Don McLean's 'American Pie' Is About More Than Buddy Holly

By | January 15, 2018

test article image
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:; 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

test article image
Buddy Holly. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.