American Pie

by Don McLean

A detailed, line by line analysis for this great American classic song

Fans and critics may disagree on whether Don McLean's 1971 hit American Pie is or isn't a good song, but they universally endorse it as the most meaning-filled song ever written. There are more allusions and metaphors in it's eight and a half minutes than in hours of other songs from its era. Once understood, these references render it a history lesson of the musical events of the late 1950s to 1970. Half a century after its release, it still has the power to evoke debate over the meaning of its verses. This page is an attempt to clarify what McLean was trying to say. Perfect knowledge on his meanings is not possible because Don McLean has been consistently reluctant to discuss the lyrics. In an interview he once explained that he views songs as poetry and poetry should be enjoyed, not dissected. To overcome this I've combined comments from over half a dozen of the most reasonable analysis as well as my own humble perspectives. I grew up during the period immortalized by Mr. McLean's words and many of his seemingly obtuse references are obvious because I had to good, or in some cases unfortunate, fortune to live through those times.

Don McLean was born in 1945 in New Rochelle, New York. During his early teens he witnessed first hand the rock and roll revolution that charged forever the musical landscape of the world. Most importantly, he developed a strong attachment to the sweet rock and roll purity of the great Buddy Holly, who died far too early. His death had a profound effect on the young McLean, almost as great as what he considered the musical chaos the musical followed and carried on through the 1960s. In essence, American Pie is an effort to record some of the tragic events of that period as well as a lament for the masses turning away from rock and roll's simplistic beauty. The most amazing aspect of American Pie is that it's able to do so through what at first sounds like a bright and perky song. American Pie was his greatest success, holding the number one position for four weeks in late 1971 and early 1972.

Without further delay, here is my analysis of Don McLean's American Pie:

 

Verse 1:

 
A long, long time ago...

Don McLean is referring to the 1950s, which seemed like a long time ago because of the turmoil of the 1960s.

 

I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.

McLean's favorite music was classic rock and roll.

 

And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they'd be happy for a while.

Unlike much of the music of the 1960s, which was mostly intended to be thoughtful and listened to and not danced to, the major purpose of 1950s music was for having fun and dancing. He wanted to play rock and roll to help people be happy again. He's saying that if he could let people hear once again how good classic rock and roll was, they might be able to forget the problems of the world for awhile.

 

But February made me shiver

Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snow storm.

 

With every paper I'd deliver

Don McLean's only other job besides songwriting was a paper boy.

 

Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn't take one more step

The Buddy Holly story was on the front page and when he cut that morning's stack of papers apart. Most experts claim this line indicates he froze in shock. In an interview in England I heard him explain that at the time he was a typical self-absorbed 14 year old teenager who thought Buddy Holly was old news and didn't really care.

 

I can't remember if I cried

Again, many analysts claim this reflects his shock. However, in light of his comments above it's more likely that the event meant so little at the time it didn't have enough impact to create a lasting memory.

 

When I read about his widowed bride

Holly's wife was pregnant when the accident occurred and soon after had a miscarriage.

 

But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.

The crash took the lives of three rock legends: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, so now Feb. 3, 1959 is called "The day the music died." The music that died is classic rock and roll. The crash was the final blow to this music because these three were the only major artists left. The only other big names were Elvis who had been drafted; Little Richard; who had turned to gospel and Chuck Berry; who had been arrested for solicitation.

 

 

Refrain:

 
So bye-bye Miss American Pie

McLean was dating a Miss America contestants during one of the pageants. Also the "American Pie" part is a symbol of the American Dream (at least of the 50s). It may also be a reference to apple pie as an icon of American traditions. Contrary to rumors, it was not the name of the plane that crashed and killed Holly. The company that owns the fleet of planes of which it was one did not name its planes.

 

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

The American automobile was the Chevy. Going to the levee, an earthen embankment bordering a river, was supposed to go to hang out and have fun. In the song the levee, or river, was dry so it didn't work. It's an allusion to the fact that there was no way to avoid facing what had been lost.

 

And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing "This will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die."

He's lamenting about the end of rock and roll. Inspiration for this line may come from Buddy Holly's "That'll be the day," that has the line, "... that'll be the day that I die."

Also, The Levee was a bar in Purchase, NY near McLean's hometown.

 

Verse 2:

 
Did you write the book of love?

"The Book of Love" was a hit in 1968 by the Monotones.

 

And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?

In 1955, Don Cornell wrote The Bible Tells Me So and there is a Sunday School song Jesus Loves Me, with the line "For the Bible tells me so."

 

Now do you believe in rock and roll?

This is from the great song "Do You Believe in Magic?" by the Lovin' Spoonful, written by John Sebastin in 1965. It has the line, "the magic's in the music and the music's in me." The "magic" is the ability of a song to resonate with a person's emotions and bring back memories of the past. Some people belief this type of musical magic magic is particular to rock and roll because you experience it without thinking about it. Some experts also claim this reflects McLean's feelings for rock and roll being so strong it had an almost religious significance to him.

 

Can music save your mortal soul?

This may be a reflection that the chaos of the 1960s had lead people into confusion. Good music, i.e. rock and roll, might have the power to bring everyone back to a happier state of mind.

 

And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?

If you danced with someone in the 1950s you were committing to them. You only danced with your date.

 

Now I know that you're in love with him, 'cause I saw you dancing in the gym.

McLean spotted his girlfriend dancing with someone else.

 

You both kicked off your shoes

Reference to a "sock hop." Many school dances were held in gyms, the floors of which could be damaged by the hard soles of street shoes.

 

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

Before the popularity of rock and roll, music was highly segregated. The popular music of black performers for largely black audiences was called "race music," later to become rhythm and blues. In the early 50s, as they were exposed to it through radio personalities such as Allan Freed, white teenagers began listening to it. Starting around 1954, a number of songs from the rhythm and blues charts began appearing on the overall popular charts as well, but usually in cover versions by established white artists, (e. g. "Shake Rattle and Roll", Joe Turner, covered by Bill Haley; "Sh-Boom", the Chords, covered by the Crew-Cuts; "Sincerely", the Moonglows, covered by the McGuire Sisters; Tweedle Dee, LaVerne Baker, covered by Georgia Gibbs). By 1955, some of the rhythm and blues artists, like Fats Domino and Little Richard were able to get records on the overall pop charts. In 1956 Sun records added elements of country and western to create the kind of rock and roll tradition that produced Buddy Holly.

 

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck

A reference to his youth.

 

With a pink carnation and a pickup truck

A pickup truck was a symbol of masculinity and male sexual freedom. It may also be a reference to Marty Robbins hit with "A White sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)" in 1957.

 

But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died.

The sweet times of the 1950s were lost.

 

Verse 3:

 
Now for ten years we've been on our own

McLean started writing this song in 1969, ten years after the crash.

 

And moss grows fat on a rolling stone

Bob Dylan wrote "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965. This was his first major change from folk music. In late 1966, Dylan was involved in a motorcycle accident, and hid in his house in Woodstock, NY for almost a year, hence the "fat," from inactivity and the moss shows the time change.

Others believe the rolling stone is a reference to Rolling Stone magazine and the moss is emblematic of music's decay during the 1960s.

 

but that's not how it used to be.

McLean liked Dylan as a folk singer in the early sixties more than his folk-rock style in the mid sixties.

If the Rolling Stone magazine interpretation is preferred, then this line refers to music in general not being as good as it used to be.

 

When the jester sang for the king and queen

The jester was Bob Dylan. The king was Peter Seger and the queen was Joan Baez. These were the two big names in folk music during the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Dylan was honored to play his own set and then combine with these two legends to sing his song "Blowin' in the Wind."

Other experts assume the king is Elvis Presley.

 

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean

In the Dean movie "Rebel Without A Cause," he wears a red windbreaker. On the cover of the Dylan's "Freewheelin'," he is seen also in a red windbreaker. This cover also resembles a famous picture of Dean. This ties in with the previous line because this album is where Dylan really became famous, with such songs as "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

 

And a voice that came from you and me.

Bob Dylan's roots are in American folk music, with people like Pete Seger and Woody Guthrie. Folk music is by definition the music of the masses, hence the "...came from you and me".

Less charitable critics state that although Dylan was the spokesman for the 1960s, most people agree he didn't have the best singing voice in the world. In fact he sounded like anyone, i.e. you and me.

 

Oh, and while the king was looking down

This is a reference to Elvis losing his position in the music world because he joined the US Army. One source claimed that while stationed in Germany Elvis had the habit of dropping his soap in the shower. His "looking down" to find it may be a reference to this and indirectly to his military service.

 

The jester stole his thorny crown

While Elvis was in the army, Dylan took his spotlight and changed the whole music business. The thorny crown refers to the price of fame.

 

The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned

Some experts claim this deals with the Kennedy assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald was never convicted because he was murdered.

Others interpret this as a comment on the fact that there was no dominant style of music in the 1960s and 1970s. People at large couldn't decide what style they wanted.

One source claims it refers to the trial of the Chicago Seven, seven protesters arrested during the 1968 democratic convention. This is unlikely because verdicts were handed down on all of them, though later appealed.

 

And while Lennon read a book of Marx

This is about John Lennon studying the writings of Karl Marx and the Beatles' music becoming more political.

 

The quartet practiced in the park

The quartet was the Beatles and the park is Candlestick Park, the place of their last concert.

 

And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.

A dirge is a funeral song. These songs were for the Kennedy's (John and Robert) and Martin Luther King, all who died in the 1960s.

It's also a possible reference to some of the new "art rock" groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing, therefor as sad as a dirge.

 

Verse 4:

 
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter

In early August of 1969, Charles Manson lead his followers on a killing spree reportedly because of the Beatles song Helter Skelter. He thought the Beatles were talking directly to him and told him to kill those people.

Some claim "summer swelter" is a reference to the Watts riots in Los Angeles, California. The problem with this theory is that the Watts roits took place four years before Manson's rampage. It's more likely it's a reference to the fact that in early August in southern California it was extremely hot.

 

The Birds flew off with a fallout shelter

The Byrds were a popular folk-rock group, with the huge cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," in 1965. One of the members was arrested for possession of marijuana and a fallout shelter was another name for a rehab program. A strange note is that Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" appeared on his "Bringing It All Back Home" record, and on the lower left corner of the cover is a fallout shelter sign.

I must admit the image of birds flying off "with" a fallout shelter is hard to understand. "To" a fallout shelter would be easier to understand.

 

Eight miles high and falling fast.

"Eight Miles High" was a song from the Byrds Fifth Dimension album. It was widely banned because of its pro-drug lyrics. "Falling fast" is about the fact that the Byrds abandoned folk-rock for country music with the album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," in 1967 and afterward they're popularity immediately fell.

 

Then landed in the foul grass

One of the Byrds was arrested for marijuana possession.

 

The players tried for a forward pass

A football metaphor about the Rolling Stones, i.e. they were waiting for an opening which really didn't happen until the Beatles broke up.

 

With the jester, on the sidelines in a cast.

In late 1966, while riding near his house in Woodstock, NY, Bob Dylan briefly glanced into the sun and lost control of his bike. When he went to brake, they locked up and sent him flying off the motorcycle. It took him nine months to recover, in which time he very rarely left his house. The "cast" refers to the house as a metaphor for a plaster cast.

 

Now the half time air was sweet perfume

This line and the next few refer to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The "sweet perfume" was the tear gas used to disperse protesters.

 

While sergeants played a marching tune

This refers to the Beatles 1967 album Sergeant. Pepper, once considered the most influential album of all time. It's been credited as being the first concept album. The music in general is referred to as "marching" because it's not music for dancing, but music with a message to which we march.

 

We all got up to dance, oh, but we never got the chance

A comment on the fact that much of the Beatles music was meant to be listened and not danced to. This may be a comment on the fact that the Beatles' 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes, there wasn't any music to dance to and even if there was it was over too soon to enjoy. It may also be a reference to the break-up of The Beatles.

 

'Cause the players tried to take the field

This is a reference to the dominance of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (the players) failure to overtake them. It's a comment about how the dominance of the Beatles in the rock world led to more "pop art" music, leading in turn to a dearth of traditional rock and roll.

Some believe the players were protesters of the time.

 

The marching band refused to yield

The marching band again refers to the Beatles, who had some anti-violence songs that made protesters think twice about the way they were acting. "All You Need is Love" (1967) says there is a better way than violence, and in "Revolution" (1968) one of the lines is "But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out." The Beatles were not pro-government but they were against violence.

Some analysts believe this may also refer to the police who beat back protesters.

 

Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died.

This restates the old adage, "You don't know what you've until it's gone."

 

 

Verse 5:

 
And then we were all in one place

Refers to the Woodstock Performing Arts Festival that took place in August in 1969. 400,000 of McLean's generation were there. It took place at Woodstock (actually Bethel) because that's where Dylan was hiding and they were hoping he would come out and play. Unfortunately he turned it down for the "Isle of Wright" concert.

 

A generation lost in space

This verse refers to so many people using drugs in the 1960s that they seemed to be everywhere, wandering around as if lost. It may also be a reference that because there was no dominant form of music everyone was lost, looking for a musical direction to follow. One expert states that it's a reference to the popularity of the TV series Lost in Space, which many critics panned. If so, then McLean is commenting on how people of this generation wasted their time on trivial pursuits.

 

With no time left to start again

McLean thinks this generation wasted its decade and now all their time is gone so it's too late for them to do anything meaningful.

 

So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick

Jumpin' Jack Flash was a hit for the Rolling Stones. This may also come from the nursery rhyme that has the line "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jumps over a candlestick." In this case "candlestick" refers to the Stones' Candlestick Park concert.

 

'cause fire is the devil's only friend.

The Rolling Stones comeback to the Beatles Sergeant Pepper album was their failed album Their Satanic Majesties Request.

 

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage

"Him" refers to Mick Jagger. In December of 1969, the Stones attempted another Woodstock at Altamont Speedway. This time it was a free concert, with the Hell's Angel's handling the security. While the Stones were singing a man high on drugs attempted to climb onto the stage. The Angels beat him away. He soon returned with a drawn pistol and was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell's Angels to prevent him from shooting anyone. Many people were injured, including a member of the Jefferson Airplane. So many people believed the song "Sympathy for the Devil" inspired the killing that the Stones removed it from their concerts for six years.

 

My hands were clenched in fists of rage

Mclean was infuriated at what was happening in music.

 

No angel born in hell could brake that Satan's spell

"Angels born in hell" aka the "Hell's Angels." Jagger was Satan. This line claims that once the violence started, even the Hell's Angles couldn't stop it, though some claim they were its cause.

 

As the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite

The Stones had to be helicoptered out of the concert, hence the "climbed high." It's as if the Stones' concert started a living hell. The sacrifice to the devil was the murdered man's life. The flames are a reference to the many bonfires lit around the concert.

 

I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.

The devil laughed the day the music died because he could see what was coming. The many allusions to Mick Jagger as the devil suggests the imagery of a 16 year old Jagger laughing at the crash because he knew it would open the door for the cruder form of music wanted.

 

 

Verse 6:

 
I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.

Janis Joplin is the girl who sang the blues. Her big hits were "Piece of My Heart" and "Me and Bobby McGee." She died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. McLean hoped her music might take people back, but it didn't happen. Her smile isn't for happiness but regret.

 

I went down to the sacred store

The sacred store was Bill Graham's Fillmore West in San Francisco, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time.

A different interpretation was that the sacred store was any store that sold music.

 

Where I heard the music years before, but the man said the music wouldn't play

By the 1970s, the music of the 1950s music was being ignored by almost everyone and not available in stores.

This may also be a comment that the Fillmore West closed in 1971, which is why there was no music there.

 

And in the streets the children screamed

Protesters (also called flower children) were beaten in the streets especially at the end of the decade. Others state this is McLean's imagery about children crying for the good music of the 1950s that had been lost.

 

The lovers cried and the poets dreamed

Two more references about how much Mclean thought people were missing by turning away from rock and roll.

 

But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.

The "broken bells" were the dead rock and roll singers, neither can make music any more. This may also have been McLean criticizing the popular artists because they didn't have the courage or talent to return to rock and roll. If so, then it's the modern singers who were the "broken bells."

 

And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost

A reference to Buddy Holly (the father) Richie Valens (the son) and The Big Bopper (the holy ghost.) Note that he uses "admire," not "admired." This suggests that after ten years he still holds them in the highest regards.

 

They caught the last train for the coast.

Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper died. Alternatively, because people abandoned rock and roll the spirits of these three icons turned their backs on the music scene.

One analyst suggested a darker meaning for this phrase, that God was so disgusted with the coming violence and corruption of the 1960s that he turned away from us to let us suffer in a purgatory of our own making.

 

The day the music died. And we were singing....

The song ends with refrain repeats slowly fading out.

 

If you'd like to hear the song with the lyrics written out, I recommend the following Youtube video posted by 98maxridestreet. Please be sure to give it a thumbs-up vote.

 

 

Videos like this quite often get cancelled by Youtube. If that happens to the one above perhaps the following two will still be active:

 

 

 

 

Having gone through the exercise of squeezing out every possible meaning for each line, it has to be acknowledged that many of the lyrics may not have any meaning other than to provide rhyme and/or filler.

Thank you very much for taking a look at this page. I got a lot of satisfaction out of the research to put it together. I sincerely hope you enjoyed it.

 

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