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.
Fair use image of “American Pie”