Bye, Bye Miss American Pie, and other Songs of Inspiration

If you are of a certain age, you will recognize this song by Don McLean. It was released the same year that Congress held its hearings on the Watergate break-in. You may also remember that the lyrics included the observation, “This will be the day that I die. . .” made by those good old boys who were drinking whiskey and rye. That was a half-century ago.

With all the coverage this past week of the January 6th hearings, I was reminded that I grew up in unsettling times. I created a timeline of events that I tag as fundamental to my growth as a citizen in this country. You may share some of the same experiences. You may remember some of these same songs.

Back in the Day

The year I was born, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) was on a witch hunt for Communists. He used his position in Congress to conduct hearings that brought to light just how corrupt our government was and how there were bogeymen hiding in every corner. It took years for the wounds he and his sycophants opened to heal.

Dwight David Eisenhower was president and Richard Nixon was his vice-president. Under Eisenhower’s leadership, the U.S. saw incredible domestic achievements, including the building of the interstate highways, expansion of civil rights, a balanced federal budget, and an end to the Korean Conflict. It was as if the country finally exhaled, having made it through Depression and World War.

The Once and Future

In 1960, a fascinating musical premiered on Broadway that became the theme for this decade of potential. Alan Jay Lerner penned the lyrics to Camelot that had us all singing “in short there’s simply not/a more congenial spot/for happy ever-aftering …” And we believed it. Until November 22, 1963.

Even though I was only 10, I understood that America, as a nation, had lost something precious. We had our hope stolen by an assassin. Once again, Congress undertook the burden of uncovering what “really” happened. The Warren Report came to the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in planning and executing John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

My Political Education

This marked a turning point in the nation, as increasingly the social order began to unravel. A surging tide of outrage rose and saw protests for civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of indigenous peoples across the country and throughout the world.

Law and order proponents demanded more laws and more order. Protestors learned to march. We held be-ins, sit-ins, sing-ins and teach-ins. Confrontations increased. Something was happenin’ here and what it was wasn’t exactly clear.

America is Burning

I was a freshman in high school when Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Robert Kennedy was assassinated two months later, on June 6, 1968. Riots broke out across America. In August, 1968, the Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago. My home town.

The National Guard was called out because of threats from the Yippies who were going to interrupt this process. Conventioneers nominated Hubert Humphrey for president and across the street, protestors were tear-gassed by National Guardsmen in Grant Park. The irony was not lost on me, that this confrontation took place in a park named for Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general who saved the Union.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had become a Hippie. I was a proud Democrat, having left behind the Republican legacy from my paternal side of the family. I protested the Viet Nam War, joined in civil rights marches, and risked being kicked out of high school for breaking the dress code. I left for college, Eisenhower College, a small, liberal arts school in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It was founded as a living memorial to that president. An interesting anachronism; a Hippie going to Eisenhower College.

The Fall of a President

I never held Richard M. Nixon in high esteem. I suspect this didn’t matter to him, but it made the sweetness of victory all the more sublime for me when he resigned on August 8, 1974. There was never any question in my mind that our government would not continue in an orderly fashion after this extraordinary event. Just jubilation that such a corrupt man had been brought down by fearless reportage and steady investigation by Congress.

The Watergate hearings took place over a period of six months (May-November) in 1974, and were broadcast, “gavel-to-gavel” by PBS – the Public Broadcasting Service. A ring-side seat to just how democracy should and does work. These hearings provided evidence that our model of government was worthy of the ideals of our Founders.

It took months, but the outcome of the Watergate hearings and the subsequent articles of impeachment that were brought, was Richard Nixon leaving office saying, “Therefore, I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office.”

A Peaceful Transfer of Power, Until . . .

And that is exactly what happened. Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th president and Nixon flew off into history. Since then, seven presidents have taken the oath of office and Americans have witnessed the peaceful transfer of power that was outlined in our Constitution.

At least up until 2020, when for reasons not yet fully exposed, this orderly process was interrupted. As has happened throughout my lifetime, a Congressional inquiry was begun. We are now audience to their findings.

What Makes Me Concerned

50 years ago, we had a robust free press. Today an administration has been buoyed by a so-called news network that systematically spread and reinforced falsehoods that undermined our democracy. There does not seem to be any way to address this, as long as they are allowed to call themselves “press”.

50 years ago, we did not have social media. This forum, like an unsupervised toddler, is without self-control, insight and self-discipline. And, like a toddler, it resists limits, however essential in ensuring its continued existence, instead erupting in tantrums when it doesn’t get its way. The consequent damage to others is great, and there may be no way to make reparation. Saying, “I’m sorry”, is insufficient. So is hitting the “like” emoji and re-posting.

50 years ago, I was younger and believed this was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. I had grown up in a time and place where the rain must never fall till after sundown. I had driven my Chevy to the levy, and even though it was dry, I found a way to turn my cynicism into action. I am not so sure I have the stamina to do it all over again.

What Gives Me Hope

While I am consumed by the hearings at present, I am not disheartened. I cannot put my finger on it exactly, but for some reason, out of all this chaos and precipitous teetering toward collapse, I am comforted by the process. This is my fourth Congressional hearing, and I am not even 70 yet!

I have seen previous presidents and senators brought to justice by this democratic process. I am seeing a president and his co-conspirators once again being held to a standard based on the rule of law. Because I have seen this before, I know not to be impatient.

As hokey as it sounds, I still believe that good will triumph over evil. Maybe, like Paul McCartney wrote, we were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Songs referenced in this blog:

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie (music and lyrics by Don McLean, 1971)

Camelot (book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Fredrick Lowe, 1960)

For What It’s Worth (music and lyrics by Stephen Sills; performed by Buffalo Springfield, 1966)

Aquarius (book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermot 1967)

Blackbird (music and lyrics by Paul McCartney, 1968)

3 responses to “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie, and other Songs of Inspiration”

  1. Barbara A Mahon Avatar
    Barbara A Mahon

    My dear historian , Mary. Thank you for placing the current drama in context of the past…with music no less… enlivening memory of the past as we sstruggle mightly in an even daarker pictire. I with hold either hope or despair for now.

  2. Mabel Dean Avatar
    Mabel Dean

    I “ditto” Barbara’s comments. I sure hope that our democracy is up to the challenge. I’ve been questioning in my mind if a document created in the 1780’s is truly relevant today! The population and technology growth in those 250 years could not have been imagined by our forefathers. Maybe we’ll learn that we need to change our basic structure to accommodate this different world created by technology etc. and incorporate some aspects of socialism in order to maintain a peaceful and equitable society.

    1. Paula Freeman Avatar
      Paula Freeman

      Love the juxtaposition of music and history. I enjoy your writing and commentary. I’d like to hope “all you need is love” (Lennon-McCartney), but we need a lot more.

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