Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cutting Into American Pie

Since I can remember, I've always loved Don McLean's song, American Pie.  The song goes on for an amazing eight and a half minutes.

According to Don McLean, himself, the song was originally inspired by the death of Buddy Holly, on February 3rd, 1959 ( . . . "the day the music died.").  The song represents the evolution of music and politics throughout the 50's and the 60's; and at the same time presents an abstract story of McLean's life during this time period.  

A sidenote:  The plane that crashed killing Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, Ritchie Valens and the pilot, Roger Peterson, was NOT named American Pie. 

For those of you who have ever wondered what the song is about, like I have, I will try and break the song down and explain the lyrics from my research.

The following is my interpretation of the song from research I've done with the help of the Internet.

A long, long time ago...
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.

A function of early rock and roll was to provide dance music for various social events.  It also explains McLean's desire to become a musician.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn't take one more step.

Don was a paperboy when Buddy Holly died (his only job before becoming a singer-song writer).  And here he is referring to how he found out about his death.

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,

The widowed bride he is referring to is Buddy Holly's pregnant wife, Maria Elena.  She later had a miscarriage.

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

And "The day the music died" is referring to the plane crash that Holly, The Big Bopper and Valens were in. 

So bye-bye, miss american pie.

Goodbye to rock and roll and dance music of the 50's; the music of America.  

Drove my Chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.

The American automobile was Chevy.

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, "this’ll be the day that I die.
"this’ll be the day that I die.

"That'll be the day that I die." are lines from the chorus of "That'll Be The Day", one of Buddy Holly's hits.

Did you write the book of love,

The Monotones' 1958 hit "The Book Of Love".

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

“ Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."; old Sunday School song. 

Do you believe in rock ’n roll,

The Loving Spoonful's hit in 1965 "Do You Believe In Magic?"  Two lines in the song:  "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?

Slow dancing was an important part of early rock and roll dance events.  The popularity declined through the 60's.  And things like psychedelia and extra-long guitar solos gained prominence. 

Well, I know that you’re in love with him`cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym.

Dancing was an expression of love back in the 60's.  Dance partners were not so easily exchanged as they would be later on in the years. 

You both kicked off your shoes.

A reference to "sock hop".  Dancers were required to remove their shoes to protect the varnished floor of the gymnasium.  

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.

Before rock and roll became popular, music was greatly segregated.  The popular music of black performers for generally black audiences was called "race music" and later referred to as (we know it today) "rhythm and blues."

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck,

Marty Robbins' 1957 hit "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)".  And the pickup truck was endured as a symbol of sexual independence and potency.


Now for ten years we’ve been on our own

McLean wrote this song in the late 60s, ten years after the crash.

And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone,

Bob Dylan's 1965 song, "Like A Rolling Stone".

But that’s not how it used to be.
When the jester sang for the king and queen,

The jester is Bob Dylan; Elvis Presley is the king (goes without saying); and the queen is said to have been either Little Richard or Connie Francis.

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean

James Dean has a red windbreaker in the movie, "Rebel Without A Cause", which holds symbolic meaning throughout the movie.  Also, on the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Bob Dylan is wearing a windbreaker while posed in a street scene similar to one shown in a well-known photo of James Dean.  (The windbreaker is more brown than red but the photo and album cover have strange similarities.)

And a voice that came from you and me,

Folk music which is defined as music originating among the common people of a region and/or a nation; passed down orally.  Bob Dylan's musical roots were folk music.

Oh, and while the king was looking down,
The jester stole his thorny crown.

Referring to Elvis' decline and Dylan's ascendance.  "Thorny crown" is a reference to the price of fame.  Dylan once said he wanted to be as famous as, one of his early idols, Elvis.

The courtroom was adjourned;
No verdict was returned.

The trial of the Chicago Seven.  

And while Lennon read a book of marx,

Literally; John Lennon reading about Karl Marx.  Figuratively; the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles.  

The quartet practiced in the park,

The Beatles.

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

A reference to the new "art rock" groups that would play long songs not meant for dancing. 


Helter skelter in a summer swelter.

"Helter Skelter" is a Beatles song.  Charles Manson, who had claimed he was "inspired" by the song, through God and/or the Devil who were talking to him, led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murder.  Summer swelter is referring to the long hot summer.

The birds flew off with a fallout shelter,
Eight miles high and falling fast. 

The Byrds' song "Eight Miles High" from the record "Fifth Dimension" was one of the first records widely banned due to supposed drug-oriented lyrics.

It landed foul on the grass.

One of the Byrds was busted for the possession of marijuana.  

The players tried for a forward pass,

The Rolling Stones (figuratively) waiting for an opening which didn't happen until the Beatles broke up. 

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Bob Dylan crashed his Triumph motorcycle on July 29, 1966.

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume

This could refer to the smell of drugs in the air.  Or a reference to tear gas as "sweet perfume". 

While the sergeants played a marching tune.

The album, "Sgt. Pepper" by the Beatles, was said to be the most influencal album of all time. It was the first British pop LP to have lyrics on the back cover.

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

The Beatles' Candlestick Park concert in 1966 that lasted only 35 minutes and performed music that you couldn't dance to.  This may also refer to the Beatles breaking up. 

`cause the players tried to take the field;
The marching band refused to yield.

A reference to how the Beatles dominated the rock and roll scene.

Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?


Oh, and there we were all in one place,


A generation lost in space

Reference to the 60s TV show, "Lost In Space." 

With no time left to start again.

Maybe referring to the "lost generation" spending too much time stoned.

So come on: jack be nimble, jack be quick!

Reference to Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones.  "Jumping Jack Flash" was released on May 24th, 

Jack flash sat on a candlestick

The Rolling Stones' Candlestick Park Concert.

Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.

Referring to the Stone's song, "Sympathy For The Devil."

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage.

Mick Jaggar prancing and dancing on stage.

No angel born in hell
Could break that satan’s spell.

The Rolling Stones', "Sympathy For The Devil."  At a concert in 1969 at Altamont Speedway the Stones appointed members of the Hell's Angels to work security.  Near the front of the stage (in the darkness) a young man named Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death by the Angels.  Following this, a public outcry that the song, "Sympathy For The Devil" had somehow instigated the violence which then caused the Stones to drop this song from their shows for the next six years.

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite,
I saw satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

The sacrifice referring to Meredith Hunter, and maybe bonfires around the area providing fire.  Satan referring to Mick Jaggar.


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, who died of a heroin overdose on October 4th, 1970. 

I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,

Bill Graham's Fillmore West ("sacred store") one of the great rock and roll venues of all time.  And also referring to the stores that used to allow records to be previewed by customers. 

But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

Referring to people not interested in hearing Buddy Holly music OR that stores do not have or allow in-store listening booths any longer.

And in the streets: the children screamed,

Speaking about the "flower children" being beaten by police and National Guard troops; maybe referring specifically to the People's Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970.

The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.

Could be referring to the trend towards psychedelic music in the 60's.

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

The broken bells are the dead musicians.

And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,

Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. 

They caught the last train for the coast

Another way to say someone died.

The day the music died.


Lastly, you'll notice that the song changes it's rhythm throughout the eight and a half minutes.  It starts out in mono and gradually goes to stereo which is said to represent going from the monaural era into the stereo age.

1 comment:

  1. Heather that has been one of my favorite songs since the fourth grade. I have also pondered the lyrics many times and you have covered (+) the meanings to the "T". The information and research is greatly appreciated.