The Epic Track: “American Pie”

Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.


“A long, long time ago/I can still remember how that music/used to make me smile.”

Who can forget Don McLean’s earnest tenor as he begins one of the most impactful songs of the 20th Century?

“American Pie” has been an anthem for over 50 years, with 8.5 minutes of poetry covering what Don McLean viewed as the downward spiral of America during the 1960s. It’s a sing-along for the ages, kicking up generations of debate by those who know every word.

It was the lengthiest hit single for half a century until Taylor Swift unseated him with her 2021 ten-minute chart-topper, “All Too Well.”  When “American Pie” was first released as a vinyl single, it was divvied up and played on both sides.

McLean begins the narrative in 1959, the proverbial “day the music died,” when a plane crash took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.

McLean was a 13-year-old suburban kid from New Rochelle, New York, beginning his paper route for the day. He cut open his stack of newspapers, heartbroken by the headline about his departed musical heroes, hence: “But February made me shiver/With every paper I’d deliver/Bad news on the doorstep/I couldn’t take one more step.” He goes on: “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride [presumably Buddy Holly’s young wife Maria Elena], but something touched me deep inside the day the music died.”

McLean explained in an Australian interview: “I wanted to write a big song about America but I didn’t know how to even begin to express that.” He began noodling around with the opening lines and the song gradually emerged, organically and full-blown.

“American Pie” is an epic track of the highest order, a lengthy spiritual cousin to Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 “Alice’s Restaurant.”  It’s best known for its bouncy, compelling chorus:

“Bye Bye, Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye

Singing ‘This will be the day that I die…

This will be the day that I die.’”

Amidst the chorus are ten stanzas describing the 1960s American experience through McLean’s contemplative lens. Filled with musical allusions, spiritual and biblical references, political screeds, and bits of personal autobiography, “American Pie” has become part of our culture since 1971, a #1 Billboard hit endlessly pondered and discussed.

For decades McLean made clear that he didn’t want to reveal too much about the song; he said it was “poetry” and thus subject to people’s interpretations. Fair enough, but he did come clean with a lot of explanation in the wonderful 2022 documentary The Day The Music Died/American Pie.

“American Pie” begins with the hypothetical innocence of the late ‘50s: sock hops, innocent teenage flirting, “Did you write ‘The Book of Love’, and do you have faith in God above?” It progresses through musical rebellion and political unrest. McLean’s Catholicism is woven throughout; he conjures a sense of faithlessness, fear, and plummeting values. Two Kennedys are assassinated, the VietNam War is its own version of Hell. It concludes with the Manson Murders and the deadly mayhem of Altamont in 1969, a bleak counterpart to Woodstock; he sees “Satan laughing with delight the day the music died.”

The iconic lyric “When the Jester sang for the King [Elvis?] and Queen [Baez?] in a coat he borrowed from James Dean, in a voice that came from you and me” was long believed to be a reference to Bob Dylan as the jester in the Jimmy Dean-esque leather jacket that he wore on his 1963 album Freewheelin.’ Many of those elements seem to line up, but McLean officially denied that this was the case.

After an array of cultural references, personal tidbits, and jolting historical facts, McLean slows things down to conclude his tale of a nation that has lost its righteousness. The figurative church bells are broken, the streets bleak, hope is at a premium. As his voice softens, he nails the sense of defeat:

“And the three men I admired most

The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.

They caught the last train for the coast…

The day the music died.”

People still debate the identities of the “Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.” Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper? John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King?  Or is it God himself?

The notion of The Holy Trinity making a beeline for “The Coast” – sinful, phony-baloney Hollywood – is a spot-on symbol for America’s loss of innocence. And a perfect painful conclusion to this extraordinary song.

-Ellen Fagan

Fair use image of “American Pie”

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Ellen Fagan is a forever New Yorker, long-time Greenwich Village resident and vintage Duke University graduate with hippie-esque leanings. The best description of Ellen was given to her by a sardonic lawyer during the voir dire of one of her myriad Jury Duty stints: "...housewife, mom, voracious reader, freelance writer, copy editor, jewelry designer and frequent cyber-sleuth."

10 comments on “The Epic Track: “American Pie”

  1. Eoghan Lyng

    Nice one, Ellen.

    • Ellen C Fagan

      Thank you, good sir! “American Pie” is a real slice of my childhood. 🥧

  2. Ellen, once again, you’ve given us a thoughtful, engaging and nostalgic read! Funny to think that when we were grooving to this on the AM radio as kids, it was so rich with references! Well done!

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks so much, Laura! Agreed ~ I remember the lyrics being funny & compelling (“pink carnation & a pick-up truck”) but we had no context for them!

  3. My upcoming book about rock widows is titled I Can’t Remember if I Cried: Rock Widows on Life, Love and Legacy,” with that title taken from McLean’s iconic song. The full line and the attribution to Maria Elena Holly appears as the epigraph. It came to me one day while listening to the song that it is the perfect title for this book. Great article!

    • Ellen Fagan

      That’s amazing – & what an apt title indeed! All the very best with your book. I would love to read it. Completely in my wheelhouse!

  4. Dave Bartholome

    So glad that you didn’t mention Madonna’s pointless cover of the song. Anyway, good article; you’ve made me realize there’s more to this song than I had thought.

  5. Ellen Fagan

    Thanks so much, Dave! Glad to hear it. So many layers & levels to this classic tune.

  6. John Smistad

    Great job, Ellen.

    I remember as a Texas junior highschooler our very hip English teacher actually had the class write on what we believed “American Pie” was “about”. I wrote that the pie was our lives. And every day we take a piece out of it. Until it’s finished.

    I dunno. Not bad, I guess, for a 13-year-old upstart. ;}

    • Ellen Fagan

      Thanks so much, John! & kudos to your hip teacher & your 13 year-old soulful self. That’s a fabulous interpretation!

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