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Don McLean's 

American Pie

An attempted explanation and analysis  

American Pie is a song written by Don McLean in the early 1970's. It is an autobiographical journey through the turbulent 1960's with references to the events that  shaped the era. McLean describes in American Pie how his innocence is lost and how he finds that many of the things he was told about the American dream as a child were a lie. This loss of the American dream, which he personifies as  "Miss American Pie",  is the central theme of the song.  To see just the words without the analysis, click here.

(Verse 1)
A long, long time ago
"American Pie" reached #1 in the US in 1972;  the album containing it had been released in 1971. Buddy Holly died in 1959.

I can still remember how That music used to make me smile. And I knew if I had my chance, That I could make those people dance, And maybe they'd be happy for a while.
One of early rock and roll's functions was to provide dance music for various social events. McLean recalls his desire to become a musician playing that sort of music.

But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm.

With every paper I'd deliver, Don McLean's only job besides being a full-time singer-songwriter was being a paperboy.

Bad news on the doorstep... I couldn't take one more step. I can't remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride
Holly's recent bride was pregnant when the crash took place; she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.

But something touched me deep inside, The day the music died.
The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took the lives of Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba") and J. P  "The Big Bopper"  Richardson ("Chantilly Lace"). Since all three were so prominent at the time, February 3, 1959 became known as "The Day The Music Died". (Click here to visit the Rock and Roll Cemetery where you can view the graves, memorial, and crash site for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens.)

So...

(Refrain)

Bye bye Miss American Pie,
Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant. (unconfirmed)

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye Singing "This'll be the day that I die, This'll be the day that I die."
One of Holly's hits was "That'll be the Day"; the chorus contains the line "That'll be the day when I die".

(Verse 2)
Did you write the book of love,
"The Book of Love" by the Monotones; hit in 1958.

And do you have faith in God above, If the Bible tells you so?
In 1955, Don Cornell did a song entitled "The Bible Tells Me So". Rick Schubert pointed this out, and mentioned that he hadn't heard the song, so it was kinda difficult to tell if it was what McLean was referencing. Anyone know for sure?

There's also an old Sunday School song which goes: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so"

Now do you believe in rock 'n roll?
The Lovin' Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John Sebastian's "Do you Believe in Magic?". The song has the lines: "Do you believe in magic" and "It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll."

Can music save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Dancing slow was an important part of early rock and roll dance events -- but declined in importance through the 60's as things like psychedelia and the 10-minute guitar solo gained prominence.

Well I know you're in love with him 'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
Back then, dancing was an expression of love, and carried a connotation of commitment. Dance partners were not so readily exchanged as they would be later.

You both kicked off your shoes
A reference to the 1950s tradition, the "sock hop". (Street shoes tear up wooden basketball floors, so dancers had to take off their shoes.)

Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues
Some history. Before the popularity of rock and roll, music, like much else in the U. S., was highly segregated. The popular music of black performers for largely black audiences was called, first, "race music", later softened to rhythm and blues. In the early 50s, as they were exposed to it through radio personalities such as Allan Freed, white teenagers began listening, too. (Freed shocked the nation by playing the songs of "Little Richard" Pennyman.) 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 Mc Guire 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 produce the kind of rock and roll tradition that produced Buddy Holly.

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
"A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)", was a hit for Marty Robbins in 1957. The pickup truck has endured as a symbol of sexual independence and potency, especially in a Texas context. Also, Jimmy Buffet does a song about "a white sport coat and a pink crustacean". :-

But I knew that I was out of luck The day the music died I started singing...

Refrain

(Verse 3)
Now for ten years we've been on our own
McLean was writing this song in the late 60's, about ten years after the crash.

And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
It's unclear who the "rolling stone" is supposed to be. It could be Dylan, since "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) was his first major hit; and since he was busy writing songs extolling the virtues of simple love, family and contentment while staying at home (he didn't tour from '66 to '74) and raking in the royalties. This was quite a change from the earlier, angrier Dylan.

The "rolling stone" could also be Elvis, although I don't think he'd started to pork out by the late sixties.

It could refer to rock and rollers in general, and the changes that had taken place in the business in the 60's, especially the huge amounts of cash some of them were beginning to make, and the relative stagnation that entered the music at the same time.

Or, perhaps it's a reference to the stagnation in rock and roll.

Or, finally, it could refer to the Rolling Stones themselves; a lot of musicians were angry at the Stones for "selling out". Howard Landman points out that John Foxx of Ultravox was sufficiently miffed to write a song titled "Life At Rainbow's End (For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street)". The Stones at one point became citizens of some other country merely to save taxes.

But that's not how it used to be When the jester sang for the King and Queen
The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later. There are several interpretations of king and queen: some think that Elvis Presley is the king, which seems pretty obvious. The queen is said to be either Connie Francis or Little Richard. But see the next note.

An alternate interpretation is that this refers to the Kennedys -- the king and queen of "Camelot" -- who were present at a Washington DC civil rights rally featuring Martin Luther King. There's a recording of Dylan performing at this rally.

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In the movie "Rebel Without a Cause", James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film. In one particularly intense scene, Dean lends his coat to a guy who is shot and killed; Dean's father arrives, sees the coat on the dead man, thinks it's Dean, and loses it.

On the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Dylan is wearing just such a red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar to one shown in a well-known picture of James Dean. (Note:  Some folks have informed me that on their Freewheelin' cover, Dylan is wearing a TAN windbreaker, not a RED one.  Oh, well.)

Bob Dylan played a command performance for the Queen of England. He was *not* properly attired, so perhaps this is a reference to his apparel.

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

Oh, and while the King was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown
This could be a reference to Elvis's decline and Dylan's ascendance. (i.e. Presley is looking down from a height as Dylan takes his place.) The thorny crown might be a reference to the price of fame. Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of his early idols.

The courtroom was adjourned, No verdict was returned.
This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven.

And while Lennon read a book on Marx,
Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. (Of course, he could be referring to Groucho Marx, but that doesn't seem quite consistent with McLean's overall tone. On the other hand, some of the wordplay in Lennon's lyrics and books is reminiscent of Groucho.) The "Marx-Lennon" wordplay has also been used by others, most notably the Firesign Theatre on the cover of their album "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?". Also, a famous French witticism was "Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho."; "I'm a Marxist of the Groucho variety".

The quartet practiced in the park
There are two schools of thought about this; the obvious one is the Beatles playing in Shea Stadium, but note that the previous line has John Lennon *doing something else at the same time*. This tends to support the theory that this is a reference to the Weavers, who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. McLean had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early 60's while performing in coffeehouses and clubs in upstate New York and New York City. He was also well-acquainted with Pete Seeger; in fact, McLean, Seeger, and others took a trip on the Hudson river singing anti-pollution songs at one point. Seeger's LP "God Bless the Grass" contains many of these songs.

And we sang dirges in the dark
A "dirge" is a funeral or mourning song, so perhaps this is meant literally...or, perhaps, this is a reference to some of the new "art rock" groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing.

The day the music died. We were singing... Refrain

(Verse 4)
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
"Helter Skelter" is a Beatles song which appears on the "white" album. Charles Manson, claiming to have been "inspired" by the song (through which he thought God and/or the devil were taking to him) led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murders.

Is "summer swelter" a reference to the "Summer of Love" or perhaps to the "long hot summer" of Watts?

The birds flew off with the fallout shelter Eight miles high and falling fast
The Byrd's "Eight Miles High" was on their late 1966 release "Fifth Dimension". It was one of the first records to be widely banned because of supposedly drug-oriented lyrics.

It landed foul on the grass
One of the Byrds was busted for possession of marijuana.

The players tried for a forward pass
Obviously a football metaphor, but about what? It could be 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
On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph 55 motorcycle while riding near his home in Woodstock, New York. He spent nine months in seclusion while recuperating from the accident.

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
Drugs.  The sweet odor of burning marijuana.

Well, now, wait a minute; that's probably too obvious. It's possible that this line and the next few refer to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The "sweet perfume" is probably tear gas.

While the sergeants played a marching tune
Following from the thought above, the sergeants would be the Chicago Police and the Illinois National Guard, who marched the protestors out of the park and into jail.

Alternatively, this could refer to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Or, perhaps McLean refers to the Beatles' music in general as "marching" because it's not music for dancing. Or, finally, the "marching tune" could be the draft.

We all got up to dance Oh, but we never got the chance
The Beatles' 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes.

Or, following on from the previous comment, perhaps he meant that there wasn't any music to dance to.

'Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield.
Following on from the Chicago reference above, this could be another comment on protests. If the players are the protestors at Kent State, and the marching band the Ohio National Guard...

This could be a reference to the dominance of the Beatles on the rock and roll scene. For instance, the Beach Boys released "Pet Sounds" in 1966 -- an album which featured some of the same sort of studio and electronic experimentation as "Sgt. Pepper" (1967) -- but the album sold poorly.

Some folks think this refers to either the 1968 Democratic Convention or Kent State.
This might also be 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.

Or finally, this might be a comment which follows up on the earlier reference to the draft: the government/military-industrial-complex establishment refused to accede to the demands of the peace movement.

Do you recall what was revealed, The day the music died? We started singing

Refrain

(Verse 5)
And there we were all in one place
Woodstock.

A generation lost in space
Some people think this is a reference to the US space program, which it might be; but that seems a bit too literal. Perhaps this is a reference to hippies, who were sometimes known as the "lost generation", partially because of their particularly acute alienation from their parents, and partially because of their presumed preoccupation with drugs.
 

With no time left to start again
The "lost generation" spent too much time being stoned, and had wasted their lives? Or, perhaps, their preference for psychedelia had pushed rock and roll so far from Holly's music that it couldn't be retrieved.

So Jack be nimble Jack be quick
Probably a reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was released in May, 1968.

Jack flash sat on a candlestick
The Stones' Candlestick park concert?

'Cause fire is the devil's only friend"
It's possible that this is a reference to the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil".

An alternative interpretation of the last four lines is that they may refer to Jack Kennedy and his quick decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the candlesticks/fire refer to ICBMs and nuclear war.

And as I watched him on the stage My hands were clenched in fists of rage No angel born in hell Could break that Satan's spell
While playing a concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1968, the Stones appointed members of the Hell's Angels to work security (on the advice of the Grateful Dead). In the darkness near the front of the stage, a young man named Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death -- by the Angels. Public outcry that the song "Sympathy for the Devil" had somehow incited the violence caused the Stones to drop the song from their show for the next six years. This incident is chronicled in the documentary film "Gimme Shelter".

It's also possible that McLean views the Stones as being negatively inspired (remember, he had an extensive religious background) by virtue of "Sympathy for the Devil", "Their Satanic Majesties' Request" and so on. I find this a bit puzzling, since the early Stones recorded a lot of "roots" rock and roll, including Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away".
 
 

And as the flames climbed in high into the night To light the sacrificial rite
The most likely interpretation is that McLean is still talking about Altamont, and in particular Mick Jagger's prancing and posing while it was happening. The sacrifice is Meredith Hunter, and the bonfires around the area provide the flames.

(It could be a reference to Jimi Hendrix burning his Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival, but that was in 1967 and this verse is set in 1968.)

I saw Satan laughing with delight
If the above is correct, then Satan would be Jagger.

The day the music died He was singing...

Refrain

(Verse 6)
I met a girl who sang the blues
Janis Joplin.

And I asked her for some happy news But she just smiled and turned away
Janis died of a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.

I went down to the sacred store Where I'd heard the music years before
There are two interpretations of this: The "sacred store" was Bill Graham's Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time. Alternatively, this refers to record stores, and their longtime (then discontinued) practice of allowing customers to preview records in the store. (What year did the Fillmore West close?)

It could also refer to record stores as "sacred" because this is where one goes to get "saved". (See above lyric "Can music save your mortal soul?")

 But the man there said the music wouldn't play
Perhaps he means that nobody is interested in hearing Buddy Holly et.al.'s music? Or, as above, the discontinuation of the in-store listening booths.

And in the streets the children screamed
"Flower children" being beaten by police and National Guard troops; in particular, perhaps, the People's Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970.

The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
The trend towards psychedelic music in the 60's?

But not a word was spoken The church bells all were broken
It could be that the broken bells are the dead musicians: neither can produce any more music.

And the three men I admire most The Father Son and Holy Ghost
Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens -- or -- Hank Williams, Presley and Holly -- or -- JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy -- or -- or the Triune Deity. McLean had attended several Catholic schools.

They caught the last train for the coast
Could be a reference to wacky California religions, or could just be a way of saying that they've left (or died -- eastern culture often uses "went west" as a synonym for dying). Or, perhaps this is a reference to the famous "God is Dead" headline in the New York Times. David Cromwell has suggested that this is an oblique reference to a line in Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale", but I'm not sure I buy that; for one thing, all of McLean's musical references are to much older "roots" rock and roll songs; and secondly, I think it's more likely that this line shows up in both songs simply because it's a common cultural metaphor.

The day the music died
This tends to support the conjecture that the "three men" were Holly/Bopper/Valens, since this says that they left on the day the music died.

And they were singing...

Refrain (2x)

For the guitar chords, click on this link;
on the opening page, click on "Misc Tabs" then
scroll down the list of songs on the left side of the screen to American Pie.

 

 

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