THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN PIE
(What the song is talkin’ about!)
The entire song is a tribute to Buddy Holly and a commentary on how rock and roll changed in the years since his death. McLean seems to be lamenting the lack of “danceable” music in rock and roll and (in part) attributing that lack to the absence of Buddy Holly et. al. (Verse 1)
A long, long time ago…
“American Pie” reached #1 in the US in 1972, but the album containing it was released in 1971. Buddy Holly died in 1959.
I can still remember how
One of early rock and roll’s functions was to provide dance music for various social events. McLean recalls his desire to become a musician playing that sort of music.
But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm.The news came to most of the world on the morning of February 3, which is why it’s known as The Day The Music Died.
With every paper I’d deliver,
Don McLean’s only job besides being a full-time singer-songwriter was being a paperboy.
Bad news on the doorstep…
Holly’s recent bride, Maria Elena, was pregnant when the crash took place; she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
But something touched me deep inside,
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”.
Bye bye Miss American Pie,
Miss American Pie *is* rock and roll music. Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant. (unconfirmed)
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
One of Holly’s hits was “That’ll be the Day”; the chorus contains the line “That’ll be the day that I die”
Did you write the book of love,
“The Book of Love” by the Monotones; hit in 1958.
And do you have faith in God above,
In 1955, Don Cornell did a song, which was written entirely by Dale Evans , entitled “The Bible Tells Me So”. Rick Schubert pointed this out, and mentioned that he hadn’t heard the song, so it was kinda difficult to tell if it was what McLean was referencing. Dave Tutelman tells me that this particular song wasn’t exactly a gem of rock ‘n roll.
There’s also an old Sunday School song which goes: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” (Stephen Joseph Smith tells me that Bartlett’s gives the source of this as “The Love of Jesus”, by Anna Bartlett Warner, 1858.)
Now do you believe in rock ‘n roll?
The Lovin’ Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John Sebastian’s “Do you Believe in Magic?”. The song has the lines: “Do you believe in magic/it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.”
Can music save your mortal soul?
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.
Well I know you’re in love with him
Slowdancing COULD just be dancing, or it could be vertical “making out”. It wasn’t hard to watch a couple slow-dancing and figure out whether they had some sort of relationship, if you knew anything about slow dancing. So just the fact they were dancing didn’t tell you anything, but if “I saw you dancing in the gym” I could tell from watching whether there was anything between you (figuratively :-). (Thanks to Dave Tutelman for this note.)
You both kicked off your shoes
A reference to the beloved “sock hop”.(Leather-soled street shoes tear up wooden basketball floors, and rubber-soled sneakers grip too much for dance moves, so dancers had to take off their shoes.)
Man, I dig those rhythm ‘n’ blues
Some history. Before the popularity of rock and roll, music, like much else in the U. S., was highly segregated. The popular music of black performers for largely black audiences was called, first, “race music”, later softened to rhythm and blues. In the early 50s, as they were exposed to it through radio personalities such as Allan Freed, white teenagers began listening, too. Starting around 1954, a number of songs from the rhythm and blues charts began appearing on the overall popular charts as well, but usually in cover versions by established white artists, (e. g. “Shake Rattle and Roll”, Joe Turner, covered by Bill Haley; “Sh-Boom”, the Chords, covered by the Crew-Cuts; “Sincerely”, the Moonglows, covered by the Mc Guire Sisters; Tweedle Dee, LaVerne Baker, covered by Georgia Gibbs). By 1955, some of the rhythm and blues artists, like Fats Domino and Little Richard were able to get records on the overall pop charts. In 1956 Sun records added elements of country and western to produce the kind of rock and roll tradition that produced Buddy Holly. (Thanks to Barry Schlesinger for this historical note. —Rsk)
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
“A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)”, was a hit for Marty Robbins in 1957. The pickup truck has endured as a symbol of sexual independence and potency, especially in a Texas context. (Also, Jimmy Buffet does a song about “a white sport coat and a pink crustacean”.
But I knew that I was out of luck
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
McLean was writing this song in the late 60’s, about ten years after the crash.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
It’s unclear who the “rolling stone” is supposed to be. It could be Dylan, since “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) was his first major hit; and since he was busy writing songs extolling the virtues of simple love, family and contentment while staying at home (he didn’t tour from ’66 to ’74) and raking in the royalties. This was quite a change from the earlier, angrier Dylan.
The “rolling stone” could also be Elvis, although I don’t think he’d started to pork out by the late sixties. It could refer to rock and rollers in general, and the changes that had taken place in the business in the 60’s, especially the huge amounts of cash some of them were beginning to make, and the relative stagnation that entered the music at the same time.
Or, perhaps it’s a reference to the stagnation in rock and roll.
Or, finally, it could refer to the Rolling Stones themselves; a lot of musicians were angry at the Stones for “selling out”. Howard Landman points out that John Foxx of Ultravox was sufficiently miffed to write a song titled “Life At Rainbow’s End (For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street)”. The Stones at one point became citizens of some other country merely to save taxes.
But that’s not how it used to be
The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later. There are several interpretations of king and queen: some think that Elvis Presley is the king, which seems pretty obvious. The queen is said to be either Connie Francis or Little Richard. But see the next note.
An alternate interpretation is that this refers to the Kennedys — the king and queen of “Camelot” -who were present at a Washington DC civil rights rally featuring Martin Luther King. (There’s a recording of Dylan performing at this rally.)
In the movie “Rebel Without a Cause”, James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film (see note at end of Annotated American Pie). 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.
And a voice that came from you and me
Bob Dylan’s roots are in American folk music, with people like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Folk music is by definition the music of the masses, hence the “…came from you and me”.
Oh, and while the King was looking down
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. Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of his early idols.
The courtroom was adjourned,
This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven, but McLean seems to be talking about music, not politics at this point in the song. With that in mind, perhaps he meant that the arguments between Dylan and Elvis fans over who was better just couldn’t be settled.
And while Lennon read a book on Marx,
Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. (Of course, he could be referring to Groucho Marx, but that doesn’t seem quite consistent with McLean’s overall tone. On the other hand, some of the wordplay in Lennon’s lyrics and books is reminiscint of Groucho.) The “Marx-Lennon” wordplay has also been used by others, most notably the Firesign Theatre on the cover of their album “How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All?”. Also, a famous French witticism was “Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho.”; “I’m a Marxist of the Groucho variety”.
It’s also a pun on “Lenin”.
The quartet practiced in the park
There are two schools of thought about this; the obvious one is the Beatles playing in Shea Stadium, but note that the previous line has John Lennon *doing something else at the same time*. This tends to support the theory that this is a reference to the Weavers, who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. McLean had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early 60’s while performing in coffeehouses and clubs in upstate New York and New York City. He was also well-acquainted with Pete Seeger; in fact, McLean, Seeger, and others took a trip on the Hudson river singing anti-pollution songs at one point. Seeger’s LP “God Bless the Grass” contains many of these songs.
And we sang dirges in the dark
A “dirge” is a funeral or mourning song, so perhaps this is meant literally…or, perhaps, this is a reference to some of the new “art rock” groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing.
The day the music died.
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
“Helter Skelter” is a Beatles song which appears on the “white” album. Charles Manson, claiming to have been “inspired” by the song (through which he thought God and/or the devil were taking to him) led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Is “summer swelter” a reference to the “Summer of Love” or perhaps to the “long hot summer” of Watts?
The birds flew off with the fallout shelter
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.
It landed foul on the grass.
One of the Byrds was busted for possession of marijuana.
The players tried for a forward pass
Obviously a football metaphor, but about what? It could be the Rolling Stones, i.e. they were waiting for an opening which really didn’t happen until the Beatles broke up.
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
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.
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
Well, now, wait a minute; that’s probably too obvious. It’s possible that this line and the next few refer to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The “sweet perfume” is probably tear gas.
While sergeants played a marching tune
Following from the thought above, the sergeants would be the Chicago Police and the Illinois National Guard, who marched the protestors out of the park and into jail.
Alternatively, this could refer to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Or, perhaps McLean refers to the Beatles’ music in general as “marching” because it’s not music for dancing. Or, finally, the “marching tune” could be the draft.
We all got up to dance
The Beatles’ 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes. Or, following on from the previous comment, perhaps he meant that there wasn’t any music to dance to.
‘Cause the players tried to take the field,
Some folks think this refers to either the 1968 Deomcratic Convention or Kent State; following on from the Chicago reference above, this could be another comment on protests. But perhaps the players are the protestors at Kent State, and the marching band the Ohio National Guard…
This could be a reference to the dominance of the Beatles on the rock and roll scene. For instance, the Beach Boys released “Pet Sounds” in 1966 — an album which featured some of the same sort of studio and electronic experimentation as “Sgt. Pepper” (1967) — but the album sold poorly.
This might also be a comment about how the dominance of the Beatles in the rock world led to more “pop art” music, leading in turn to a dearth of traditional rock and roll.
Or finally, this might be a comment which follows up on the earlier reference to the draft: the government/military-industrial-complex establishment refused to accede to the demands of the peace movement.
Do you recall what was revealed,
And there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
Some people think this is a reference to the US space program, which it might be; but that seems a bit too literal. 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 awful TV show, “Lost in Space”, whose title was sometimes used as a synonym for someone who was rather high…but I keep hoping that McLean had better taste.
With no time left to start again
The “lost generation” spent too much time being stoned, and had wasted their lives? Or, perhaps, their preference for psychedelia had pushed rock and roll so far from Holly’s music that it couldn’t be retrieved.
So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick
Probably a reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was released in May, 1968.
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
The Stones’ Candlestick park concert?
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
“Sympathy for the Devil”, by the Stones — seems to fit with some of the surrounding material.
It’s possible that this is a reference to the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil”. But I doubt it.
An alternative interpretation of the last four lines is that they may refer to Jack Kennedy and his quick decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the candlesticks/fire refer to ICBMs and nuclear war.
And as I watched him on the stage
While playing a concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1969, 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. I find this a bit puzzling, since the early Stones recorded a lot of “roots” rock and roll, including Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”.
And as the flames climbed high into the night
The most likely interpretation is that McLean is still talking about Altamont, and in particular Mick Jagger’s prancing and posing while it was happening. The sacrifice is Meredith Hunter, and the bonfires around the area provide the flames.
(It could be a reference to Jimi Hendrix burning his Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival, but that was in 1967 and this verse is set in 1968.)
I saw Satan laughing with delight
If the above is correct, then Satan would be Jagger.
The day the music died
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
Janis died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970
I went down to the sacred store
There are two interpretations of this: The “sacred store” was Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, 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. (What year did the Fillmore West close?)
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?”)
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
Perhaps he means that nobody is interested in hearing Buddy Holly et.al.’s music? Or, as above, the discontinuation of the in-store listening booths.
It’s also possible that this line and the two before it refer to the closing of the Fillmore West in 19?? — but I’ve been unable to verify that it was actually closed when this song was written.
And in the streets the children screamed
“Flower children” being beaten by police and National Guard troops; in particular, perhaps, the People’s Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970.
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
The trend towards psychedelic music in the 60’s?
But not a word was spoken
It could be that the broken bells are the dead musicians: neither can produce any more music.
And the three men I admire most The Father Son and Holy Ghost
Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens
They caught the last train for the coast
Could be a reference to wacky California religions, or could just be a way of saying that they’ve left (or died — western culture often uses “went west” as a synonym for dying). Or, perhaps this is a reference to the famous “God is Dead” headline in the New York Times. David Cromwell has suggested that this is an oblique reference to a line in Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”, but I’m not sure I buy that; for one thing, all of McLean’s musical references are to much older “roots” rock and roll songs; and secondly, I think it’s more likely that this line shows up in both songs simply because it’s a common cultural metaphor.
This tends to support the conjecture that the “three men” were Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens, since this says that they left on the day the music died.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song”, Roberta Flack’s Grammy Award-winning single of 1973, was written by Charles Gimble and Norman Fox about McLean.
About the “coat he borrowed from James Dean”: James Dean’s red windbreaker is important throughout the film, not just at the end. When he put it on, it meant that it was time to face the world, time to do what he thought had to be done, and other melodramatic but thoroughly enjoyable stuff like that. The week after the movie came out, virtually every clothing store in the U.S. was sold out of red windbreakers. Remember that Dean’s impact was similar to Dylan’s: both were a symbol for the youth of their time, a reminder that they had something to say and demanded to be listened to.
American Pie is supposed to be the name of the plane that crashed, containing the three guys that died. This is not true.
Dan Stanley mentioned an interesting theory involving all of this; roughly put, he figures that if Holly hadn’t died, then we would not have suffered through the Fabian/Pat Boone/et.al. era…and as a consequence, we wouldn’t have *needed* the Beatles — Holly was moving pop music away from the stereotypical boy/girl love lost/found lyrical ideas, and was recording with unique instrumentation and techniques…things that Beatles wouldn’t try until about 1965. Perhaps Dylan would have stuck with the rock and roll he played in high school, and the Byrds never would have created an amalgam of Dylan songs and Beatle arrangements.
Andrew Whitman brings a sense of perspective to all of this by noting:As to what they threw off the bridge, Bobbie Gentry once went on record with the statement that it was the mystery that made the song, and that the mystery would remain unsolved. Don McLean later used the same device to even greater >success with “American Pie,” which triggered a national obsession on figuring out the “real meaning” of the song. Well, probably not a national obsession, but certainly the life’s work of many talented scholars. According to the latest edition of the “American Pie Historical Interpretive Digest” (APHID), noted McLean historian Vincent Vandeman has postulated that cheezy country songs may have played a much more prominent role in the epic composition than had originally been thought. In particular, the “widowed bride,” usually supposed to be either Ella Holly or Joan Rivers, may in fact be Billie Jo. According to this radical exegesis, the “pink carnation” of McLean’s song is probably what was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and was later found by the lonely, teenaged McLean as he wandered drunkenly on the levee. Of course, such a view poses problems. McLean vehemently denies any knowledge of Choctaw Ridge, and any theory linking the two songs must surely address this mysterious meeting place of Billie Jo and her husband Billy Joe. Vandeman speculates that Choctaw Ridge may have been the place McLean drove his Chevy after drinking whiskey and rye, and that McLean may have been unaware of the name because of his foggy mental state. Still, there appear to be many tenuous connections in Vandeman’s interpretation – Tammy Wynette as the girl who sang the blues, the proposed affair between Wynette and Billie Joe which later led to d-i-v-o-r-c-e and Billy Joe’s suicide, the mysterious whereabouts of George Jones, and why McLean insisted on driving a Chevy to the levee instead of a more economical Japanese car. My own view is that none of it makes much sense. Vandeman’s theory is intriguing, but it seems far more logical to hold to the traditional interpretation of “American Pie” as an eschatological parable of nuclear destruction and the rebirth of civilization on Alpha Centauri. [ Thanks, Andrew. I’ll take it under advisement. Oh, and I’ve forwarded this to Mulder and Scully for their take on it. 😉 —Rsk ]
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