Now Hear This: “American Pie”

September 7, 2014

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Despite spending a torturous 3 weeks in a “graduate level” music history course this summer…

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Don’t know what this is? Neither do I.  And I did it.  

…I am not all that great at regular Music History classwork. My head still hurts from July. However:  I find the cultural events and personal stories behind the music fascinating.  You’d think we would still get VH-1.  So, let’s listen to “American Pie”.  Yes, we all know this song, it’s been covered by several singers- thanks, Madonna, that was really necessary.

Don McLean released “American Pie” on his album, titled the same, in 1971 .


There’s a hilarious unfortunate line of teen-humor movies by the same name, so watch what you Google. And then there’s Weird Al’s parody version, “The Saga Begins“, a re-telling of “Star Wars, Phantom Menace” that’s way more interesting than the actual “Star Wars, Phantom Menace”.

In the original, with metaphorical references to popular music, politics, and events, McLean gives his personal account of a decade.  It’s common knowledge that the song’s refrain refers to the February 3rd, 1959 plane crash and death of singers Buddy Holly, Richie Vallens, and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson). But there’s a lot more there.

My “research” for this post (I could hang out for days with and YouTube) is completely incomplete. It’s mostly based on message boards, wikipedia, user comments, and what my dad told me. I am placing the most value in the last of these sources, because when I was a kid, the man had a pretty epic collection of vinyl.

You can look up the whole song on Wikipedia here, or visit Rock Genius and click on each section of lyrics for an explanation here. However, my favorite explanation of “American Pie” is this video by Lone Star Sound & Pictures.  There is So. Much. History here. Someone could write a small book on the cultural references behind this song. Someone could. Not me. This post took too long as it is. Before you check it out (or at least start the video and get bored), here are some extra special points that aren’t exactly covered. Remember: This is all theory, I’m a nerd, and you love me so you have to at least entertain the following possibilities:

  • The end-of-an-era feeling that McLean references on “the day the music died” is big, but probably late. Music was already moving away from its clean-cut state in 1959.
  • 2:56: Jester is Bob Dylan, with “a voice that came from you and me”. McLean eventually moved away from rock and embraced folk music. Pete Seeger was his hero. Dylan lived somewhat hypocritically, as a folk singer, because of his mainstream success.
  • 2:59: The King & Queen are JFK & Jackie O. in the video, but we know who the real “King” was, right?
  • 3:07: The Jester has become more influential than Elvis. That’s kind of a big deal.
  • 4:21: The Jester  was “on the sidelines in a cast”. Bob Dylan had a relatively minor motorcycle accident in July 1966. Although he was not hospitalized, he later said the recovery gave him a chance to get out of the business for a while and mentally recuperate.  Meanwhile, other artists tried to advance to fill his place. The Beatles’ enjoyed constant success, but their music, notably from the ‘Sargent Pepper’ album (band uniforms, anyone?) wasn’t the dancing type anymore – “we all got up to dance…the marching band refused to yield”.


  • 5:47: The Altamont Freeway Festival is referenced in pictures. This concert was termed “Rock & Roll’s Worst Day Ever”. This day clearly disturbed McClean, possibly influencing his preference for Folk.  Four deaths and much violence were occurred, and Hell’s Angels were offered beer in exchange for providing loose “security”. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones is (probably) the devil McLean is talking about. “Sympathy for the Devil” was being played at the time that a possibly racially-motivated murder took place close to the stage. Holy crap, I’d be disillusioned too. 
  • 6:36: Janis Joplin is obviously the “girl who sang the blues”. The change in accompaniment when she is mentioned suggests sadness at her early death due to a possible accidental overdoes of heroin. McClean seems to think she knew something we didn’t, or had more to offer, because “She just smiled and turned away.”
  • 7:19: The “Is God Dead” cover of Time Magazine from April 1966 and the perceived decline in religion in the country are possibly the source of the line “The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” lyrics. However, there the holy trinity being referenced here are actually thought to be JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. They are pictured in the video. But, this ‘trinity’ idea is also intended to remind us of the three deaths in the 1959 plane crash. And bring us back for one more chorus…

There is so much more here too. To quote a expert (Ok, to quote my dad) Don McClean was a troubadour-type. There’s a lot of story to tell.  Feel free to add interpretations of these and other lyrics below. I’ll be happy – I love this stuff. I realize I may be the only one in my vast audience of readers who finds 1960’s pop music history interesting. Don’t worry, I’ll post snarky mommy stuff later this week. I guess sometimes we bloggers do write for ourselves… #easilyentertained

Don McLean – The Meaning of American Pie Video

In later interviews McLean refers to the song as a “dream” in which music and political culture run in the same “trough”.  I’m not sure they do today.

So, what would an “American Pie” look like for the current generation’s music?

Let’s all give ourselves a moment to cope with the fact that Miley Cyrus and just Bieber would probably get a mention. 



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