'American Pie' by Don McLean Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'American Pie' by Don McLean

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...an attempt to describe a certain loss I felt in American music. Buddy Holly's death, for me, was a symbolic death... The music never dies though, and all I was saying was that people lack the basic trust to believe the music will happen again.
-Don McLean

The late 1950s were an interesting time for America. The sons and daughters of returning World War II soldiers (the baby-boomers) were growing into teenagers. They hadn't suffered through World War II, and didn't have much of a reason to be sad or sombre and had a lot of reasons to be happy. They wanted to be excited by their music and be able to dance to it at the 'Sock Hops' and other social events. As there were so many of these children, they could easily influence the culture and music of the day, and did. Early rock 'n' roll music appealed to much of this generation and so it appeared to fill the need. A very distinctive vein of what would become a genre appeared at this time - this is sometimes called early rock.

One day in February, 1959, in a small burg just north of New York City, a young teenage rock enthusiast named Don McLean woke up early. He went to pick up his load of newspapers for his job as a paperboy. It was the middle of the week, so he would have had to go to school shortly afterwards. The late 1950s had seen some interesting headlines in the newspapers. McLean must have delivered a paper announcing that Fidel Castro had taken over in Cuba and that Charles de Gaulle was elected President of France. However, it is doubtful that he really took an interest in those items, being only 13 years old. This particular day, however, Don saw something that made him shiver.

In the early hours of 3 February, a plane had gone down in Iowa and took with it three of rock 'n' roll's rising stars - The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. All three men and the pilot, Roger Peterson, died.

The Crash

In early 1959, three headliners came together for a 'Winter Dance Party' tour through the Midwest. They were:

  • The Father - The Big Bopper (real name JP Richardson) was the oldest of the performers on the plane. His biggest hit was 'Chantilly Lace', in which he actually announces himself to be 'The Big Bopper' at the beginning, pretending to be on the phone with someone1. He really was a one-hit wonder, but was very famous at the time. His wife was three months pregnant while he was on tour, and he told her that he wanted to quit performing soon and lead a quieter life as a radio station owner.

  • The Son - Ritchie Valens was from California, and was the youngest of the three men on tour. He was born Richard Steven Valenzuela, but shortened his name when he broke into showbusiness at an early age. He was only 17 years old, but had recorded several songs, including 'Come on, Let's Go', 'Donna' and his most popular song 'La Bamba', which was recorded shortly before he went on tour. At the time, he was the freshest, newest, most popular person on tour.

  • The Holy Ghost - Buddy Holly was the most famous and influential man to die in that plane. Performing with two bandmates called The Crickets, he was a fairly prolific singer, having only been in the national limelight for two years before he died. He was 22 years old and had recently married. Like the Bopper, Holly's wife was pregnant at the time. She had a miscarriage shortly after he died. He performed such classics as 'Peggy Sue', 'Maybe Baby' and 'That'll Be the Day'.

These three men met each other for the first time on this tour, and suffered together through unusually cold temperatures in an uncomfortable bus with a broken heater. On the 11th day of the tour, Holly got fed up and chartered a plane to take himself and The Crickets to Fargo, North Dakota, for their next gig. Not only would they avoid the uncomfortable bus, but they would get there early so they could get some laundry done.

When word of this spread, several people wanted to get a seat on the plane. The Big Bopper, who was, as his name implies, a large man, was ill, and Cricket Waylon Jennings gave him his seat. Ritchie Valens pleaded with the other Cricket, Tommy Allsup, and ended up flipping a coin for the seat. Valens won, sort of. The passengers were onboard when the plane took off at about 1am. Shortly after takeoff, it crashed onto a bit of farmland near Clear Lake, Iowa. An investigation later explained that the crash was almost entirely the pilot's fault.

No one knows that would have happened to the world of American music if that plane had not crashed. Buddy Holly was already to be an enormous influence on future musicians - including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan2 and Elton John3. Ritchie Valens certainly had a promising career ahead of him, as he was young and wasn't in any sort of creative slump. The Big Bopper's briefcase on the aeroplane is said to have contained several sets of lyrics that weren't yet set to music. He may have had some surprises for the music world yet - or he could have sold the songs he had written, as he had done with 'White Lightnin'' and 'Running Bear'.

The Song

12 years after a young Don McLean delivered the news of the death of his idol, he sat down and wrote 'American Pie' in one day - remarkable, for the sheer size of the thing (eight and-a-half minutes long - with no long guitar solos or anything like that... McLean is singing most of the time and the music isn't really what's remarkable about the song) and the amount of symbolism. The song is a lot of things. It is part tribute to Buddy Holly, part about him, part fiction, part about Holly's influence on music, part history of rock 'n' roll and part analysis of how it changed after Holly's death.

Recorded in 1971, it hit the top of the US charts the next year. The album cover is a picture of McLean sticking his thumb, coloured to look like a mini-American flag, out.


Today, its refrain is well known around the world, and goes like this-

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.

So what is 'American Pie'? There is a rumour that it was the name of the aeroplane that crashed4. This has been debunked, but continues in legend. There is also a (false) rumour that McLean was dating a Miss America contestant and broke up with her on the day of the accident. That would be one lucky 13-year-old! Don McLean never really spoke about the meanings behind his lyrics, except about the most obvious metaphors. When asked what 'American Pie' meant, he once said 'It means I never have to work again'. Perhaps he knew the value of silence - it keeps people wondering. Do you think this paragraph would be so long if he'd cleared it up right away? The most widely subscribed-to theory is that the term is a metaphor for American innocence or to a kind of pre-1959 American music. Since he obviously believes that music changed significantly after the crash, it would make sense to say goodbye to the classic, innocent rock music of an era when three of its leading performers died.

And why 'pie'? Pie, specifically apple pie is, for whatever reason, a symbol of American innocence and of the nation as a whole. Of course, this was forever ruined not by Buddy Holly's death, but by a 1999 movie of the same name as this song, in which a young man inserted his penis into a warm apple pie.

The next bit makes less sense. 'Chevy' is obviously a reference to a Chevrolet automobile, but the rest isn't so clear. Some say that the Levee was a bar that McLean drove to to drink and mourn when he heard that Holly died. Of course, McLean was only 13, so he would have been underage for two things there - both drinking and driving. It may have been a reference to the 1964 murders of three black men in Mississippi (James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) by the Ku Klux Klan, whose bodies were found in a levee. It is entirely possible that it's just a bit of nonsense that McLean cooked up for a rhyme.

The 'good old boys' are the Bopper, Holly and Valens. What they're singing is a cleverly-adapted line from Holly's 'That'll Be the Day', the refrain of which goes like-

You say you're gonna leave,
I know it's a lie,
'cos that'll be the day...when I die.

Another oft-repeated line in the song is ...the day the music died - obviously referencing the death of three of music's greats. This line comes before the refrain, and is preceded by something referring to the crash in 1959. This line is actually such a strong part of the song that it is occasionally mistaken as the title.

The Rest of the Thing

People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time.

This Entry will not attempt to analyse every line of the song for a number of reasons. For one, it would be absurdly long. For another there are plenty of guides out there on the Internet doing just that which can be found using any search engine. Lastly, there's quite a lot of controversy about what certain parts are about. However, here are a few non-controversial bits that can be used to help understand the song better.

  • 'You both kicked off your shoes' is a reference to the 'Sock Hop' dances, wherein teens would dance in school gyms. Since standard shoes could damage gym floors, they were asked to dance in their socks.

  • The jester is Bob Dylan.

  • The King is most likely Elvis Presley, because he fits the description in the lyrics, sort of, and his nickname was 'The King'. However, it must be said that McLean wouldn't want to be so obvious as to call a man by his nickname.

  • The quartet in the park is The Beatles, as are the Sergeants who sang a marching tune.

  • A dirge is a funeral hymn.

  • 'Helter Skelter' is a song by the Beatles that allegedly inspired Charles Manson to kill and 'Eight Miles High' is a tune by the Byrds. These are probably the most thinly-disguised references in the song.

  • Jack Flash is Mick Jagger.

  • The set of lines where he rants about Satan concerns the Altamont Speedway concert, in which the security force, the Hell's Angels, killed a spectator.

  • The lady that sang the blues is Janis Joplin.

  • The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost are the Bopper, Valens and Holly, respectively.

1Some have said that this wasn't quite the innocent sort of song that teens may have expected. It may have been America's introduction to phone sex, in fact.2Who later said that the music of his greatest songs, 'Like a Rolling Stone', was influenced by 'La Bamba' by Valens. He was also an avid Holly fan, and was in the crowd during one of the stops in the tour.3Who once said of his characteristic spectacles, 'I only needed specs for reading, but as a result of wearing them all the time to try to look like Buddy Holly, I became genuinely nearsighted.'4In fact, the name of the aircraft was N3794N if you go by the serial number...and that's not quite catchy enough for an eight-minute song.

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