Don McLean's 'American Pie' Is About More Than Buddy Holly
Cover art for the single 'American Pie' showing Don McLean; Buddy Holly in a photo taken in a photo booth in New York's Grand Central Station in 1959. Sources: discogs.com; Wikimedia Commons
For nearly 50 years, listeners have pondered the meaning of Don McLean's "American Pie:" Is it all Buddy Holly, or is there some other story, or assortment of stories, happening? With a full cast of characters and vividly described settings, the song has a vast sweep, and in some ways is more like a movie than a pop song. At over eight minutes long, "American Pie" is the longest song to ever reach #1 on the American pop chart.
Dissecting Don McLean's "American Pie" has been a favorite pastime of music fans and pop historians, and McLean has, mostly, sat back and let people say what they want. He's never offered any sort of detailed as to what his best-known song is really "about." And the truth is, when you put "American Pie" under the microscope, you can figure out a plotline and a lot of ideas, but you've also got to admit that there may be other completely valid interpretations. Like most good artists, McLean created something that engages the audeinces intelligence without telling you what to think.
Here's a primer on "American Pie" -- certainly not the authoritative translation, as such a thing is probably impossible. But there are many generally agreed-upon observations about characters and sentiment.
Evidence That 'American Pie' Is About Buddy Holly
Several of the lyrics are clearly about Buddy Holly:
"But February made me shiver / With every paper I'd deliver / Bad news on the doorstep"
Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) died in an airplane crash on February 3, 1959. McLean, who was 13 years old at the time, had a paper route and learned of the singer's death while folding newspapers on the morning of February 4.
"I can't remember if I cried / When I read about his widowed bride"
Holly had married Maria Elena Santiago on August 15 of the previous year
"And them good old boys were drinking whiskey 'n rye / Singing, "This’ll be the day that I die / This’ll be the day that I die.'"
The repeated line in the chorus is clearly a rephrasing of "That'll be the day that I die," the chorus of Holly's hit "That'll Be The Day."
Additionally, McLean dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly.
What Don McLean Has Said About 'American Pie'
In 2015, Don McLean auctioned off an 18-page document billed as the "complete working manuscript" for the song "American Pie." To promote the auction (through Christie's), McLean gave an interview in which he shared more background on the song than he has in the past:
"Basically in 'American Pie,' things are heading in the wrong direction," he said. "It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense."
It's far from a detailed explanation, but it does confirm that the song is about much more than Buddy Holly. In fact, when the pieces are assembled, the song's story spans more than 10 years, and the death of Buddy Holly is really just the starting point.
The Song's Main Action Takes Place Over The Course Of Decade Of The '60s
After setting the stage with a description of Buddy Holly's death and how it affected him, McLean jumps ahead to the then-current day, singing "Now for ten years, we've been on our own."
The rest of the song -- the bulk of it -- is a description of the '60s. In McLean's depiction of events, the decade wasn't exactly the fun counterculture free-for-all as is often portrayed. Following the death of Buddy Holly, McLean sees a steady decline from a happy '50s innocence to a chaotic and ultimately violent situation in 1970.
A Farewell To Teenage Idealism
The second verse of the song is jubilant -- the rhythm picks up and the words describe the thrills of being a teen in the late '50s and early '60s. "Did you write the book of love?" is a reference to young teenage love, as well as the song "Book Of Love" by the Monotones. Faith is addressed -- faith in the Christian God, the Bible, and faith in rock 'n roll. Then we get several consecutive lines citing the excitement of meeting girls and dating in a more conservative era, before ideas like "free love" loosened the moral standards of the day. It's essentially a catalog of a sort of romantic innocence that would be lost later in the decade: slow dancing, a sock-hop in the school gym, and going to pick up your date for the prom with a pink carnation. The pink carnation might be a reference to the 1957 country hit by Marty Robbins, "A White Sport Coat," in which a young man who's been stood up for the prom laments that he has "a white sport coat and a pink carnation and blues in my heart." That makes some sense, as the next lines in "American Pie" are "I knew I was out of luck / The day the music died."
Sorry folks, the fun part of the song is now over.
The Characters In The Dark Drama That Unfolds
Over the course of the eight-minute song, McLean mentions many characters, most of them stand-ins for real people, either musicians or political figures who were prominent in the '60s. The first character, and the one that has no clear real-world basis, is Miss American Pie herself, to whom McLean is bidding goodbye. This seems to be a mashup of the idea of Miss America and the phrase "American as apple pie." She's an embodiment of American beauty, wholesomeness and idealism -- and innocence.
Other characters, in order of appearance:
The Jester, who sings for "the king and queen / in a coat he borrowed from James Dean" -- young Bob Dylan, whose coat on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan strongly resembles one worn by the late actor. The jester reappears later "in a cast," which is a reference to Bob Dylan's near-fatal motorcycle accident of July 1966.
The King -- Elvis Presley, the pre-eminent rock musician during the innocent era that McLean misses. He's not necessarily happy that the brooding Bob Dylan has replaced Elvis as the most important musician in the '60s.
Lennon or Lenin -- John Lennon of the Beatles, who would cultivate increasingly radical political ideals as the '60s went on. In the '50s and early '60s, popular music wasn't a political medium, but by the late '60s it had become extremely political. For a narrator who adored the carefree love songs of Buddy Holly and Elvis, this drains some of the joy from music. McLean plays on Vladimir Lenin's name in the line "Lennon read a book on [Karl] Marx."
The quartet -- the Beatles
Helter Skelter in the summer swelter -- A reference to the Manson Family murders that occurred in August 1969. Charles Manson had hoped to incite a race war, a chaotic vision he called "Helter Skelter."
Jack -- Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. One of the band's hits was "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The verse in which Jack appears in "American Pie" is the song's darkest. It's believed to be a description of the concert played by the Rolling Stones at Altamont, during which a teenager with a gun was stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel working "security" while the British band played on stage just a few yards away. This moment at Altamont is considered by many to be the great come-down of the '60s, occurring just months after Woodstock at an event that was billed as a sequel to Woodstock.
For McLean, it seems, the violence and nihilism of Altamont was a long time coming ... in the works for about a decade, to be precise.
The Aftermath Of The 1960s
The final verse of the song resumes the slower tempo of the song's intro, and mournfully catalogs some of the other low-points of the late '60s. It first references "a girl who sang the blues," who has nothing happy to tell the narrator, and is probably Janis Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1970.
"In the streets the children screamed" is thought to be a description of the Kent State massacre, in which National Guardsmen killed four students on May 4, 1970.
"The three men I admire the most / The Father, Son and Holy Ghost" -- while these lines are an obvious religious reference, it's been speculated that this trinity is actually John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., three public figures whose assassinations stand out as indications that the '60s weren't the idyllic groovy decade we might like to think.
The trilogy could also be a musical one. It could be Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones), or it could be the original tragic trio who sparked the song: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
Whoever it is, the three figures "caught the last train for the coast," which is certainly a metaphor for death -- a modern version of the euphemism "riding off into the sunset."
The Cast Of Characters In 'American Pie'
When McLean's manuscript was auctioned off by Christie's, many other notable thinkers weighed in on the song at greater length than the songwriter did. Here are some parting thoughts from historian Douglas Brinkley:
After all these years later “American Pie” still makes me feel empowered and yet filled with a sense of loss. The song is alive and joyful, yet fretful about a world gone wrong. It is a song that will never die. A reverie for the ages. There is a jump to the chorus, which forces the mind to relive the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, to troll through the back pages of our lives while, like a traditional Irish folksong, reminds us of Fate.
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