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Chasing The American Dream

November 23, 2005


“A long, long time ago. I can still remember how that music used to make me smile…”
Opening lyrics to the song, American Pie, by Don McLean.

He didn’t act like a typical High School English teacher. Oh sure, he was smart, made us translate Shakespearean sonnets, made us learn and spell words we couldn’t even pronounce, made us read English lit classics like David Copperfield, and taught us the utterly worthless theories of Transformational Grammar. And believe me; I struggled to keep up with the Salutatorians and Valedictorians in that 11th grade Honors English class. But I had one advantage in that class.

It’s what set Walt Baxter apart from any teacher I’ve ever had. His love for music history and his willingness to teach us about it up close and personal. Mr. Baxter was definitely a baby boomer, a member of the 60s generation. These amazing roots he brought to class. “They,” the brainiacs, probably thought the subject matter was boring and couldn’t wait to breakdown a sentence into S= NP+VP TREL, TDEL, & TNM or whatever the hell those Transformational Grammar formulas were.

In 1979, I was 17 years old. Most kids were thrilled with the current bands at that time like Kansas, Boston, Foreigner, Journey, The Cars, etc. Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that classic rock genre, but I was more a student of the music that inspired those bands. I loved the 60s. I loved how The Beatles transformed music into a completely new direction. I loved the British Invasion, the folk movement, the anti-war and protest movements, the birth of The Stones, The Doors, Bob Dylan, and Simon & Garfunkel. Sans my best friend, the rest of the class had not much of a clue with this early music. That is, until Mr. Baxter taught them.

He brought in records to play. Yes, those black circular things they used to call albums or LPs. He brought in Beatles, Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel. I was totally in my element. His teachings were, for me, affirmations of what I already knew about rock history. And to think, we were actually tested on this stuff. Like I said, it was my time to shine for a change. My A’s on the music stuff offset my C’s in sonnets and T-Grammar. I have a lot of glorious memories of Mr. Baxter, but two stick out in my mind.

The first was spending two weeks in class breaking down my favorite song, American Pie. I didn’t need to take notes. I already knew the song was inspired by the horrible plane crash with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (Big Bopper) aboard. I knew the hidden innuendos about Bob Dylan, the Stones, Janis Joplin, and The Beatles. But I never thought I’d hear about such things in, of all places, a High School English class. Mr. Baxter knew his stuff. As he played the song, he told us the meanings and the significance of practically every line. Acing these tests was a given. Getting higher test scores than Derede Arthur was unheard of.

But my greatest memory was when Mr. Baxter decided to put a concert on for us. True. We spent one afternoon in the school auditorium listening to him play his acoustic guitar and sing these wonderful songs of the 60s and early 70s. He sang us Dylan, Beatles, Stones, and Simon & Garfunkel. He even had a soprano singer come in and sing the Canticle part of Scarborough Fair. It was amazing. I so appreciated what he was doing for us. Most kids couldn’t give a crap. They were just grateful for time away from class, talking and not paying attention. I even wonder if anyone would even remember Mr. Baxter’s concert. I guess it matters none.

What does matter is the indelible memory my favorite teacher left on me some 26 years ago. Memories as clear today as they were then. Mr. Baxter, wherever you are, thanks so much man. High School sucked, but I recognized then and I recognize now just how lucky we all were to have you for Honors English class. . I wrote my college English term paper on “American Pie,” and I’m writing about you now. I still have a long way to go to make us even.


  • My sources always claimed that "the father, son & holy ghost" were Crosby Stills & Nash. What were Mr. Baxter's thoughts on this?

    By Anonymous Barbara, at 8:40 PM, November 23, 2005  

  • B, I've never heard that interpretation. Popular theories include the 3 who died in the plane crash, the 3 Crickets of Buddy Holly's band, JFK, RFK, and ML King, The Beatles after John left, and the literal Catholic meaning.

    By Blogger Plantation, at 9:14 PM, November 23, 2005  

  • Nice blog. keep up the good work. i sure will regularly be coming back. You can check out my blog
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    By Blogger Solomon, at 12:31 PM, November 24, 2005  

  • I'd love an explanation of the song, but I'm afraid I'm too musically ignorant to even understand the explanation. Glad someone out there gets it. It ranks right up there with Hotel California in my book of the "what the heck is that all about" category.

    By Blogger Amy, at 5:05 PM, November 25, 2005  

  • Can anyone explain the lyrics from Hotel California? Would love to hear what they mean.

    By Blogger Sherri, at 9:28 AM, November 26, 2005  

  • That was sweet, PT. Thanks for sharing.

    By Blogger A, at 5:43 PM, November 27, 2005  

  • Nice post - but please tell me its a typo and you know that the song is Scarborough Fair????

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:34 AM, November 28, 2005  

  • I had a "Mr. Baxter" too, mine was called Mr. Buckley (William Buckley). He taught me about baseball through poetry. I fell in love with both poetry and baseball. He made poetry come alive, and that is not an easy task to do with high school kids. Nice post.

    By Blogger catsteevens, at 4:38 PM, November 28, 2005  

  • Oh my word, Anon. That was a dreadful typo. Thanks for the catch.

    By Blogger Plantation, at 10:12 PM, November 28, 2005  

  • Lovely post. You should send him a copy of this... it would probably mean more to him than you know!

    By Blogger girl from florida, at 6:55 AM, November 29, 2005  

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