- Nov 25, 2012
Some substantial history regarding the origin of songs. Meeting Josh White was a key a event.
A 1969 Martin 00-21 acoustic guitar used by Don McLean to compose and record his moving hit single, "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)," as well as to record further songs from his seminal album, American Pie (United Artists, 1971): "Til Tomorrow," "Winterwood," "Empty Chairs," "Sister Fatima," and "The Grave."
Formerly a devotee of the Martin D-28 (the instrument he would use to record "American Pie") McLean became, in his own words, "obsessed with Josh White's guitar and the sound he got out of it" around the time he was composing and recording Tapestry (Mediarts, 1970). McLean got to know the prominent blues musician Josh White over the course of working shows together at the Cellar Door in 1969, just before White's death. The young McLean purchased two Martin 00-21s as a result of the musical encounter: retrofitting this one with new Schaller tuners to make it easier to tune on stage, and eventually selling the other.
This guitar, along with his beloved Martin D-28 and his Vega banjo, would make up his "first family of instruments" (American Troubadour, The Russ Cochran Company, 2012). The 1969 Martin 00-21 can be seen in photographs of McLean with this musical "family," relaxing and working in his Hudson Valley gatehouse residence in Cold Spring, NY. As a singer-songwriter hailing from the folk tradition, McLean has often spoken about the importance of the guitar in his creative process. During a conversation with Norm of Norman's Rare Guitars in Southern California, he stated: "The guitar has been the way I've written a lot of songs, like a song like 'And I Love You So'� And even 'Vincent' was really off the guitar."
Along with "American Pie," "Vincent" is one of McLean's most beloved works and was, in fact, written before the eight-and-a-half-minute magnum opus "American Pie" took shape. McLean stumbled upon the idea for the song after reading a book that introduced him to the close relationship Van Gogh had with his brother Theo and the pair's shared mental health struggles. While Van Gogh's mental health has been the subject of much speculation and lurid sensationalism the artist has been posthumously diagnosed as epileptic, schizophrenic, and being affected by a wide range of diseases and disorders from bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and Meniere's disease McLean wanted to approach the subject from a less clinical, and more humanizing, perspective. McLean's gentle fingerstyle playing serves as the foundation for the song's nuanced examination of Van Gogh, and he would often perform it with only the guitar as accompaniment (though the studio recording features strings, accordion, and marimba).
The 1969 Martin 00-21 was his instrument for the conceptualization of some of McLean's most moving songs: not just "Vincent," but "Empty Chairs" as well, the song that inspired Lori Lieberman's "Killing Me Softly," later a hit recorded by Roberta Flack and the source of a highly successful cover version by The Fugees. In 1971, young songwriter Lieberman went out to see McLean perform at The Troubadour in Los Angeles and was immediately moved by his music. The lyrics, then, describe McLean performing the song he'd conceived of and recorded with the 1969 Martin 00-21: "I heard he sang a good song / I heard he had a style / And so I came to see him / To listen for a while / And there he was this young boy / A stranger to my eyes / Strumming my pain with his fingers / Singing my life with his words / Killing me softly with his song."
McLean used this particular guitar exclusively on stage for roughly a year and a half c. 1969-1971, concluding when he gave it to the son of a friend (who retained the guitar until recently). McLean also used the 1969 Martin 00-21 for live performances of "Vincent," including one which took place at Columbia University in 1971. The instrument can also be seen being held and played by a homeless man as McLean looks on. This moment was captured during a photoshoot with Los Angeles photographer George Whiteman (who shot McLean for the iconic cover of American Pie).
Together with pages from American Troubadour (The Russ Cochran Company, 2012) depicting McLean with instrument.