American Pie – Don McLean

Don McLean is an American singer-songwriter.

As a young teenager, McLean became interested in folk music, particularly the Weavers’ 1955 recording At Carnegie Hall. Childhood asthma meant that McLean missed long periods of school, and although he slipped back in his studies, his love of music was allowed to flourish. He often performed shows for family and friends. By age 16 he had bought his first guitar (a Harmony acoustic archtop with a sunburst finish) and begun making contacts in the music business, becoming friends with folk singer Erik Darling, a member of the Weavers. McLean recorded his first studio sessions (with singer Lisa Kindred) while still in prep school.

McLean graduated from Iona Preparatory School in 1963, and briefly attended Villanova University, dropping out after four months. While at Villanova he became friends with singer/songwriter Jim Croce.

After leaving Villanova, McLean became associated with famed folk music agent Harold Leventhal, and for the next six years performed at venues and events including the Bitter End and the Gaslight Cafe in New York, the Newport Folk Festival, the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Concurrently, McLean attended night school at Iona College and received a Bachelors degree in Business Administration in 1968. He turned down a scholarship to Columbia University Graduate School in favour of becoming resident singer at Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY.

In 1968, with the help of a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, McLean began reaching a wider public, with visits to towns up and down the Hudson River. He learned the art of performing from his friend and mentor Pete Seeger. McLean accompanied Seeger on his Clearwater boat trip up the Hudson River in 1969 to protest environmental pollution in the river. During this time McLean wrote songs that would appear on his first album, Tapestry. McLean co-edited the book Songs and Sketches of the First Clearwater Crew with sketches by Thomas B. Allen for which Pete Seeger wrote the foreword. Seeger and McLean sang “Shenandoah” on the 1974 Clearwater album.

In 1961 Don’s father died. Don had also been profoundly affected by the deaths of both Buddy Holly and John F. Kennedy. These events would influence him in later life.

American Pie

Don McLean’s most famous composition, “American Pie”, is often interpreted as describing the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in an airplane crash on February 3, 1959, spawning the phrase, “The Day the Music Died.” McLean has stated that the lyrics are also somewhat autobiographical and present an abstract story of his life from the mid-1950s until the time he wrote the song in the late 1960s. The hometown legend is that “the levee” is his hometown bar, the Beechmont Tavern near Iona College. “American Pie” symbolizes the ongoing radical and tumultuous changes in popular music during this period, evolving from the often raw, upbeat sounds that marked the earliest days of rockabilly and the rock eras of the 1950s to the darker, more introspective, often cynical and increasingly socially conscious music of the late 1960s, driven by the sweeping social upheavals and volatile political atmosphere that had engulfed and defined America by the end of the decade.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” has remained the subject of intense scrutiny and philosophical interpretation for more than 30 years as music historians, scholars, professors of modern American literature, and his fans alike continue to search for its ‘deeper meaning.’ In interviews, Don claims to be amused that many interpretations start with the premise that he never talks about the song nor has ever provided insight into the meaning of the lyrics.  I have included a possible “key” to the lyrics below.

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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.  1

But February made me shiver
With every paper I delivered,
Bad news on the door step,
I couldn’t take one more step,  2

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride  3
But something touched me deep inside,
The day, the music, died.  4
So…

Bye, bye Miss American Pie  5
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry 6
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n’ rye  7
Singin this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die. 8

Did you write the book of love 9
And do you have faith in God above,
If the bible tells you so.  10
And do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll?
Can music save your mortal soul? 11
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well I know that you’re in love with him
Cuz I saw you dancin’ in the gym. 12
You both kicked off your shoes 13
And I dig those rhythm and blues. 14

I was a lonely teenage bronkin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pick up truck 15
But I knew I was out of luck,
The day, the music, died.
I started singin…

Bye, bye Miss American Pie 
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n’ rye
Singin this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die. 

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own 16
And moss grows fat on a rollin stone 17
But that’s not how it used to be,
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean 18
And a voice that came from you and me. 19

Oh and while the king was looking down,
The jester stole his thorny crown 20
The courtroom was adjourned;
No verdict was returned. 21

And while Lennon read a book on Marx, 22
The quartet practiced in the park 23
And we sang dirges in the dark, 24
The day, the music, died.
We were singin’…

Bye, bye Miss American Pie 
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n’ rye
Singin this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die.

Helter Skelter in a summer swelter 25
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter,
Eight miles high and fallin’ fast. 26
It landed foul on the grass. 27
The players tried for a forward pass 28
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast. 29

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume 30
While the sergeants played a marching tune. 31
We all got up to dance
Oh but we never got the chance. 32

As the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield.
Do you recall what was revealed, 33
the day, the music, died?
We started singin’…

Bye, bye Miss American Pie 
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n’ rye
Singin this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die.

Oh and there we were all in one place, 34
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again. 35
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. 36
Jack Flash sat on a candle stick 37
Because fire is the devils only friend.38

Oh and as I watched him on the stage,
My hands were clinched in fists of rage,
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell. 39

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight,40
The day, the music, died.
He was singin’…

Bye, bye Miss American Pie 
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n’ rye
Singin this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die.

I met a girl who sang the blues 41
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away. 42
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play. 43

And in the streets the children screamed, 44
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed. 45
But not a word was spoken,
The church bells all were broken. 46

And the three men I admire most,
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, 47
They caught the last train for the coast, 48
The day, the music, died.
And they were singin’…

They were singin’…

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey ‘n’ rye
Singin’ this will be the day that I die.

The Key

1. The song is about the history of rock and roll music and how it changed after Buddy Holly’s death. It is also, however, about McLean’s growing up, and his love of the pure rock and roll of the ’50s. McClean was a musician. He wanted to make people dance. Most 50′s music was meant for dancing and in general upbeat and happy, in contrast to 60′s music.

2. McClean was a paperboy on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed. He was devastated by the news, since Holly was his idol.

3. Holly’s recent bride was pregnant when the crash took place; she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.

4. The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took the lives of Richie Valens (“La Bamba”) and The Big Bopper (“Chantilly Lace”). Since all three were so prominent at the time, February 3, 1959 became known as “The Day The Music Died.”

5. Goodbye to the music of America, the Rock ‘n’ Roll and dance music of the ’50s. It’s interesting how McLean has feminized 50′s rock music here, the fact that it’s a virgin (Miss) form of music that’s as American as apple pie.

6. Chevy represents America. The Levee is the bar where McLean and his friends hung out in his hometown of New Rochelle, NY. It closed down.

7. This line is a play on words. Rye is a city in New York near where McLean grew up. When the Levee closed, the “good ol’ boys,” McLean and his friends, fled to drink in Rye where together they mourned the deaths of the trio.

8. One of Holly’s hits was “That’ll be the Day”; the chorus contains the line, “That’ll be the Day that I Die.”

9. “The Book of Love” by the Monotones; hit in 1958.

10. In 1955, Don Cornell did a song entitled “The Bible Tells Me So.” This line could also refer to the sense of disparity that maybe God let us down after the assassination of John Kennedy and the general disillusionment of the early ’60s. It is also likely that these lines are meant to garnish rock ‘n’ roll with religious imagery, because most of the early musicians, including Holly, got their start in church choirs or by singing hymns. An old children’s hymn called “Jesus Loves Me” has the line “the Bible tells me so” in the lyrics.

11. This is a lament of the decline of the dance music of the ’50s. It might also be a reference to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s hit in 1965 with John Sebastian’s “Do you Believe in Magic?” Or, McLean might be questioning the integrity of music and it’s worth after the plane crash

12. Dancing slow was an important part of early rock and roll dance events — but declined in importance through the 60′s as things like psychedelia and the 10-minute guitar solo gained prominence. Back then, dancing was an expression of love, and carried a connotation of commitment. Dance partners were not so readily exchanged as they would be later. Allegorically, the “him” is probably all the young, hansom teen idols that were common in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The “you” represents all the teenage girls who swooned over those idols.

13. A reference to a “sock hop,” generally held in gymnasiums.

14. McLean is letting us know he prefers the R&B music of the ’50′s to the sock hop music.

15. “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation),” was a hit for Marty Robbins in 1957. McLean was lonely because his music was out of style.

16. It was roughly 10 years after the death of Buddy Holly that McLean started writing “American Pie.”

17. The “rolling stone” is a reference to Bob Dylan, since “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) was his first major hit; he was busy writing songs extolling the virtues of simple love, family and contentment while staying at home and raking in the royalties. It also is a reference to The Rolling Stones, and a symbollic reversal of the aphorism, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” To McLean, the music of the ’60s was gathering moss–growing stale. “That’s not how it used to be” refers to the early days of Dylan.

18. The jester is Bob Dylan. The king could refer to Elvis. The Queen is probably the Queen of England, whom Dylan performed for. In the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film. In one particularly intense scene, Dean lends his coat to a guy who is shot and killed; Dean’s father arrives, sees the coat on the dead man, thinks it’s Dean, and loses it. On the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, Dylan is wearing just such as red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar to one shown in a well-known picture of James Dean. Bob Dylan played a command performance for the Queen and Prince Consort of England. He was not properly attired, so perhaps this is a reference to his apparel.

19. A reference to Dylan’s style of music, folk music, from the people (you and me).

20. This could be a reference to Elvis’s decline and Dylan’s ascendance. (i.e. Presley is looking down from a height as Dylan takes his place.) The thorny crown might be a reference to the price of fame, or another religious metaphor.

21. This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven. It could also refer to the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, which really had no “verdict,” and is still open to speculation. Most likely, it is a reference to the fact that there really is no true “king” of rock ‘n’ roll during this period. For even though Dylan has grabbed (stolen) the mantle of rock’s spokesman, the verdict is still out.

22. This is a play on words. Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. Both Lennon and Lenin (Soviet dictator) believed in Marxist philosophy.

23. Allegorically, this line probably refers to the time when the Beatles were still playing in England and Europe. They were still “practicing” because they had not come to America yet.

24. A “dirge” is a funeral or mourning song, so perhaps this is meant literally, morning the death of Holly or his music…or, perhaps, this is a reference to some of the new “art rock” groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing. It’s likely just a reference to McLean’s unhappiness with the way music was going.

25. “Helter Skelter” is a Beatles song which appears on the “White Album.” Charles Manson, claiming to have been “inspired” by the song led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murders. The “summer swelter” might be a reference to the “Summer of Love” or perhaps to the “long hot summer” of Watts.

26. The Byrd’s “Eight Miles High” was on their late 1966 release “Fifth Dimension”. It was one of the first records to be widely banned because of supposedly drug-oriented lyrics.

27. One of the Byrds was busted for possession of marijuana.

28. The football metaphor could be the Rolling Stones, i.e. they were waiting for an opening which really didn’t happen until the Beatles broke up. Or it could refer to attempts of other musicians to come into the limelight while Dylan was laid up.

29. On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph 55 motorcycle while riding near his home in Woodstock, New York. He spent nine months in seclusion while recuperating from the accident.

30. Drugs, or the hidden messages about drugs in some of the songs of the mid-’60s (half-time in the decade).

31. A clear reference to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles 1967 album that changed rock ‘n’ roll forever. It was the first theme album, the first to put lyrics on the cover, the first to use synthetic sounds. It had no hit singles, another new concerpt in album production. It had proported hidden messages, mostly drug messages in songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD). McLean liked it (sweet perfume).

32. All the youth got into this album. They didn’t get the chance to dance because the Beatles had now pushed rock music away from its dance roots. They used orchestras. They wrote long, slow songs with ponderous rhythms. Or it could also refer to the fact that the Beatles’ 1966 Candlestick Park concert lasted only 35 minutes.

33. No one could compete against the Beatles. Some folks think this refers to either the 1968 Demomcratic Convention or Kent State. What was “revealed” was the dark underlying messages of rock music: the Marxism that was alluded to in the previous verse, the advocation of drug use, the overly self-obsessed quality of the lyrics.

34. The “place” was Woodstock.

35. Perhaps this is a reference to “hippies”, who were sometimes known as the “lost generation”, partially because of their particularly acute alienation from their parents, and partially because of their presumed preoccupation with drugs. It could also be a reference to the ’60s TV show, “Lost in Space,” whose title was sometimes used as a synonym for someone who was rather high. Perhaps, their preference for psychedelia had pushed rock and roll so far from Holly’s music that it couldn’t be retrieved.

36. Probably a reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released in May, 1968.

37. The Stones’ Candlestick park concert? Candlestick park was also the venue for the Beatles’ final performance–the end of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

38. It’s possible that this is a reference to the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”.

39. While playing a concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1968, the Stones appointed members of the Hell’s Angels to work security (on the advice of the Grateful Dead). In the darkness near the front of the stage, a young man named Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death — by the Angels. Public outcry that the song “Sympathy for the Devil” had somehow incited the violence caused the Stones to drop the song from their show for the next six years. This incident is chronicled in the documentary film “Gimme Shelter”. It’s also possible that McLean views the Stones as being negatively inspired (remember, he had an extensive religious background) by virtue of “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request” and so on.

40. This could be a reference to Jimi Hendrix burning his Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival, or simply the bonfires that were lit at the outside concerts. It could be a reference to Jagger dancing and prancing while the murder was happening. Mick Jagger is Satan, the murder provided the sacrifice.

41. Janis Joplin

42. Janis died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.

43. The “sacred store” might be Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time. Alternatively, this refers to record stores, and their longtime (then discontinued) practice of allowing customers to preview records in the store. It could also refer to record stores as “sacred” because this is where one goes to get “saved”. (See above lyric “Can music save your mortal soul?”) The music “wouldn’t play” means that nobody is interested in hearing Buddy Holly et.al.’s music anymore. Or, as above, the discontinuation of the in-store listening booths. Another interpretion is that the “store” is the record industry in 1970; the “music” is McLean’s own song, American Pie, and “the man” is the recording industry and radio. McLean’s style of music, particularly this song, just wouldn’t play. It was too long (over 8 minutes), too folksy, and too late.

44. Protesters being beaten by police and National Guard troops.

45. The trend towards psychedelic music in the ’60s.

46. It could be that the broken bells are the dead musicians: neither can produce any more music.

47. Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens.

48. They died; rock died. Elvis has left the building. Buddy Holly is no more. Rock ‘n’ roll is over, at least in its original form. And Don McLean can only watch them go and sing, “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie…”

  • Audio from the 1971 album, American Pie:


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About DJ Allyn

DJ Allyn is a burned out radio guy who went on to become a burned out sound engineer for a few Seattle area grunge bands in the 1980s and 1990s. Left the madness of worldwide tours with bands, cleaned up my act and went into the relative sanity of sound engineering for television series. Currently working as the Director of Sound for a television series being filmed in North Vancouver, British Columbia. I am always on the lookout for interesting videos, old music, and fun.

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