Mom And Dad's Record Collection
11:30 am
Fri September 7, 2012

'American Pie' And The Box Of Records A Father Left Behind

Originally published on Fri September 7, 2012 3:18 pm

This summer, All Things Considered has asked listeners and guests to share a personal memory of one song discovered through their parents' record collection.

NPR listener Mel Fisher Ostrowski wrote in to tell us about how Don McLean's "American Pie" helped her "bridge a gap between my long-deceased father and baby boy." Hear the radio version at the audio link above — and read a lightly edited version of Ostrowski's original letter to NPR below.

My mom and dad split for good reasons when I was very young. I never really knew who he was. My dad's record collection was left behind in a paper box.

As a girl, I would regularly thumb through the albums, feeling as though it were a conversation between the two of us. Don McLean's American Pie was my favorite. My dad's name was printed on the cover above McLean's patriotically painted "thumbs up" on a black strip, embossed from a label maker. I played that record until I learned every word. It was a way for me to connect to him. I still know all of the words, and I am just down from my son's room, where I rocked him back to sleep softly singing "American Pie" in his ear. I realize that this is a way for my own father to pass something on to my son. I am not sure I would have put these ideas together without your segment triggering the memories. Thank you for helping me find some peace.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. I thought we were done with our summer series, Mom and Dad's Record Collection, where artists and listeners shared stories about their parents music and one song that stayed with them. I thought we were done until I read an email that came in this week from Mel Fisher Ostrowski, a listener from Cincinnati, Ohio. And we invited her to tell us her story about one song from an album she discovered as a kid. It was in a cardboard box under her parent's record player.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

DON MCLEAN: (Singing) A long, long time ago I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.

MEL FISHER OSTROWSKI: When I was around four or five, my parents split up, and we didn't get to see a lot of my dad. So, anything that was his in our house was kind of a treasure. And I knew that record album, "American Pie." I can picture it in my head with the thumbs up and Don McLean on there. And in the top right hand corner there was my dad's name on one of those old-fashioned label makers where you could press the letters in with the white and it would come up in white raised letters.

BLOCK: Oh, on a plastic strip?

OSTROWSKI: Right. On a black plastic strip. And the album itself became a treasure to me.

BLOCK: Because this was something that your dad had left behind?

OSTROWSKI: Yes. And there weren't very many things. So when I was around 10, my dad passed away. And then it became, I guess, even more special.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) Took it to the levy, but the levy was dry. And good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this'll be the day that I die. This will be the day that die.

OSTROWSKI: We would listen to it as a family, me and my siblings or I would put it on and play it by myself. And it kind of became a conversation between me and my dad, a memory that never really happened because we didn't listen to it together - my father and I - I never saw him play it, I never heard him sing it, but I knew he liked it because he bought it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) 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. I was a lonely, teenage broncin' buck with a pink carnation...

BLOCK: It's such a long song. It's something like - it's over eight minutes long and it's really complicated and people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the song means. I can't imagine as a five or six year-old what you might have been thinking.

OSTROWSKI: Oh, no. I just liked to dance to it.

BLOCK: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) Bye-bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy...

OSTROWSKI: My sister and I still like to dance to it. We just did this summer. But as I got older I learned that there was a lot more to the song than just the way that it sounded. And one of my very first Internet searches was to find out the meaning of this song. I learned that it was really telling the story of the '60s, you know, beginning with the late-'50s and the airplane crash, the day the music died.

BLOCK: When Buddy Holly was killed and the Big Bopper.

OSTROWSKI: Right, when Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and...

BLOCK: Richie Valens.

OSTROWSKI: Richie Valens, yeah. It wasn't just something that I liked to hear. It told a story and I love stories. So, I, of course, memorized every lyric, all eight minutes of it, and it just kind of became my anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.

BLOCK: Do you find yourself still singing this song now?

OSTROWSKI: Oh, yeah. If we fast forward to the present, I had a son 16 months ago named Owen.

BLOCK: Congratulations.

OSTROWSKI: Thank you. He's fabulous. But as many babies do, they get fussy in the evening and the only way that Owen could be soothed was by singing. And I went through the lullabies and they were just so fast and then I'd wait to try to think of the next lullaby, and when I stopped, he'd cry. So, I decided to sing the longest that I knew all of the lyrics to, which was "American Pie."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast.

BLOCK: Does it seem in some way, Mel, that this is kind of bridging the father who was pretty much absent from your life with the next generation?

OSTROWSKI: It is. My relationship and my memories about my father are complicated. So, it's really nice to have this happy, peaceful memory, this uncomplicated gift I can give my son and say, this is from me and it came from my father. And I still sing it to him all the time. I sang it to him on Saturday night.

BLOCK: All eight plus minutes of it.

OSTROWSKI: All eight plus minutes of it. Even if he falls asleep I still sing it. I finish it. 'Cause the ending is so soft and sweet and it's just the perfect way to wrap it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) I met a girl who sang the blues. And I asked her for some happy news. But she just smiled and turned away. I went down to the down to the sacred store, where I'd heard the music years before, but the man there...

BLOCK: Keep going.

OSTROWSKI: Oh, gosh. Okay. (Singing) 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. And the three men I admire the most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died. And they were singing...

BLOCK: Oh, you're gonna make me cry.

(LAUGHTER)

OSTROWSKI: I'm sorry, Melissa. You've made me cry. We're even.

BLOCK: Okay. Okay. Fair enough. How does Owen like the song?

OSTROWSKI: Well, he can't tell me but by the fact that he stops crying and he kind of nuzzles into my chest, I think he loves it. And if he doesn't want it, he will soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN PIE")

MCLEAN: (Singing) Bye-bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this'll be the day that I die.

OSTROWSKI: I can't help but sing it. I'm sorry.

BLOCK: You don't have to apologize.

OSTROWSKI: I can't help it.

BLOCK: Mel Fisher Ostrowski, thank you so much for talking to us.

OSTROWSKI: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's listener Mel Fisher Ostrowski, of Cincinnati. Thanks to everyone who wrote us with memories of Mom and Dad's Record Collection. You can listen to all the stories in our series at NPRmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.