“American Pie” is a song written and performed by Don McLean in 1971, which quickly became a cultural phenomenon and one of the most celebrated works of American music.
The song’s cryptic lyrics have long fascinated fans and sparked endless debates about their meaning and symbolism.
At its core, the song is a nostalgic reflection on the changing times of the 1960s and early 1970s and the loss of innocence that accompanied those changes.
However, the song’s meaning extends beyond simply reflecting on a particular era and touches on timeless and universal themes.
Many believe the song is a tribute to the tragic deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, also known as “The Day the Music Died.”
However, the lyrics of “American Pie” are open to multiple interpretations and have been analyzed and dissected by fans, critics, and scholars, leading to many theories and explanations.
This article will delve deeper into “American Pie” lyrics and explore this iconic song’s various interpretations and hidden meanings.
Meaning of “American Pie”
The intro of “American Pie” sets the stage for the rest of the song.
“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.”
The opening lines evoke a sense of nostalgia and longing for the past.
The phrase “a long, long time ago” suggests that the events referred to happened significantly ago.
The mention of music that used to make the narrator smile also reinforces this sense of nostalgia.
The following line, “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance,” suggests that the narrator is a musician who wants to bring happiness to his audience through his music.
“Maybe they’d be happy for a while” implies that this happiness may be fleeting, but it’s still worth pursuing.
McLean begins by recalling his boyhood, recalling moments when he would listen to artists such as Buddy Holly.
He also discusses his career goal of being a well-known artist.
He then talks about delivering newspapers on that dreadful February day after the plane crash and finding out the bad news.
“Bad news on the doorstep; I couldn’t take one more step; I can’t remember if I cried.”
Buddy Holly’s wife was pregnant at the time.
McLean can’t remember if he cried while reading the story.
But one thing is sure: the tragic day significantly impacted him and his music.
“So bye-bye, Miss American Pie Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry, 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.”
One interpretation of the chorus is that it refers to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on February 3, 1959.
“Miss American Pie” represents America, while “the levee” means the music industry.
The “good old boys” drinking “whiskey and rye” are a reference to the song “Whiskey and Rye” by the Big Bopper, while “This’ll be the day that I die” is a reference to the Buddy Holly song “That’ll be the Day.”
Another interpretation is that the song is a commentary on American culture’s and society’s decline in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“Miss American Pie” represents the American Dream, and the “levee” describes the social fabric of America.
The “good old boys” drinking “whiskey and rye” are seen as a symbol of the excess and decadence of the era, while “This’ll be the day that I die” is a reference to the end of an era.
“Did you write the book of love, And do you have faith in God above, If the Bible tells you so?”
The opening line of this verse is one of the most frequently misinterpreted, with many people assuming there is a deeper meaning.
Instead, McLean refers to several songs from his favorite musical era.
The Monotones released “The Book Of Love,” while Don Cornell released “The Bible Tells Me So.”
The rest of the verse is about McLean trying to win the heart of the legendary ‘Miss American Pie’ while making 1950s musical references.
“Now, for ten years, we’ve been on our own, And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone.”
McLean most likely began writing this song in 1969, as it was released in 1971.
That would be ten years since the Buddy Holly plane crash, hence the line about people being on their own for ten years.
Lyrically, things become very complicated because there might be many possible interpretations.
McLean also mentions the phrase “rolling stone,” which was widely used in the period, from magazine to song, and the name of one of the most popular bands of all time.
“Oh, and while the king was looking down, The jester stole his thorny crown, The courtroom was adjourned, No verdict was returned.”
The most common interpretation is that this verse refers to Bob Dylan’s music changing drastically and disappearing throughout this decade.
That’s because it’s generally believed that when McLean mentioned ‘The Jester,’ he was speaking to Dylan.
After all, one of Dylan’s album covers had him wearing a James Dean jacket.
But, with Dylan stealing the proverbial crown, who are the king and queen for whom the jester played?
While the musical king and queen could be Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, some believe it refers to the Kennedys, with John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald playing the jester.
“And while Lennon read a book on Marx, The quartet practiced in the park.”
McLean referred to John Lennon, but the Marx allusion remains a mystery.
“The quartet” is The Beatles, who usher in a new musical era that the “American Pie” singer would have to be dragged into kicking and screaming.
“Helter skelter in a summer swelter, The birds flew off with a fallout shelter.“
McLean references The Beatles, mentioning “Helter Skelter,” one of their songs, and Charles Manson.
McLean then gives a couple of nods to the band The Byrds but mentions that their music changed for the worst in the 1960s, with marijuana use possibly playing a role.
“We all got up to dance, Oh, but we never got the chance, ‘Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield.”
The football metaphors start coming in hot and heavy for the sports fans.
On paper, this verse describes the story of a football team returning from halftime to try to finish the game (with an injured Bob Dylan on the sidelines). The sergeants on the field were, once again, The Beatles.
The football players wanted to protest the war, but the marching band refused.
One unsolved question is who the band symbolizes, as it might be the police or The Beatles preaching nonviolence.
“Oh, and there we were, all in one place, A generation lost in space.”
The peak of this musical era was at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where we begin in the penultimate verse.
McLean considered the festival a waste of time that could have been spent on something more productive.
Around that time, The Rolling Stones rose to prominence, with McLean’s lyrics implying that they sold their souls to the devil to achieve fame.
“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 Rolling Stones attempted their version of Woodstock the same year at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California.
It was a total mess, with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle group being brought in to provide stage security.
In McLean’s perspective, the world had moved on from Buddy Holly, and corporate devils had taken over the soul of rock music as we knew it.
McLean has provided some insights into the song’s meaning, stating that it is partly autobiographical and a tribute to the music and culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
He has also said that the song is “an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.”
Milestones of the “American Pie” Song
In 2001, “American Pie” was named one of the top five songs of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 2017, the original manuscript for the song was sold at auction for $1.2 million, making it one of the most expensive pieces of rock and roll memorabilia ever sold.
Perhaps the most significant milestone in the history of “American Pie” came in 2015, when the Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry.
The National Recording Registry is a collection of sound recordings considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The inclusion of “American Pie” in the National Recording Registry was a testament to the song’s enduring popularity and cultural significance.
Cool Facts About “American Pie” Song
“American Pie” is over eight minutes long, making it one of the longest songs ever to be a hit.
Despite its length, it became a massive commercial success and topped the charts in several countries.
The song’s lyrics are known for their cryptic and symbolic nature, with many references to music, culture, and politics of the time.
It has been the subject of much analysis and interpretation, and many still debate its meaning.
“American Pie” has been covered by dozens of artists, including Madonna, Garth Brooks, and Green Day.
Madonna’s version, released in 2000, was a worldwide hit and reached the top 10 in several countries.
The song has been used in several films and TV shows, including “The Wonder Years,” “The Simpsons,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
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