Nearly 1,000 people sang in unison — “bye bye, Miss American Pie” — to close out the 32nd annual American Pie concert.
They were crooning Friday night to the 1971 Don McClean classic song, “American Pie,” at the end of American Pie: The Magical History Tour at Judson Erne Auditorium in Columbus.
But a case might be made that they also were bidding a musical farewell to Columbus North High School choral director Janie Gordon, who has either performed or rehearsed American Pie student performers for more than 20 years.
Organizers at night’s end thanked the veteran vocalist and teacher, who is retiring as a teacher at the end of the school year. It was one in which she sang Helen Reddy’s 1974 hit “Angie Baby” to shouts of “We love you” from the audience.
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Afterward, Gordon humorously and politely declined any new, lighthearted title linked with the McClean’s lyrics.
“This has always been Ed’s baby,” she said, referring to concert founder and retired North history teacher Ed Niespodziani, still the main volunteer organizer of the phenomenon launched in a classroom to build interest for students in American history.
With a lesson plan now featuring a live, six-piece band plus a complete brass and strings section, and a full mix of student backup singers, it intersperses newsy narration with tunes characterizing specific years of each concert’s theme. About 80 students from Columbus North and Columbus East participated as vocalists or musicians, many in period garb, plus dozens of others behind the scenes.
The event is known for whipping an audience, from preteens to grandparents, into a good ol’ fist-pumping frenzy. You think Joan Jett loves rock ’n’ roll? How about crowd member Lelia Turner, an American Pie first-timer?
“My favorite with all this (music) would have to be James Brown,” Turner said.
This year’s 31-song setlist was built around story songs because of the concert theme, “The Stories of Us.” Those stories included:
The Vietnam War protest — “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, 1967, by student Ben Dickerson and others.
Mental illness — Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” presented dead-on by concert founder Niespodziani, 1971.
The fatal Kent State shootings — Neil Young’s 1971 “Ohio”, 1971, presented by community members Jadon Darnell, Jerry Mihay and Columbus native Nick Niespodziani.
Assassinated American civil rights leaders — “Abraham, Martin and John,” (President Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John Kennedy) Dion, 1968.
When student Nathan Patton sang the opening lines to the Dion song, he sounded so startlingly like the original recording that Columbus North office staffer Michelle Williams turned to people standing next to her and mouthed, “Wow!”
Other performers swore they surprised even themselves with their renditions of music they acknowledged previously was unknown to them.
Student Emily Sipes, known for her local stage work on Broadway tunes and cultured classical numbers, gave crowd members more twang for their buck with a carefully countrified “Harper Valley PTA.”
“That really tested my ability,” Sipes said of the Jeannie C. Riley classic.
Slowly, as the night wore on, the gathering became a jukebox junket of sorts.
When Madelyn Sanders slowly strutted onstage dressed as ‘80s “Material Girl” Madonna, the crowd shrieked as she launched into the 1986 teen pregnancy tune, “Papa Don’t Preach.”
The songs did their share of preaching, however, of farmers losing their livelihood (John Mellencamp’s “Rain On the Scarecrow”), interracial dating (“Brother Louie” by Hot Chocolate) and families finding love amid poverty’s heartache (“Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton).
Organizers demonstrated attention to detail throughout.
For instance, when narrator Niespodziani mentioned the British Invasion of the Sixties, out walked Joe Robinson, a native of England, to sing the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Before Robinson began, much of a student section of the crowd chanted, “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
“I wasn’t really expecting that much of a reaction,” Robinson said.
Longtime American Pie fan Tom Jackson came into the auditorium carrying a bouquet of flowers to present by concert’s end to daughter Delaney Jackson, who crooned Chicago’s smash, “25 or 6 to 4.” The tune was especially meaningful to dad’s musical history tour.
“One of the first concerts I ever went to was Chicago,” the father said.
North teacher and guitarist Mihay, participating in his 26th American Pie, went on a bit of his own wistful musical journey while waiting in the wings just minutes before the concert began.
He remembers playing for crowds of 200 to 300 in those earlier days.
“And now, it has just escalated,” Mihay said.
A student-shot-and-edited video of the 32nd Annual American Pie: The Magical History Tour will be available in about two weeks for $10 apiece, according to Columbus North High School C4 communications teacher Rachel McCarver.
Information: 812-376-4260 or email@example.com.