American Pie (song)

My boring life

"American Pie" was released when I was in junior high school. It was a monster hit on the radio. I bought the record. (I always bought whole albums instead of singles. My friends and I looked down on people who bought singles.) The album was incredible, I loved it. I still think America Pie is one of the best albums of all time. Every song is at least good, and most of them are excellent.

Lyrics

[v1]
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
But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

[CHORUS]
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"

[v2]
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you're in love with him
'Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

CHORUS

[v3]
Now for ten years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone
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
And a voice that came from you and me
Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lenin read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

CHORUS

[v4]
Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
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
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

CHORUS

[v5]
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan's spell
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

CHORUS

[v6]
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
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
And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

CHORUS x2

Analysis

"American Pie" is structurally simple: six verses, each followed by a chorus. The tempo and arrangement are mid-tempo rock, except the first and last verses, which are played at a slower tempo, and serve as intro and coda. My analysis below refers to the album version, not the shorter, radio-friendly version.

From the moment "American Pie" was released, people have been speculating on what it means. Now, at long last, I reveal to you the truth! :)

Verse 1

Any good songwriter uses his own experience for material. On the other hand, usually we shouldn't take it too literally when a song is sung in the first person (especially songs that come out of the folk music tradition). However, in the case of "American Pie," it seems to me the narrator is Don McLean himself. He's speaking about his own life and thoughts. It's a personal song.

"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"

"American Pie" begins with McLean flashing back to his childhood. He recounts the great significance that music held for him, and his idealism that (through music) he could help make the world a better place. There were several strands of popular American music during the McLean's childhood: bland white-person "pop" (which I won't have anything to say about), rock'n'roll, and contemporary folk music. Although McLean established himself as a songwriter and performer in the folk idiom, rock'n'roll was also important to him. Both genres represented something similar to the young McLean, namely freedom. Rock'n'roll is about a kind of visceral freedom, an inarticulate but powerful energy, reflecting the breaking down of racial barriers and the emergence of a youth culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Folk music, on the other hand, was associated with political freedom. To the extent that folk music performers and listeners were political, they were liberal/leftist, and folk music was a significant component of the Civil Rights movement.

"February made me shiver
With every paper I delivered
Bad news on the doorstep"

Everyone knows that "American Pie" is about the February 1959 airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. This is the "bad news" McLean speaks of. He was thirteen years old, and clearly he perceived the event as a tragedy. But this is the last time the song refers to this particular incident. These lines are definitely about the tragic plane crash, but the song as a whole is not. As I will show, this musical tragedy at the end of the 1950's prefigures a much more significant musical, cultural, and political tragedy which was to occur at the end of the 1960's. "American Pie" contains multiple losses to, and of, freedom. McLean (and the rest of us) must say goodbye to Miss American Pie over and over.

The "widowed bride" in this verse seems to be Buddy Holly's wife Maria (they had been married less than a year). But I think it might also be intended as a nod to Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of another icon of freedom, JFK. (Whether JFK deserves such iconic status is another story, and one which I will not address here.) The spirit of Camelot seems to haunt "American Pie," though the song contains no overt references to JFK.

Verse 2

This verse is crammed with references to 1950's rock'n'roll, and to religion. Here, McLean is telling us that for him (as for a lot of people), music took the place of religion in his life. Music at its best, like religion, is a force for good, a liberating power.

Verse 3

Now the fun begins.

"for ten years we've been on our own"

Looking back from about 1970 when "American Pie" was written, the previous decade had been a momentous one, to say the least. That's why the opening words of the song are "a long long time ago." Even though it had only been ten years, it seemed like a lifetime had passed, because of the seismic cultural changes the 1960s had wrought.

In popular music, the most important events of the 1960s were the rise of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and their influence on each other and on American culture. it's hard for people nowadays to comprehend, but there was a time when popular music mattered in a way it has never done since. Dylan and the Beatles were not just musicians, they were leaders. Throughout the the turbulent 1960's, there was a feeling that something entirely new in human history was happening (something good), and these artists were giving voice to that something.

"moss grows fat on a rolling stone"

The primary reference of this line is to the proverb "a rolling stone gathers no moss," which means something like: if you keep moving, you won't stagnate. But here it is a threefold pun: it could refer to the Rolling Stones (more on them later) or Rolling Stone magazine (founded in 1967). I presume McLean was aware of both those echoes, but I think the major reference is to the Bob Dylan song "Like a Rolling Stone," which had been released in 1965, so was a few years old by the time McLean is writing "American Pie." At the time Dylan's song was released, it was a huge hit, and was groundbreaking in terms of its length and its sound, which can truly be described as majestic. It's been widely recognized as a masterpiece, as one of the most important songs in all of rock music (for example, it's number one in Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time).

McLean came out of the same folk music milieu that produced Dylan, and like all singer-songwriters in the 60's, McLean worked in Dylan's shadow. "American Pie" is reminiscent of Dylan's best work, especially "Like a Rolling Stone." Both songs are long and repetitive (just verse/chorus, no bridge to offer any contrast). Both songs feature a torrent of lyrics, including tricky wordplay and multiple cryptic characters.

"Like a Rolling Stone," for all its lyrical bluster, and notwithstanding the majesty of its music, is really just a love song turned on its head. It's a song of derision and contempt. We don't know who Dylan is attacking, but whoever she is, we feel sorry for her. "American Pie," on the other hand, while not as musically impressive as "Rolling Stone," sets its sights higher lyrically. It's themes are grand: the loss of American innocence, and how that loss played itself out in the public arena. In fact, it could be said that "American Pie" is a rejoinder to Dylan. Mclean is holding up an example of what Dylan should have been (at least, according to McLean). In a sense, it's alternate version of "Like a Rolling Stone," but with a theme that's worthy of Dylan's talent (as "Like a Rolling Stone" was not) and worthy of the movement that Dylan had rejected. This is going to get deep, stay with me.

A superficial similarity between "Like a Rolling Stone" and "American Pie" is the use of "symbolic" characters. I put the word in quotes because the characters that fill Dylan's song aren't really symbols in any direct way. Miss Lonely, the diplomat, Napoleon in rags, a chrome horse, a Siamese cat…..what the fuck? these characters are not meant to "stand for" particular people or things, but rather to evoke deep (if not always clear) meanings and feelings. One of my favorite quotes from the Alice books reminds me of this aspect of Dylan's lyrics: "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don't exactly know what they are!"

At first listen, "American Pie" seems much the same, in the vagueness of its symbolism, and to some extent that's true. But I've come to believe that McLean's song contains many references specific to individual people and events. Although some obscurities remain, I'll show that we can think of "American Pie" as a chanson a clef. Once we have the key, most of the song's meaning is clear.

And here's where it gets really interesting. I've been talking about Dylan, and how his music was an influence on, and a touchstone for, McLean (especially Dylan's song "Like a Rolling Stone"). But it's not just that Dylan's song is the model for "American Pie." Dylan himself is one of the main characters in the song. He is the jester. Now having said that, I'll have to back up a little and provide some background.

Dylan started his career as a folk musician in New York City. During that time, folk music was serious stuff. The folkies thought rock'n'roll was shallow, and the rockers thought folk music was square. You were either in one world or the other, and the twain didn't meet (at least not for a while). Interestingly, Dylan had started out as a rocker, and only turned to folk music later. He "…wanted to be Elvis Presley, but as there was a vacancy for a Woody Guthrie he took the gig."

While Dylan was among the most talented of the folk singer/songwriters, in a sense "folk musician" was just a role he adopted, and one which he came to resent, and ultimately to reject. But during the early 60's, Dylan was firmly in the folk camp. His songs were performed by other activists/artists like Joan Baez, Odetta, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Dylan performed at the 1963 March on Washington, at which Martin Luther King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Dylan was a huge deal, but only within a limited segment of American culture.

"the jester sang…in a coat he borrowed from James Dean
and a voice that came from you and me"

Though Dylan was seen by many as a serious figure ("the voice of a generation"), at the same time he was mercurial. He kept his sense of humor, and poked fun at the pretensions of mainstream society. Like lots of other young people, he was (or at least fancied himself) a rebel, sometimes with a cause, sometimes without. Dylan questioned everything, even the orthodoxies of the Left, on whose side he nominally was. He was truly a trickster or jester figure.

"while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown"

Evidently for McLean (as for lots of other young people), at some point Dylan's influence had grown so much that he eclipsed even Elvis (who was known as the King). That the crown is "thorny" is a reminder that by this time popular music was the new religion for many young people.

While Dylan dominated one part of the public consciousness, another was obsessed by the Beatles. The Beatles arrived in the US and played the Ed Sullivan TV show, in February 1964. Over the next few years, they were massively popular in a way no other musical act ever had been before, or would be since. As Wikipedia says: "During the 6½ years between the appearance of the "I Want to Hold Your Hand" single on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Let It Be LP, The Beatles had the Number One single in the US for a total of 59 weeks and topped the LP charts for 116 weeks. In other words they had the top-selling single one out of every six weeks, and the top-selling album one out of every three weeks." In April 1964, the Beatles didn't have just the number one song in the US, they also had the number two, three, four, and five songs as well!

As mentioned earlier, the Beatles and Dylan were not just musicians, they were perceived as leaders of the movements that seemed to be shaking the foundations of our culture. Timothy Leary said: "the Beatles are…prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with the mysterious power to create a new human species…They are the wisest, holiest, most effective avatars the human race has ever produced." Leary's thoughts may be an exaggeration, but not by much.

For a while, these two massively influential artists went their own ways in parallel, influencing each other very little. Dylan and folk music were lyrically sophisticated and politically engaged, while the the Beatles/rock'n'roll music was joyous and powerful. Around 1964, these two strands began to coalesce. Dylan and Beatles met on several occasions, and they increasingly influenced the other. Dylan "went electric" (to the dismay of the folk purists), and the Beatles' music became deeper and more socially and politically engaged. The new hybrid form of music rock music (no longer rock'n'roll) was born. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and was even more influential than before. (Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the history of rock, but I think it's essentially accurate.)

There are some problems with my interpretation so far, namely there are some lines in this verse that don't seem to fit my brilliant analysis. For instance, if Elvis is the king, who are the "king and queen" that the jester "sings for"? The closest thing to a King and Queen of America in the early 1960s were Jack and Jackie Kennedy. Although Dylan never literally "played for" the President, there is a sense in which Dylan and other musicians were "sending a message" to the powerful, including JFK. (Consider these lines from Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'": "Your old road is rapidly aging, get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand.") Assuming my reading is correct, it seems odd for McLean to use different meanings for the word "king" within the same verse. This usage would certainly be clumsy if McLean wanted his meaning to be crystal clear. but I don't think that's the case. I believe McLean wanted the song to refer to specific events, but at the same time he made it transcend particulars, and appeal to universals. To this end, he was not above a little obfuscation or misdirection. So we find that "American Pie" is an interesting melange of the clear and the obscure, the definite and the nebulous.

Neat how I did that, right? Anything that fits my theory must have been intended by McLean, and anything that doesn't fit is also intentional. With this kind of analysis, I can't lose…onward! But first, I should mention another potential problem for my analysis: my proposed timeline does not always work out exactly. (I've finessed the details, but the astute reader may find some inconsistencies.) However, I think this is not a fatal flaw. We're more concerned here with the psychological realism of McLean's recollections, not a strictly chronological account.

But enough of nitpicking, let's get back to the lyrics. What are we to make of the "courtroom" and the (non-existent) "verdict" in this verse? This is the first hint of the disappointment and betrayal that is the theme of the next verse (number 4). Up to this point, the narrative has been about promise, specifically the promise that we were on track to make fundamental and historical change in the mid 1960's, and that rock music was one of the primary drivers of that change. I think the "courtroom" is the court of public opinion. Dylan and others had presented their case for radical change to Middle America, and the response was equivocal. It was not the overwhelming victory that some (including McLean?) had expected.

"Lenin read a book on Marx"

McLean doesn't mean Vladimir Lenin, of course, but rather John Lennon, whose songwriting took on a definite leftist slant during his final years as a Beatle and the first part of his solo career.

"the quartet practiced in the park
and we sang dirges in the dark"

More obscurity. I'm guessing the "quartet" is a reference to the Beatles, but I have no idea why they practiced "in the park," nor who was singing dirges, or why. I suspect it's combination of cool-sounding alliteration (practiced/park and dirges/dark) and a foreshadowing of the next verse.

Verse 4

This verse is the heart of "American Pie." The hope for liberation that was the subject of the previous verse is dashed in this verse, and McLean is even kind enough to tell us why. The answer, we shall see, is drugs.

"Helter skelter in the summer swelter"

The years 1967 and 1968 were the culmination of the cultural changes sweeping America (and Europe). To some, these changes seemed like crises or even cataclysms, to others like opportunities that should be pushed even further. Consider that all the following iconic events took place in this two-year period:

  • The Summer of Love
  • The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper and White Album are released. The latter includes the song "Helter Skelter" (although the most infamous interpretation of this song, i.e. Charles Manson's, would not become public knowledge until 1974 with the publication of the book of the same name)
  • The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy
  • Unprecedented, huge demonstrations against the Vietnam War in New York and San Francisco
  • Unprecedented campus unrest and urban riots in the US and elsewhere, most notably outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago
  • Most of France is brought to a standstill by demonstrations and a general strike by students and workers
  • The Six Day War between Israel and multiple Arab countries, and destruction of the short-lived state of Biafra, where starvation was used as a weapon of war. Images of starving Biafran children were featured on the covers of American magazines.
  • For the first time, the US Supreme Court declares laws against interracial marriage to be unconstitutional.
  • Thurgood Marshall is confirmed as the first African American Justice of the US Supreme Court
  • The British Parliament decriminalizes homosexuality.
  • US athletes give the Black Power salute at their Olympic medal ceremony
  • On the cultural front, groundbreaking debut albums released by The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, and The Doors, the musical Hair debuts on Broadway, and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey premieres

Whew! Has there ever been a more tumultuous couple of years in the postwar period?

"The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast"

The Byrds were one of the major musical acts of this period, having risen to fame on the strength of electrified versions of Bob Dylan's songs, before Dylan himself "went electric." Their song "Eight Miles High" had been released in 1966, and was widely regarded as (and later admitted to be) about drugs. By 1967/1968, use of drugs such as marijuana and LSD had become popular in the emerging hippie culture or "counterculture." Just as with music, people used drugs because they promised liberation, and because they offered an alternative to religion. For McLean, however, these promises were illusory. He saw the movements that had had so much potential, as turning aside from the goals of making the world a better place, to an indulgence in mere sensation for its own sake. The movements (that had meant so much to McLean) were being made irrelevant, partly by the efforts of the powers that be, but also partly by the gullibility and immaturity of their own supporters. Recreational drugs, in McLean's view, promised an escape (as had fallout shelters in the 1950's), but those who "flew off" into drug use didn't really escape, and no matter how high they got, they eventually had to fall back down into the real world, with its real problems.

"It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass"

The rest of the verse uses a football motif, partly because football is quintessentially American, and partly as a metaphor for the struggle of the new ideas against the old regime of "straight" society. The "players" of this verse are the young people in the various liberation movements. The word "player" is doubly appropriate in this context. First, there was a new spirit of play which suffused the youth movements, as opposed to the old ethic of work. And second, "players" can refer to musicians, who were so revered by, and important to the movements in question. These young people were indeed trying for a "forward pass," in that they were trying to move society forward.

"With the jester on the sidelines in a cast"

Where was Dylan during all this? Missing in action. He had already become ensnared by drugs as early as 1965, and rejected the role of "protest singer" soon after. Dylan released three albums in 1965 and 1966, each one more druggy and less political than the last.

Despite Dylan's rejection of politics, he was still revered by the counterculture. In a way that's hard to grasp nowadays, popular music mattered then. People cared what Dylan and the Beatles and other musicians thought. They waited eagerly for new albums by their favorite musicians, to see what their heroes would have to say about current events. But Dylan, who had already "checked out" politically, now disappeared from the scene completely. On July 29, 1966, Dylan was involved in a serious motorcycle accident, and withdrew into seclusion. He was truly "sidelined," and presumably "in a cast." Very little was heard from Dylan until the release (at the end of 1967) of his next album, John Wesley Harding, which was a low-key affair. Dylan would never again be culturally relevant in the way he had been.

"Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune"

Probably a reference to the aroma of marijuana, and the seeming sweetness of drug-induced fantasies and illusions. The next line is a reference to the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album, on the cover of which the Beatles appeared in marching-band-type uniforms.

"…the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield"

These lines are the crux of the biscuit. The liberation movements of the 1960's ("the players") battled the existing power structures ("the marching band"), and lost, partly through their own naivete and unrealistic expectations. Why does a "marching band" represent the Establishment? Because marching bands march in rows and play martial music. They represent the uptight, regimented forces of the bad guys.

"We all got up to dance
…but we never got the chance"

The victory dance that activists and young people had planned, was cancelled, or at least postponed. Now, I know what you're thinking: "Didn't he just say the marching band was a Beatles reference? Then how can it also be a reference to the Establishment?" Good point! This is, I think, the most glaring instance of McLean's deliberately muddying the waters, adding a layer of misdirection to prevent "American Pie" from being too boringly straightforward. Either that, or I'm full of shit. :)

"Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?"

Indeed, what was revealed? I think these lines just refer to the fact that those who expected a quick victory in the struggles of the 1960's were fooling themselves. It takes more than happy thoughts to make real social change; the existing power structure was much stronger than people gave it credit for. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things this loss was just a momentary setback. But a setback it was, and McLean is mourning it here.

Verse 5

The climax of McLean's story has come and gone, but there's one more chapter, and it's a real downer. Not only did the forces of progress lose the battle (which is bad enough), but portions of the counterculture turned from being merely weak and ineffectual to being downright evil. Verse 5 is the dark side of verse 2 (which conflated religion and popular music).

"there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again"

Having already rejected religion, and having been seemingly abandoned by their idols (into a drug-induced haze or to irrelevance as the movement dissipated), a large part of the younger generation felt "lost" (as they had felt "on their own" in verse 3). They couldn't retreat (to the simplicity of the 1950s) and they couldn't advance (because of their recent defeat). Some of them, in a search for greater thrills (which is always a part of every rebellion), turned to what can only be described as evil, which McLean personifies as the Devil throughout this verse. The most obvious example of this dark side of the 1960's is Charles Manson and his "family," but while Manson's presence seems to inhabit this verse, he's not mentioned by name.

"Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend"

What an odd turn of phrase! I'm reluctant to mention it, but I wonder if this could be a reference to anal sex, as practiced by gay men? Gay folks were also experiencing their own liberation movement at around this same time. The Stonewall Riots, usually considered the beginning of the gay liberation movement, occurred around this time, in 1969. If McLean is indeed equating homosexuality and evil in this passage, that's truly disturbing. But hey, that's only a theory…..a gay theory.

What seems not theoretical at all, is that these lines, and the rest of the verse, invoke a musical force I haven't talked about very much yet: the Rolling Stones. The Stones released the song "Jumping Jack Flash" in 1968. But why did McLean associate the Rolling Stones with evil? Partly because they were always willing to play the "bad boys" to the Beatles' more positive, peace-and-love image. The Stones' lyrics were consistently dark, and they've been willing to court controversy, and the appearance of evil, for fame and fortune. I'll get into details below…..read on!

"as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan's spell"

The imagery is a little muddled here, but I think McLean is continuing to associate Satan with the Rolling Stones. Which should not be too surprising, since the Stones deliberately deliberately made such associations themselves. In 1967, they released the album Their Satanic Majesties Requestand in 1968, the song "Sympathy for the Devil."

So, McLean perceived that the 1960s had taken a turn from light to darkness, from good to evil. The single event which is signals this turn was the Altamont Free Concert, in December 1969. It was at this concert (during the Rolling Stones's set) that members of the Hell's Angels outlaw biker gang (which had been hired as security) stabbed to death a member of the audience who had brandished a firearm. The concert was later released as the film Gimme Shelter in 1970, and the film includes footage of the stabbing. I suspect McLean saw that film, and that Mick Jagger is the person "on the stage."

"as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died"

More generic devil stuff, to drive the point home, I suppose. But maybe there's a little something more here. I think all the references to fire in this verse are meant to evoke the riots that raged through many American cities during 1967 and 1968 (though there had been numerous earlier riots in the US, most famously the Watts riots of 1965). There were quite a few deaths associated with these incidents, and lots of property was destroyed by fires that were either deliberately set, or which firefighters were prevented from reaching in a timely manner.

Verse 6

We're almost done now. We see that no matter the gravity of the recent events, life goes on (children, lovers, and poets go on doing what they've always done).

The last verse sums up what has gone before, describing McLean's despair at being cast adrift without the guidance provided by religion and/or music. (Here blues and gospel are added to rock'n'roll, folk, and rock music, as forms that were tried and found disappointing.) It reminds me of another obituary for the idealistic 1960's, the song "God" by John Lennon, released in 1970, right about the same time as "American Pie." In Lennon's song, he lists all things he no longer believes in, including the Bible, Jesus, Elvis, Dylan, and the Beatles. The last line of Lennon's song is "the dream is over." And indeed, the dream is over for McLean too. But while Lennon saw waking from the dream as a necessary step in growing up, for McLean the dream of the 1960's was a goal that he and his contemporaries couldn't achieve, and when it died the proper response was to grieve. "American Pie" is Don McLean's cry of grief for the lost promise of the 1960's.

The chorus and the title

I've saved these for last, because my ideas about them wouldn't make sense unless you'd already read everything above. I think that the title and chorus are purposely ambiguous. Their meanings are not straightforward, because McLean's feelings about America are complicated. Some "American dreams" are better than others. Although "American Pie" is about the death of one dream, and the mourning for that death, there's a hint that perhaps that dream was doomed from the start. There's also the sense that, after any death, the survivors will need to assess their situation and then carry on, with some lessons learned (or so we hope, at least).

"Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry"

What's this about? For one thing, Chevys and levees are archetypal Americanisms (and the words happen to rhyme). More important for McLean's purposes is the water that he had hoped to find, but which was gone. Here water is a symbol of security, wholeness, and comfort. All the things promised by religion and music, and by the opportunity to make the world a better place: all things that McLean believes he is saying goodbye to.

"them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin' 'This'll be the day that I die'"

When bad things happen, people often get together to commiserate and get drunk. That seems to be what's happening here, but who are the "good old boys"?

Politics is not just about what people believe, it's also tribal, it's about "us and them." In the US, conservatives tend to be white and rural, and most Southerners are conservative. Liberals on the other hand, tend to skew more toward urban dwellers, Northerners, and people of color. On each side of this divide is a distrust for the culture on the other side. The phrase "good old boys" is an interesting sort of tribal marker. Wikipedia says, it's a term for "men who live in rural and generally Southern areas" and "can have both positive and negative meanings, depending on context and usage." When white Southerners themselves use the term, it's usually with a positive connotation. Outsiders often use the word pejoratively, perhaps most famously in the song "Rednecks" by Randy Newman. So it would seem as if the folks on McLean's "side" in the struggles of the 1960s (young people, Blacks, folkies, hippies, etc.) would have little in common with "good old boys." But I think McLean is here being expansive, he's reaching out to the everyday folks who were on the other side of the cultural divides of the 1960s. The day the music died, it died for all Americans, not just the hippies and leftists, but also the good old boys and girls.

What kind of pie is "American pie"? Who is "Miss American Pie?" In my view, these terms don't mean anything in particular. They're just references to America. We say that something is "as American as apple pie." Miss American Pie is a personification of the United States. Or rather, a certain conception of the US, namely America as guaranteeing and exemplifying freedom, opportunity, democracy, equality, and brotherhood. It's the shining city on the hill.

Pie is something sweet and self-contained, easy to consume (almost too easy), but you can't eat pie for every meal. It's not really nourishing. And "Miss American Pie" conjures up the image of Miss America, the beauty queen sweetheart. The image of American womanhood, but ultimately a shallow or phony image. I think this is McLean's final realization, that the expectations of young people, that they would win an easy cultural and political victory, just by being hip, was something they were sold, a shiny dream they should have realized was too good to be true. Real progress comes from real struggle, not from eating someone else's pie, no matter how delicious it seems at first.

Timeline

(Don McLean's age in parentheses)

  • October 2, 1945: Don McLean born
  • February 3, 1959: Buddy Holly's death (13)
  • November 22, 1963: JFK assassination (17)
  • February 1964: Beatles arrive US (17)
  • July 20, 1965: Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" released (18)
  • July 29, 1966: Dylan's motorcycle accident (19)
  • Summer 1967: the Summer of Love (21)
  • December 6, 1969: Altamont (24)
  • Oct 24, 1971: American Pie released (26)

Sources and further reading

If you've enjoyed this analysis of "American Pie" and you want to explore the culture of this period further, try the links below to products on Amazon. You'll pay exactly the same price as you would normally, but I'll get a small portion of each sale. Thanks!

The best book I know of, about Bob Dylan's music, is aSong and Dance Man III, by Michael Gray.

The best book I know of, about the Beatles' music, and about 1960s culture in general, is Revolution in the Head, by Ian MacDonald.

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