This song is admittedly kind of frustrating, because unlike the Bob Dylan poem-ballads it’s modeled on, it is pretty obviously a very specific cryptogram where every line has an actual concrete meaning, and McLean has been persistently stubborn about explaining any of the references. This is particularly tantalizing since we can actually more or less decipher a few individual cases (the Jester=Dylan, The Sergeants=the Beatles, Satan=The Rolling Stones, and so forth). But whether you can figure out the specific meaning of the song or not (and there are people who have dedicated their lives to doing so), the overall effect is oddly arresting and captivating…while McLean may have taken a much more concrete approach to his cryptic songwriting, he did manage to create a hauntingly poetic effect comparable to Dylan’s work, especially on the final verse, where even though we have no clear idea what’s being said, he still manages to break our heart. Yes, the song is exceptionally long for a radio hit, but it holds the listener’s attention throughout, and whether you prefer to pour your efforts into deciphering the mysteries of the lyrics or just enjoy the sheer abstract sound of the whole thing, it has fairly earned the fascination that several generations have now paid it.
This is the only one of the major numbers in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece Carousel that has a large number of detractors even among the show’s fans. And while I can understand that the intensely old-fashioned, folky vibe of the song and the heavy Folk dialect the lyrics are written in (‘the vittles we et were good, you bet’) might be a bit too hokey for some people’s tolerance levels, you have to consider the song’s context in the show. The eye for detail in the description of this simple get-together does a lot to establish the cultural color that was a key component of all of R&H’s shows. And if you think about it, once you get past the comically old-fashioned idioms the characters express themselves in and listen to what they’re actually saying, there’s really something kind of beautiful about the folklike warmth and sense of community this song conveys. It’s also extremely telling and even quietly heartbreaking, when you think about it, that hero Billy Bigelow is not a part of this community celebration…note that virtually every other character, even his introverted and semi-ostracized wife Julie, joins in this number. Capturing the feel of a tight-knit community is key to the show’s main theme…after all, you can’t have outcasts without something they feel they’re outcast from. So if you look at this song as part of the show rather than a standalone hit tune, it actually has a great deal of merit…and let’s remember that Rodgers and Hammerstein, for all the hits they created, were always much more focused on the show as a whole than the prospect of individual hit songs, so that seems to be the correct way to look at nearly all of their work.