Original publish date: February 7, 2019
Sixty years ago, February 3, 1959, three of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest stars- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper- were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The day became known as, “The Day the Music Died.” 13-year-old Don McLean was folding newspapers for his paper route in the early morning hours of February 4, 1959 when he got the news. Ten years later, McLean recorded an album in Berkeley, California called “Tapestry” in 1969. After being rejected 72 times by multiple labels, the album was picked up and released by Mediarts, a label that had not existed when he first started looking. It attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community. McLean’s major break came when Mediarts was bought by United Artists, paving the way for his second album, “American Pie”.
The album launched two number one hits in the title song and “Vincent”. American Pie’s success made McLean an international star. The title track went on to become an anthem for late stage baby boomers. Decyphering the song’s lyrics became a national pasttime, sparking rumors that persist to this day. “American Pie” was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
McLean has really never divulged the song lyrics meanings. He has said: “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” His silence has simply added fuel to the speculation. In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash, he stated that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly’s death and that he considers the song to be “a big song … that summed up the world known as America”. It should be noted that McLean dedicated his album to Holly. Every line of the 8 1/2 minute song has been carefully culled over and, rightly or wrongly, “explained” by fans and pundits alike ever since. Some of them are simple, others, not so much.
“A long, long time ago.”: American Pie was written in 1971 but talks about the 1950’s. “I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.”: McLean’s favorite music were the golden oldies of the 50’s. “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while…”: Fifities music was primarily made for school dances and sock hops and McLean was waxing nostalgic about creating the same atmosphere with his music. “But February made me shiver.”: His idol, Buddy Holly died in a February plane crash in Iowa. “With every paper I’d deliver.”: He was a newspaper delivery boy in New Rochelle, New York. “Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”: Denotes the day he got the news of the plane crash. “I can’t remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride.”: Buddy 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.”: Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died together on the same day and fans felt that these three were that only major artists left. Elvis got drafted, Little Richard turned gospel, Bill Haley was forgotten, Jerry Lee Lewis was scandalous and Chuck Berry was a convicted criminal.
“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?”: Don Cornell’s book “The Bible Tells Me So” (1955) and the Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me,” with the line “For the Bible tells me so.” were presumed memories from McLean’s childhood. “Now do you believe in rock & roll?”: McLean was a former folk singer, a medium supplanted by Rock n’ Roll. “Can music save your mortal soul?”: Music may be the only thing that can save the listener from the social upheaval of the sixties. “And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?”: another perceived reference to the innocence of the 1950s. “Now I know that you’re in love with him, ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym.”: Buddy’s widow Maria Elena remarried. “You both kicked off your shoes.”: 1950s sock hop reference. “Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.”: Buddy Holly was living in Greenwich Village at the time of his death and frequenting the Jazz bars with his young wife. “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck.”: likely a tip of the cap to Marty Robbins 1957 song A White sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation). “But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died.”: Holly’s death presaged an end of innocence.
“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own.”: It was a decade after Holly’s death when McLean put out his first album in 1969. “And moss grows fat on a rolling stone.”: Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” signified (to many) the death of folk music. “but that’s not how it used to be.”: Again referring to Dylan’s musical changes. “When the jester sang for the king and queen.”: A veiled reference to Dylan as the jester. The king was Peter Seger and the queen Joan Baez. The two biggest names in folk music in the ’60’s. “In a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”: Although some see this as reference of Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” album cover where he is wearing a red windbreaker, it has also been explained as the movie idol’s death coming so close to Holly’s. “And a voice that came from you and me.”: again a reference to Dylan being the voice of his generation. “Oh, and while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown.”: When Elvis “The King” left for the Army, Dylan stepped up to take his place. “The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned.”: Dylan left the folk scene and went electric, then had his motorcycle wreck and disappeared for awhile. “And while Lennon read a book of Marx.”: Like Dylan, John Lennon and The Beatles switched genres from a pop band to serious musicians with an even more serious message. “The quartet practiced in the park and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.”: The Beatles performed their last live concert at Candlestick Park and were broken up by the time this song became well known. There are many music aficionados out there who will argue that this verse is not about Bob Dylan at all but rather about the Kennedys. In that case, the lyrics should be pretty self explanatory.
“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter.”: In the summer of 1968, Charles Manson massacred an entire family spurred on by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” from the white album. “The Byrd flew off with to a fallout shelter.”: The Byrd’s were a popular folk-rock group who had a hit with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in 1965. Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared on his “Bringing It All Back Home” record, which features the image of a fallout shelter sign in the lower left corner. “Eight miles high and falling fast then landed in the foul grass.”: Eight Miles High was the first ever psychedelic song by the Byrds and tall grass refers to marijuana. “The players tried for a forward pass with the jester, on the sidelines in a cast.” Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle wreck sidelined him and led to the success (out of necessity) of his back-up band, “The Band” whose 1968 and 1969 albums are considered classics. “Now the half time air was sweet perfume while sergeants played a marching tune.” Perceived reference to Dylan’s time off and the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. “We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance.”: reference to the protests at the 1968 Chicago DNC and Kent State massacre of 1970. “Cause the players tried to take the field.”: The National Guard at Kent State University. “The marching band refused to yield.”: resulting in the deaths of of four students and wounding of nine others. “Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died.”: Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
“And then we were all in one place.”: The Woodstock Festival took place in August 1969. 400,000 of McLean’s generation were there. “A generation lost in space.”: with the Apollo 11 moonlanding, the kids who grew up watching Lost in Space were coming of age. “With no time left to start again.”: The deaths of Buddy Holly and James Dean were harbingers for assassinations of the 1960s that could not be undone. “So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick.”: Reference to the Rolling Stones song Jumpin’ Jack Flash. “cause fire is the devil’s only friend.”: The Rolling Stones 1968 album Sympathy for the devil. “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage.”: In December of 1969, the Stones attempted another Woodstock at Altamont Speedway. A free concert with the Hell’s Angel’s handling the security. The Stones paid them with beer and handfuls of acid and during the performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a black man was beaten and stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. “My hands were clenched in fists of rage no angel born in hell could brake that Satan’s spell.”: The Hell’s Angels. “As the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite.”: The stones were helicoptered out after the murder and mayhem ensued. “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.”: Historians point to the Stones at Altamont as the death of the sixties and good no longer triumphed over evil.
“I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.”: Considered as a reference to Janis Joplin’s death by an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. “I went down to the sacred store.”: Nostalgic return to a once safe place. “Where I heard the music years before, but the man said the music wouldn’t play.”: pining for the forgotten golden oldies of the good old days. “And in the streets the children screamed.”: Race riots, political protests and militant groups now ruled the streets. “The lovers cried and the poets dreamed.”: The political assassinations of the sixties had destroyed the promise of the future. “But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.”: The age of Nixon-Agnew & Reagan was now usurping religion as their mantra fueled by the so-called silent majority. “And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”: McLean is Catholic and this is a tribute to the Holy Trinity. “They caught the last train for the coast.”: The April 8, 1966 Time magazine cover had asked the question “Is God Dead?” and The Beatles John Lennon had echoed the sentiment the same year. “The day the music died. And we were singing.”: McLean’s shock and despair at Holly’s death seemed insurmountable but it in fact led to his own birth as a musician and after all, music soothes the savage beast.
This song’s refrain may be the hardest part of the song to explain. “So bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. 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.” The rumor was that American Pie was the name of the doomed plane carrying Holly, Valens and Richardson. Not true. It was also suggested that McLean was dating a Miss America contestant while writing the song. Also not true. Years later, McLean stated that Miss American Pie is as “American as apple pie, so the saying goes.” When taken on the face of it, I believe the refrain came together as a chorus simply because it was catchy. All hidden meanings aside, that may also be true about the entire song. Practically speaking “Chevy” rhymes with “levee”, it’s that simple. Still, theorists propose that the song’s refrain comes from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the day,” that eventually says “that I die.”
To further confuse the issue, an internet site notes that the Levee was a bar in Purchase, NY near McLean’s hometown and that there is also a town named Levee located about 15 minutes from his old school. According to local lore, McLean first wrote the lyrics on paper napkins in a bar in between gigs at Caffe Lena coffeehouse. A plaque on the wall of the Tin & Lint bar reads: “American Pie written by Don McLean, summer 1970.” McLean denies that story and in 2011 he told a local newspaper reporter that he wrote the song with the famous line “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” in Philadelphia. McLean himself said the chorus came to him suddenly while out shopping in a pharmacy in Cold Spring, New York. “I drove as fast as I could back home-I didn’t have a pencil and paper with me-and scribbled that down and put it in the tape recorder.”
McLean bristled when asked about the meaning of the song; “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral and I did, but it took a long time. You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me… Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”
In February 2015, McLean announced that Christies Auction House in New York City would sell his original lyrics for the iconic song. McLean explained his reasoning in Rolling Stone magazine: “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.” The lyrics are 18 pages and contain 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text and includes lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes. Christie’s described the lot as “Comprising: 4 pages manuscript in pencil on four sheets of blue paper stock, 11 pages manuscript on 10 sheets in pencil and ink on ruled spiral paper (including one a half sheet), 2 pages manuscript in pencil on two sheets of yellow paper stock, and one page typed manuscript on blue paper (with four lines holograph notes on verso in purple ink and pencil). Together 18 pages of manuscript on 17 sheets. ” The lot sold on April 7, 2015 for $1.2 million ($1.57 million with buyer’s premium).
After the auction when asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean jokingly replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” McLean said he would reveal the meaning of the song’s lyrics after the original manuscript was auctioned off. In the auction catalog, McLean revealed: “Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. … It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” The catalog confirmed some of the better known references in the song’s lyrics, including Elvis Presley (“the king”) and Bob Dylan (“the jester”), and confirmed that the song culminates with a near-verbatim description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
After the sale, McLean said that he would be selling off more from his music collection adding that he had just embarked on a program to lighten the load and get rid of things. “I hadn’t thought about the lyrics much. They were upstairs in a box of lyrics probably a foot thick with all kinds of songs I’d written that people know. But, of course there’s no song like that song and so I decided to sell them and see what happens. I know that people feel like that song belongs to the public so I thought a public auction would be the best thing to do.” McLean added that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame wanted his lyrics but he refused because “they didn’t want me. I’ve never been in the rock n roll Hall of Fame, I’m an outsider. I’ve been very famous all my life. Many people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame but I haven’t because I’m a contrarian. The wanted my lyrics but I said to them ‘well, you don’t want me in the Hall of Fame so to hell with you’.” Fits in well with American Pie’s loss of innocence, don’t you think?