 1969.

After his set, Laura Marling was among the first to congratulate Don. Marling won Best British Solo Female Artist at the 2011 Brit Awards and is a brilliant contemporary singer-songwriter who is clearly appreciative of Don’s work.

A quick interview with BBC TV followed and then with a wave from Beyoncé’s dancers we were ‘out of there’ on Don’s tour bus to Heathrow in time for his flight to Canada for the next stop on the tour. Sadly we said goodbye at this point and headed from the airport to our train connection back to Bath where our adventure had begun early that morning.

Clearwater and Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger will be celebrating his 90th birthday on May 3rd 2009 with a benefit concert in aid of the Clearwater Organisation.

Seeger was responsible for promoting the project to build and launch a boat that continues to navigate the Hudson River every summer stopping at every town to disseminate information about the environment and the perilous state of the Hudson River. Don McLean was a member of the first Clearwater Sloop crew in 1969.

McLean says: “This boat is an example of the Seeger genius because it combines the fun of boating with the seriousness of environmental degradation and gets everyone involved at the same time while also being a public relations dream.”

McLean’s work as the Hudson River Troubadour in 1968 and his experiences with the Clearwater Sloop in 1969 proved inspirational learning experiences for him.

He is particularly proud of “Tapestry”, a song he wrote while aboard the Sloop and which became the title track to his first album. The powerful lyrics remain relevant today as they provide a warning of the consequences of humanity’s exploitation of the environment. “If man is allowed to destroy all they need. He will soon have to pay with his life, for his greed.”

Despite its powerful message, the song is one of Don’s lesser known compositions, overshadowed on the Tapestry album by the giants, “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love You So.”

Don McLean has never seen himself as any type of ‘environmental activist’ and has avoided becoming a spokesperson for the environmental movement. He says, “Political people bore me, and I don’t want to be one. I’ll settle for being a decent citizen.”

After the first Clearwater Sloop voyage in 1969, McLean left the crew. Before he left, Pete Seeger told him, “Don, I think you’re a genius. You’re like a wonderful chef who serves a great meal once and never repeats it.”

Don returned from time to time to perform at Sloop concerts. He also recorded a version of “Tapestry” for the 1974 Clearwater album and edited a book entitled Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew, with sketches by his friend Thomas Allen.

Later, in 1984, McLean played Carnegie Hall with the Jordanaires for a Greenpeace benefit. After the show, David McTaggart, the Canadian co-founder of Greenpeace, came backstage and told Don that his song, “Tapestry,” was one of the factors that got him involved in the environmental movement.

Adapted from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard
Copyright © 2007 Starry Night Music, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Don McLean sings “Tapestry” on Australian television: