Don McLean’s “American Pie” entered theworld stage in 1971 and forever changed the course of rock music.
Throughout history, rock music has played a significantrole in the lives of many. The early 50s were a time of economic prosperity,hopefulness and optimism. But in the late 50s, a tragic accident altered rockand roll history and foreshadowed what would come in the 60s. On February 3,1959, the crash took the lives of three rock legends: Buddy Holly, RitchieValens and the Big Bopper. Music lovers and artists like Don McLean would neverforget it. “American Pie” is predominantly about this tragedy.
McLean trademarkedthis day in history as “the day the music died.” McLean considers the musicthat died to be standard rock & roll songs and “mourns this as the end ofthe entire 50s era” (Morgan, BBC). Thesingers of “That’ll Be the Day,” and “Go, Johnny, Go!” and “Chantilly Lace”were dead. Rock music would never be the same. History shows that people turnto music in times of crisis seeking hope, direction and inspiration. This paperwill analyze the lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and show that his wordsare more than just words.
This paper will also show the importance of musicgenre, in this case rock music, and how music functions as a means for creatinga political awareness. The political and historical significance in the song isrooted deeply in history; the lyrics were written by McLean to reminisce on thegood old days and hope that the future generations would learn certain lessonsfor the future. “American Pie” became likean anthem for the 1970s generation. The song was so catchy and intriguing thatpeople memorized every line. “Their children in turn grew up singing it -fascinated by the mysterious lyrics with their cryptic references to 50sinnocence, the turbulent 60s, and 70s disillusion” (Morgan, BBC).
The song includes severalmetaphors and references that are made to represent real people; McLean alludesto several big figures of the time. The song includes references to Karl Marx,the Beatles, John Lennon, James Dean, Charles Manson, the Rolling Stones,Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Kennedy, and the Vietnam War. McLean waspointing to the idea that the “American Dream” is over. As optimism in the 1960sshifted towards cynicism in the 1970s, “American Pie” became the number onesong in 1972.
But in 2015, the lyrics were sold at auction for $1.2 million. “Ithought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work producton the song American Pie so that anyone who might be interested will learn thatthis song was not a parlor game,” McLean said (Gambino, The Guardian). It can be safe to say that McLean made a majorimpact on music’s history and the legacy of “American Pie” will never die.
What made “AmericanPie” unique from most songs at the time was that it was bold and ambiguous; thefact that people didn’t know what the lyrics meant made it more thoughtprovoking and attractive. This notion of ambiguity has also led to years ofdebates over what the words mean. The timelessness of “American Pie” lies in the song’s “emotional resonance”(Morgan, BBC). Because “music hasdeep connections to our emotional life,” the repetition of certain phrases like”the day the music died,” “bye bye Miss American Pie,” and “this’ll be the daythat I die,” is significant because it serves as constant emotional reminders(Street, 167). Many still debate on what McLean’s intentwas in composing the song. But it is clear that he is telling a particularstory about the American experience.
“People ask meif I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said in an early interview,as the Guardian reported. “Ofcourse I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyricshad to do with the state of society at the time” (Gambino, The Guardian). McLean believed that something had been lost,and he continues the melancholic tone throughout in order to emphasize this andengrain it in the minds of the listeners. “That song didn’t justhappen,” said McLean. “It grew out of my experiences. “American Pie”was part of my process of self-awakening; a mystical trip into my past” (Goodman,Huffington Post).
“American Pie” is a folkrock song. The genre of the song plays an important role in defining itspolitical and historical significance. Because “music is a form of ‘symbolicrepresentation,’ akin to language, but not identical to it,” both the genre andstyle of the song is as important as the lyrics (Street, 167). Music has “anintimate connection with our emotional depths,” and this is extremely evidentin McLean’s “American Pie” (Street, 167). “In the1950s, rock & roll meant disruption: It was the clamor of young people,kicking hard against the Eisenhower era’s ethos of vapid repression. By theonset of the 1960s, that spirit had been largely tamed or simply impeded bynumerous misfortunes, including the film and army careers of Elvis Presley andthe death of Buddy Holly” (Gilmore, RollingStone). The context of the lyrics starts at the 1950s, a time thatwas relatively optimistic, then shifts to the 1960s where non-conformity, lossof values, and social and political movements became the norm.
“It was an indescribable photograph of America that Itried to capture in words and music,” McLean said (Morgan, BBC). “Don McLean says similar ominous things in a pop languagethat a mainstream listener could understand. The chorus is so good that it letsyou wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted atthe same time” (Gambino, The Guardian).McLean’s musical masterpiece is poetry to one’s ears. The message in McLean’s lyrics wasmore powerful and reached a larger audience because a widely accepted genre,rock, was used.
Throughout the literaryanalysis of the lyrics, one will see McLean’s intent of reminding the worldthat music is dead, innocence is lost, and the American Dream is no more. “Basicallyin ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s,as the Newcastle Herald reported. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’tknow whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in asense” (The Guardian).
The song begins by McLean reminiscing on the times”music used to make him smile” and if he knew he had his chance, “he would makethose people dance. Maybe they’d be happy for a while.” This already sets amelancholic and nostalgic tone, yet the beat of the song is catchy andattractive. McLean here is thinking about the optimistic style of music he grew upwith.
A music that can make people smile and that could help ease theirworries. This refers to the optimism of America in the 1950s that faded in the60s. “But Februarymade me shiver. With every paper I’d deliver, bad news on the doorstep.
Icouldn’t take one more step. I can’t remember if I cried” (McLean, 1971). McLeanremembers the day of February 3, 1959, as a boy who delivered newspapers, whenthe plane tragedy shook the country and took the lives of Holly, Valens andBopper. For McLean, the accident was the final blow to this music ’cause thesethree were that only major artists left. When he says, “February made meshiver” he is referring to the month that Buddy Holly died. He also paystribute to his “widowed bride.” It is evident that this tragedy left a deepmark on McLean.
So much so that McLean makes a parallel between the deaths ofmusic and Buddy Holly. This tragedy was the catalyst for McLean writing”American Pie.”The most known and iteratedpart of the song is “Bye, bye Miss American Pie.” It follows every chorus. JimFann, author of “UnderstandingAmerican Pie,” believes that Miss American Pie is “as American asapple pie, so the saying goes” (Morgan, BBC).It has also been said that it could be referring to the beauty queen “MissAmerica,” and this name alludes to a simpler and more optimistic time insociety. I believe that because of the glum tone of the song, especially withthe amount of times that McLean repeats “Bye, bye Miss American Pie,” he ispointing to the loss of American innocence and he is bidding farewell to the”good old days.” Screenwriter and producer of the “American Pie” moviefranchise, Adam Herz, bring up an interesting point about the notion of”American Pie”.
He states that the title also refers to the quest of losingyour virginity in high school, which is as “American as apple pie” (Morgan, BBC). Thewriter is using “pie”as a metaphor for a first sexual experience. It is worth noting that the lyricreads “Miss American Pie” and does not refer to males, as America is femininein the English language. “Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry”could be alluding to driving to the “levee,” which is typically a ridge ofsediment deposited naturally alongside a river by overflowing water. It can besaid that the levee being dry could refer to a slight exaggeration thateverything is evaporating at the time, even nature. The melancholic tone of thesong suggests that the levee being dry is something negative for McLean: somethingthat once gave him life is dry.”Did you write the book oflove and do you have faith in God above if the Bible tells you so? Do youbelieve in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul” (McLean, 1971)? Inthis verse, McLean introduces religious imagery to emphasize the symbolism of”loss.” Loss plays an important role in the song because not only did musiclose three of the most important rock artists of all time, but also music ingeneral has lost its innocence, authenticity and goodness.
“Faith in themusic now replaces faith in God,” Fann observes. From “the sacredstore” to the broken church bells, from this point forward, “whateveris couched in religious terms can be seen as referring back… to the happierinnocence and faith of the 1950s,” says Fann (Morgan, BBC). This verse is significant because McLean uses religion toallude to the importance of music in society.
He continues to evoke a sense of”loss of goodness” by implying that the “good old days” are over. In thisverse, he makes references to two songs by important rock artists of the 1950s:”The Book of Love” by the Monotones and Don Cornell’s “The Bible Tells MeSo”. The religious imagery continues inthe next verse when McLean brings up the pink carnation: “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” (McLean,1971).
Pink carnations carry greatsignificance. In Christianity, it is believed that they first appeared on earthfrom the Virgin Mary’s tears – making them the symbol of a “mother’s undyinglove.” McLean could be using this as a metaphor to refer to the undying love ofmusic or the idea that music is undying and immortal.
“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” (McLean,1971). This is where McLean brings insignificant popular figures in pop culture. “Oh and while the King waslooking down, the jester stole his thorny crown” (McLean, 1971).
Heintroduces Bob Dylan, as the jester. Dylan became a revolutionary in the musicworld in the 1960s. He replaced Elvis, who was the musical king of the 50s.It’s also significant that the King was looking “down,” further emphasizing McLean’snotion that things were going downhill in the music world and with the loss ofthe good old days, people were more glum.
The image of the jester is veryinteresting because it can mean many things. In the English dictionary, ajester is defined as a “professional joker or fool.” The word “joker” also hasan interesting significance. In one sense, both “jester” and “joker” refer to aplaying card that is used in most games as a wild card.
Perhaps McLean isreferring to Dylan as a wild card. A wild card can allude to a person or thingwhose influence is unpredictable or whose qualities are uncertain. It can besaid from these observations, and the fact that a jester is not necessarily acharacter with the most positive connotations, that either McLean was not a bigfan of Dylan or he did not believe in Dylan’s lasting popularity because theworld was changing. “The jacket Dylan borrowed from James Dean can be seen onthe iconic cover sleeve of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (Morgan, BBC). McLeanused subliminal images in popular culture to not only make the song attractiveto listeners at the time, but to give it a sense of timelessness as well. Inthe verse “Helter skelter in a summer swelter,” McLean alludes to the Beatlessong “Helter Skelter,” released in 1968 on their “White Album.
” Manybelieve that it is also a reference to the Charles Manson murders in the summer”swelter” of 1968. This is because Manson once stated that he was inspired bythe Beatles’ song to perform these massacres. It is said that Manson played thealbum repeatedly to his followers because it had an apocalyptic message”predicting an uprising of oppressed races” (Gilmore, Rolling Stone). “Oh and as Iwatched him on the stage. My hands were clenched in fists of rage. No angelborn in Hell. Could break that Satan’s spell” (McLean, 1971). In this verse, McLean is telling astory about an important night in rock music history – the disaster at AltamontSpeedway Free Festival in northern California.
The concert featured big namessuch as Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby,Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones as the final act. MickJagger, the front man of the Rolling Stones was dressed in a red cape singingabout rebellion and fire. One of the members of the Hells Angels motorcyclegang began engaging in “bloody clashes with the rioting audience” (Morgan, BBC). “And as the flames climbed high into the night, to light thesacrificial rite. I saw Satan laughing with delight” (McLean, 1971).
McLeanaccused Jagger for not stopping the performance; this is why he refers toJagger as “Satan laughing with delight.” This is another example of why musichas died, and McLean reminds the listener over and over again. “Just asWoodstock was heralded as the landmark of the counterculture movement,’Altamont was the event that signaled its demise. Reality steps in,” saysFann (Morgan, BBC). McLean used thistragedy in the song as a message to the young generation that something waswrong. “I met a girl who sang the blues. And Iasked her for some happy news.
But she just smiled and turned away. I went downto the sacred store” (McLean, 1971). SingerJanis Joplin rose to fame in the late 1960s and was known for her “powerful,blues-inspired vocals” (Biography.com) In 1970, Joplin died of a drug overdose.In this verse, McLean turns to Janis Joplin for hope. But the rhythm and bluesare gone, and they aren’t even sold in the record stores that McLean refers toas “sacred” – this portrays the importance of small details for McLean, such asrecord stores.
It seems everyone had forgotten about the great music releasedin the 1950s, especially Janis Joplin’s music. McLean carefully constructs anarrative that tells an important, underrated story about the life of greatmusicians such as Joplin; he believes that music should not die with theartist, but in this case, everything is dying. He also paints a bigger picturein reiterating the loss of innocence and the loss of greatness in music ingeneral at this time. Throughout the song, whenever McLean attempts to achieve “happynews,” he is let down. This is significant in the narrative he is constructingabout music losing its “virginity” and the sacredness of music. “Where I’d heard the music years beforebut the man there said the music wouldn’t play” (McLean, 1971). McLean isn’tbeing theoretical here; he is referring to the fact that the music actuallywasn’t playing. “Literally, the music stores that had once providedlistening booths for their customers were by this time no longer offering thisservice” (Morgan, BBC).
But even moreso, “the cynicism of this generation had annihilated the innocent worldthe narrator had grown up in” (Morgan, BBC).Even here, McLean is referring to the loss of innocence in enjoying music atthe store that was once “sacred” to him. He is melancholic about the fact thatthat kind of music wouldn’t play anymore; he wanted listeners to also feel thisway and remember the better times. “And in the streets the childrenscreamed. The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed. But not a word was spoken.The church bells all were broken” (McLean, 1971).
McLean is clever. He shiftsfrom children screaming, lovers crying, and poets dreaming to describing thatno words were spoken and church bells were broken, as if there were suddenly nosounds. The turmoil and chaos diverges back into religious imagery, againhighlighting the importance and sacredness of music and how now it is “broken.””And the three men I admire most. The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” (McLean,1971).
McLean circles back to the plane crash, which is how he starts the song– it makes a full circle, like the circle of life. Here, the Father, Son andHoly Ghost refer to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Thisallusion to the Holy Trinity could also be representative of the three mostimportant political assassinations of not only the 1960s, but American historyin general: John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. McLean is placingextreme emphasis to remind everyone about the day that music died. He is alsohighlighting the importance of these figures in society at the time, andmusic’s role in people’s lives, as he is comparing people to the Holy Trinity.
“American Pie” bid farewellto the 50s and 60s. Even today, McLean remains melancholic about the world welive in. He doesn’t feel differently than he did in the 1970s when he wrote thesong. “I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015,” McLean said, as People Magazine reported. For along time, it was a “truism that rock & roll could make a difference: thatit was eloquent and inspiring and principled enough to change the world — maybeeven to save it.
” Don McLean’s “American Pie” proves that music may not be ableto save the world, but it can truly make an impact, even decades after itsconception. Although McLean released the meaning of the lyrics a few years ago,parts of the song are still cryptic. This is what makes the song immortal anddreamlike: it allows listeners to interpret the lyrics in their own way likepoetry. If the song was written more literally, people may not have been ableto resonate with it.
This ambiguity is what has sparked so much discussion overthe last decades, and has kept “American Pie” more relevant in pop culture thanever. After analyzing the lyrics of Don McLean’s”American Pie,” and acknowledging the importance of rock music in America inthe 50s and 60s, it is clear that music has the power to create politicalawareness and reach a larger audience than words alone can. It is thisrelationship between music and language that allows for political and social awarenessand for music to be effective. McLean’s lyrics, allowed for “American Pie” tomake a lasting impact on the world. Music can “embody the idea of our urgentneed for and attachment to things outside ourselves that we do not control.” McLeanwas aware of this, and utilized “American Pie” as a means to convey hispowerful message to the world: we weren’t the same, America wasn’t the same,romance and innocence were lost, and the world was changing whether we liked itor not.