The traffic news reader warned of delays on the A14 and then handed back to the presenter who introduced one of the best known songs of all time, Don McClean’s ‘American Pie’. There seemed always something about the song that set Americans apart from their Anglophone cousins across the Atlantic. Perhaps it was the traffic news preceding the song that provided a subconscious cue:
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.
Buddy Holly died in 1959; his admirer is young enough to watch a desired one dancing with a young man in the gym. He is part of the post-war American generation that ate in diners and might drive vast cars fitted with extravagant tail fins and shining chrome. How many of his contemporaries across the Atlantic could have aspired to a motor car of any sort? A Morris Minor or a Ford Prefect might have been possible to someone who had worked for some years, but a car of American specifications or dimensions would have been no more than a dream.
It wasn’t just in the world of Don McClean that the motor car plays a subtle but significant role, Bruce Springsteen’s most played song ‘The River’ has a storyline facilitated by the teller’s access to a car. He and the girl he marries meet in high school at the age of seventeen, driving down to the river to swim.
We’d drive out of this valley down to where the fields were green
He gets her pregnant and, in the traditional blue collar community from which he comes, there is only one course of action:
For my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.
This is the late-1970s, a time of economic crisis and high prices. In Britain or Ireland, how many blue collar families could have afforded to insure their school-going teenage sons to drive a large car? Leaving sixth form college in 1979, there were only a handful in the class who could drive and only one person who had his own car – an Austin Allegro.
In those teenage years, Americans seemed always to have more interesting, more exciting lives; the world brought to us on our television screens showed lives that seemed infinitely more sophisticated. It has taken more than thirty years to understand what it was – it wasn’t their houses, though these were certainly far beyond our experiences, it was their cars. They had mobility and freedom – and they had style. The voice of ‘American Pie’ might have felt grief on the day the music died, but he did have a Chevy to drive.