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“American Pie” by Don McLean

Music | January 15, 2018

Don McLean JUNE 1970: Singer song-writer Don McLean poses for a portrait in June 1970. (Photo by Julie Snow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Don McLean is a legendary American folk singer with scores of popular songs to his credit. He knew early on that music was in his soul and he looked up to the likes of Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly; Holly being his all-time favorite rock and roll musician. He was an extremely deep thinker and some of his songs had a gloomy undertone about them.

Early in his career, McLean had written his first album entitled, Tapestry. He was shopping for a record label to market his work. He had been turned down by at least 70 companies at the time and was, understandably, becoming discouraged. Eventually, a small, newer company, called Mediarts, picked him up and released the album in 1970. It was released but wasn’t received they way he thought it would be. One probable reason is that the small recording label was not well known or established enough.

When that record deal didn’t do anything to further McLean’s career, he was thinking he might be on his way to being “all washed up”.  He decided to make a last-ditch effort to record another album and go for broke. He drew on his admiration for Buddy Holly as inspiration for the next album. Buddy Holly had unexpectedly died in a tragic plane crash at an early age. He was lost but not forgotten so McLean decided to, “bring Buddy Holly back to life”, to use his exact words. 

McLean had actually been contemplating just such a project for a long time. To McLean, the song, American Pie, which was the title track of his next album, was ultimately a reverent nod to his idol, Holly. Holly’s death had left a lasting void in McLean’s life, so the song proved to be very therapeutic. The opening lyrics of the song actually have personal meaning to McLean. He had really been a paperboy who learned the tragic fate of his favorite rock and roll star, Buddy Holly, when he was delivering the daily newspaper. It was crushing.

The meaning of the iconic song is considered to be somewhat ambiguous but that is by deliberate design. McLean wrote, American Pie, to symbolize the end of an era that began its decline coinciding with the death of Holly. He had more than one message to get out, but the main gist of the song was to have been the interpretation of his assessment of the “state” of American society at the time. The song was both soulful and mournful.

American Pie’s lyrics reference a lot of diverse characters. Besides Miss American Pie, the characters include a jester, a king, a queen and some good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye. It also makes references to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin (some say, John Lennon), The Beatles, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, James Dean, Charles Manson, the Vietnam War; and last but not least, the “widowed bride”, was to have been a reference to Jackie Kennedy. The characters were to represent “real people”. It was a plethora of McLean’s emotions that spilled out into one song.

This next album, American Pie, fared much better than the last. The album and the song itself ended up being a larger than life classic. The title track became a No. 1 hit and became synonymous with the phrase, “the day the music died”.  It may well be among the best-known pieces of music in the world.

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.