Don McLean covers the Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s 1945 composition “Let It Snow” in the way it would have been recorded at the time. A cool-jazz version, with an inviting bass line, McLean inhabits the song with Sinatra levels of crooner confidence.

DON McLEAN “Winter Wonderland” Video Feature – with Web-Exclusive Interview

Musician:  DON McLEAN



King of the Trail in “Winterwood”: McLean’s Christmas Memories Remixed And Remastered is a Companion Piece to the Wayfarer’s Personal and Artistic Pilgrimage 

Outstretched thumb with a solitary star and three stripes woven into an American tri-color red, white and blue fingerprint extends from a nondescript young man—pollice verso suggests a land of liberty’s death while shadows intermingle on the hitchhiker’s face obscure the revolutionary’s identity. The iconic album artwork for Don McLean’s American Pie defines a shifting cultural scene. Peeling away weathered layers of an original 1971 vinyl sleeve reveals haunting remnants of an era: searing anguish of JFK’s assassination, Helter Skelter’s frenzy, bloodshed at Altamont Speedway during The Rolling Stones’ free concert, and impassioned wails of riots reverberating through a disenfranchised concrete utopia.

Singer, songwriter and troubadour Don McLean is a patriotic excursionist, drifter and barnstormer. He has traveled a winding highway of dimly lit, smoke-choked Greenwich Village coffee shops, been influenced by folk music’s expostulation, and experienced vicariously the specter of McCarthyism’s paranoia and subsequent blacklist. McLean’s most recent effort, Christmas Memories Remixed and Remastered (BFD Orchard) is a companion piece to the wayfarer’s personal and artistic pilgrimage.

Orphans of Wealth

Born in the city of New Rochelle, New York, Don McLean entered the world just months after V-J Day silenced the cacophonous symphony of World War II’s guns and bombs. New Rochelle’s roots run long and deep to 1688, when Huguenot refugees, “orphans of wealth” from the other side of the Atlantic, in La Rochelle, France, sought asylum from Catholic persecution, pollinating many artificers and wrights to “Queen City of the Sound.” As the seventh-largest city in New York State, it played host to George Washington while en route to superintend the Army of the United Colonies in Massachusetts. Following the colonists’ victory over King George III, philosopher and American founding father Thomas Paine’s revolutionary recompense was an estate in New Rochelle. With its septentrional location, New Rochelle was the site of a preeminent court-mandated school desegregation case, and indweller Anna Jones became the premier African American female to be accepted into the New York State Bar in 1923. Given New Rochelle’s lineage and edifying ethos, McLean was foreordained to be socially sentient.

Sister Fatima by the Waters of Babylon and Empty Chairs

Growing up in a household brimming with artistic influence, Don’s deep love for music revealed itself at a young age. While battling childhood asthma and missing school days, his passion for music blossomed, finding a creative outlet through impromptu performances for family and friends. As a teenager, Don acquired his first guitar, a striking Harmony F Hole with a sunburst finish. Lessons funded by his sister enhanced McLean’s vocal prowess. Through disciplined physical activities such as running, walking and swimming, McLean honed his breath control, a skill that would later enable him to effortlessly sustain long, uninterrupted vocal phrases, exemplified in his rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Notably, McLean’s asthma saw marked improvement as a result of his rigorous physical conditioning.

The sonically rich atmosphere of McLean’s household, with its A/C-powered five-tube superheterodyne radio and scattered vinyl records, became the backdrop to countless hours spent nurturing Don’s burgeoning melodic passion. McLean’s life trajectory took a poignant turn following his sole vacation with his father to Washington D.C. in 1961. A few months later the family patriarch died when Don was just 15 years old.

Folk Music, McCarthyism, and Blacklists

Folk music was a popular genre during the 1950s. Groups like the Weavers, a quartet from Greenwich Village (which included Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman) recorded and performed traditional, blues, gospel and labor songs. Hellerman was a singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer. Singer and banjo player, Seeger was an architect of social activism.

During Senator McCarthy’s Red Scare epoch, the Weavers’ members Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman came under scrutiny. Deemed to be subversive and commiserating with Communists, the Weavers earned a dubious distinction on an industry blacklist; essentially banning them from television, radio and concert performances by 1952. Films like 1976’s The Front starring Woody Allen, and 1991’s Guilty by Suspicion with Robert De Niro, explore the era’s absurdity and paranoia for the entertainment community in Hollywood and the subsequent scar tissue inflicted on many artists’ careers—the price being a pound of flesh for intellectual or political dissent.

Before the internet existed as it does today, people had to be tracked down through a telephone directory, rather than social media online activity. The Weavers’ 1955 benchmark album Live at Carnegie Hall, introduced Don to the folk genre and gave him an unwavering determination to pursue music professionally. McLean made his own breaks in the business, by utilizing a cumbersome landline almanac to contact Fred Hellerman and later connected with Erik Darling who took the place of original Weavers founding member Pete Seeger.

Cultivating a friendship with Darling, brought McLean to his boon companion’s pied-à-terre in the Big Apple, culminating in Don’s initial atelier sessions with Lisa Kindred, a dignitary force of the Greenwich Village milieu during the 1960s. Kindred’s presence crossed the continental divide to Mill Valley, California, where the guitarist and singer gigged consistently at the Sweetwater Music Hall.

At The Crossroads of Kindred Spirits

Although enticed with an opportunity to fast track his career by amalgamating with Darling and other Rooftop Singers, a country-folk trio and known quantity—McLean passed on it, choosing instead to gamble and go it alone as an unknown solo artist. A cursory experience in studies at Villanova University in 1963 acquainted Don with Jim Croce—the two future folk luminaries became compeers. President Kennedy’s assassination would bring the year to an end and in many ways serve as a metaphor for a lamenting nation, lost without direction and an uncertain future.

If We Try

Following his departure from Villanova, manager Harold Leventhal catalyzed Don’s vocation. Leventhal started out as a musical matchmaker, promoting songs for Irving Berlin and Benny Goodman, and went on to represent the Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. Leventhal presented McLean at various venues to showcase his troubadour persona. Stark, barren brick-walled, cigarette smoke-stenched coffee houses and campuses of higher education fraught with the potential for civil unrest were McLean’s playground. He would develop his craft for six years at landmarks like The Bitter End and Gaslight Cafe in New York, The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and The Main Point in Philadelphia.

1969 was a metamorphic year for McLean’s career and America. Laying down tracks for his debut effort Tapestry in Berkeley, California presented a juxtaposition in the studio during sessions. As recording tape spooled between reels while McLean sang “And I Love You So,” an affray was brewing on the other side of the doors in the form of a student riot. Tapestry received critical praise, thrusting Don from inconspicuous limbo to concealed prominence, raising McLean to the top of the bill at niteries and colleges across the country.

American Pie

“American Pie” is an autobiographical piece that shares the narrative of McLean’s fleeting halcyon juvenescence right before events of the real world come creeping in to disrupt his personal utopia. A teenage McLean worked as a newspaper boy for New Rochelle’s Standard Star. One morning as part of his regular duties, McLean pierced the bale’s cord with a serrated blade revealing a heartbreaking headline on the front page. 1950s rock ’n’ roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper had their lives cut tragically short when an airplane carrying them to a concert on the Winter Dance Party tour fell from the heavens.

The lyrical content serves as a metaphor while developing the teenage newspaper boy’s arc. Severed irrevocably is McLean’s Garden of Eden paradise, quickly replaced with heartbreak and disillusionment. Philosophical and introspective, McLean blends and contrasts salad days with trouble brewing on the horizon. Building momentum and gradually reaching its fever pitch, the song poses questions without attainable answers or solutions within immediate reach. Clocking in at 8 minutes and 42 seconds, “American Pie” was an unlikely candidate for radio airplay, defying the standard rule of 3 minutes and 5 seconds for singles, but was released as a double A-side single in November 1971, quickly finding its audience and subsequently charting within a month. McLean’s lyrics retain their mystique all these decades later while at the same time connecting with new audiences excited to investigate its meaning while relating it to current world events.

Christmas Memories Remixed and Remastered Review:

Don McLean projects a jovial, cheerful aura on the cover of Christmas Memories Remixed and Remastered. A paisley patterned tunic with a cranberry hue and a black T-shirt underneath are McLean’s vestments for festivities associated with the holiday season. Stygian framed glasses with tinted lenses accentuates the King of the Trail’s visage. Flashing his gleaming ivories confidently, McLean has graduated visually from the hitchhiker once shrouded in darkness on American Pie. Playfully inspired glyphs herald the artist and platter’s title but this 12-track collection is more satisfying and substantial than holiday cookie-cutter confections.

“Blue Christmas”

This track’s arrangement and well-timed bluesy guitar deliver authentic remorse, painting a melancholy vacant holiday experience without the cautious optimism of Elvis Presley’s version.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”

While the origins of this carol may reach back to the 16th century and artists usually presented it in a stiff manner, McLean goes in the opposite direction, infusing it with new life. An upbeat tempo and female backing vocals propel the song’s forward momentum. The lead vocal embraces the song’s message with zeal.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” is the foundation on which this carol is structured. Longfellow’s verse was written about America’s Civil War. The piano accompaniment echoes the sentiment of “American Pie.”

“Let It Snow”

Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s 1945 composition is covered in the way it would have been recorded at the time. A cool-jazz version, with an inviting bass line, McLean inhabits the song with Sinatra levels of crooner confidence.

“Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem”

Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, authored the text of this song in 1868. Celestial strings and a harp lift the listener from Earth to heavenly realms, with an ethereal and soothing vocal by McLean.


McLean channels the vocal style of Gene Autry’s 1949 recording, relying on a bittersweet acoustic guitar accompaniment to progress the narrative. McLean provides a booming Santa Claus voice for this cut.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie’s 1934 cautionary tale is given lavish treatment with a swing.

“Silent Night”

McLean is fully invested in this German Christmas carol from 1818, his voice solemn and convincing.

“The Burgundeon Carol”

Also recorded by Joan Baez, McLean’s version is heavy with string orchestration and mood.

“The Christmas Waltz”

Another Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne composition—this one was written for Frank Sinatra, who recorded it in 1954, to back a new version of “White Christmas.” Here again, McLean assumes a Sinatra, Vegas-like persona, but bubbling underneath the surface Don’s troubadour heritage remains intact.

“White Christmas”

Irving Berlin’s 1942 holiday anthem most frequently associated with Bing Crosby, whose version is the best-selling single of all time, finds McLean injecting new life into this standard with a warble that seems both elegant and effortless.

“Winter Wonderland”

Covered by over 200 various artists, McLean doesn’t veer too far from previous incarnations, choosing to preserve its creative congruence present in other versions.

“The holidays are a time for families to come together,” shares McLean. “I remember as a kid sitting around the record player and listening to music with my family. We all had our favorites, which we played over and over again. All the greats from Bing Crosby to Gene Autry influenced me, so I have included my version of their classics on Christmas Memories: Remixed and Remastered, which I hope you enjoy.”

— by Rodeo Marie Hanson 

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