One of the most controversial yet successful songs of the 20th century, “American Pie” was written and performed by Don McLean and was released in 1971. The elegiac composition of the song has become a staple of the American music, and as the decades passed, multiple interpretations have been given to the lyrics. Three decades later, “American Pie” remains one of the most debated and dissected songs in the history of popular music.
Singer-songwriter Don McLean poses for a portrait in June 1970. (Photo by Julie Snow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Recorded May 26, 1971, “American Pie” was no ordinary song – at eight and a half minutes long, it quickly became a cultural event and even though many people weren’t entirely sure what it was about, it reached the top of the Billboard 100 charts in a matter of weeks and sold over 3 million copies. Don McLean had refused to discuss the meaning of the lyrics for decades but finally cracked the code in a 2015 interview that preceded the auction for the original manuscript of the iconic song.
A Defining Moment in American Music
No matter how open to interpretation the lyrics of “American Pie” have been over the decades, the emotional resonance of the song contributed to the birth of an American classic. It was clear from the beginning that McLean was referring to a defining moment in music, as the lyrics point to something that has been lost and can’t be gained back. The song opens with the death of singer Buddy Holly and ends with the catastrophic concert at Altamont Motor Speedway, and as such, we discover that the lyrics cover the period between 1959 and 1970, as the third verse defines the timeframe as the “10 years we’ve been on our own.”
The decade the song refers to has been a defining one not only in music but also the entire American history.
The sense of disillusion and loss that “American Pie” transmits is not just about the deaths in the music world, as we’ll see below, but also about a generation that could no longer believe in the utopian dreams of the 1950’s and was an immediate challenge the assumptions of an old world.
The Roots of an American Icon
One of the most enduring American singers-songwriters, Donald McLean III was born on October 2, 1945, in a family with Scottish roots. Both his father and grandfather were named Donald McLean, and his mother’s side of the family had roots in Abruzzo, Italy. His early musical influences included Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra, but as a teenager, McLean became particularly interested in folk music, and his love of music flourished when he was in high-school. McLean bought his first guitar at the age of 16, and he started making contacts in the music business. This was the period he made friends with Fred Hellerman of the Weavers and singer Erik Darling.
Photo of Don McLean Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
After his father died when McLean was 15, he briefly attended Villanova University, but he dropped out after four months to focus on his musical career. He became associated with Herb Gart, who would become his manager for almost two decades, and started to perform at various events and venues across the country. He Released his first album, “Tapestry,” in October 1970, but had it rejected 72 times before “Mediarts”, a new label, agreed to release it. Even though the album received good reviews, it was not a commercial success. McLean had his major break with the release of his second album, “American Pie,” which made him an international star and remained in charts for over two years after its release.
A Masterpiece is Born
Recorded on May 26, 1971, and first aired on the radio a month later, “American Pie” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on January 15, 1972, and remains the most successful single release of Don McLean. The song was distributed on both sides of the disc because of its length. A first interpretation of the lyrics was published on January 7, 1972, by WCFL DJ Bob Dearborn, and most subsequent interpretations stemmed from this initial one. It wasn’t until 1978 that McLean finally stated that the lyrics of the song are of an autobiographical nature and present a shortened version of his life between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s.
Don McLean performs onstage, Chicago, Illinois, November 10, 1978. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
The song also reached number 2 in the UK for three weeks and topped the charts in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. At the time of its release, “American Pie” was the longest song to enter the Billboard Hot 100, at 8:33 minutes long. At present, it is the fourth longer song ever to enter the Billboard. The Library of Congress selected the song for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its cultural and artistical significance.
The Early History of “American Pie”
In the years after the song was released, it was widely thought that McLean wrote the song at Caffe Lena in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York. However, McLean disputed the claim in an interview for the New York Times in 2011. Even though some employees of the folk café Caffe Lena claimed that he started to write the song there, McLean stated that he wrote it in Cold Spring and Philadelphia. There is a plaque in the Tin & Lint bar on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs that claims the song was written there.
Photo of Don McLean (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)
Not only the place where the song was written is disputed, but also the place where it was first performed. Saint Joseph’s University claims to be the place where the first was performed for the first time, but according to McLean, he debuted the song in Philadelphia at Temple University on March 14, 1971.
What Is “American Pie” About?
According to McLean, the song represents the shifting from the naïve, innocent 1950’s to the darker decade of the 1960s. Even though some of the events mentioned in the song are easy to decipher, such as Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, 1959, most of the lyrics have a deep meaning that has been the subject of speculation for the last decades. McLean himself has generally avoided any question that asked him about the true meaning of the song’s lyrics, stating that the lyrics shouldn’t be analyzed because they are poetry.
The wreckage of the plane crash that killed rock stars Buddy Holly (Charles Hardin Holley), Ritchie Valens (Richard Steven Valenzuela), and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) On February 3, 1959, outside of Clearlake, Iowa. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
When asked about how he composed the song on British show Songbook, McLean answered: “For some reason, I wanted to write a big song about America and politics, but I wanted to do it differently. As I was fiddling around, I started singing this thing about the Buddy Holly crash, the thing that came out (singing), ‘Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.’ Over the years, it has been speculated that “American Pie” contains references to multiple post-World War II events such as civil rights and a wealth of pop culture elements.
Our Story Begins
In the verse that opens the song, McLean is nostalgic for the music of his youth and the way it made him feel at the time he was only discovering the joys of listening and creating music.
Rock ‘n’ roll singer, songwriter and guitarist Buddy Holly (1936 – 1959), right, with his group The Crickets, Jerry Allison and Joe Mauldin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
” 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.”
Almost immediately, he turns his attention to a seminal event that cast a shadow over his joy – the death of Buddy Holly who had died in a plane crash in February 1959. At the time of the event, McLean himself was a paperboy, and he found out about the death of the music star by reading the front page of the newspapers he was supposed to deliver.
The Daily Tribune newspaper reports the deaths of Buddy Holly, J. P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson and Ritchie Valens (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
“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
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.”
The first verse is the easiest to decipher, as McLean identifies Buddy Holly by the time of year he died, as well as the widow he left behind. As it will become more evident in the next verses, Holly’s passing had a profound impact on McLean, as he associated his with the disappearance of the optimism and innocence of the 1950s. As such, the day the music died is not only the day one of its most essential representatives passed away, but also when the old days and the optimism that came with them died as well.
The Day the Music Died
Don McLean coined the phrase “the day the music died,” an expression that would later be used as a reference to the day of February 3, 1959, when rock ‘n’ roll musicians Buddy Holly, JP Richardson, and Richard Valens died in a plane crash in Iowa together with their pilot Roger Peterson. At the time, Buddy Holly was touring across the Midwest together with his band, and rising artists JP Richardson and Richard Valens join them.
A group of men view of the wreckage of a Beechcraft Bonanza airplane in a snowy field outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, early February 1959. The crash, on February 3, claimed the lives of American rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Because the tour buses were called and the journeys between venues were long, Holly decided that they had enough with the cases of frostbite and flu that were affecting their performances. As such they chose to charter a plane to reach their next venue, but soon after takeoff late at night, the plane crashed into a cornfield with no survivors. Holly’s band members Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup were supposed to be on board as well, but they exchanged places with Jennings and Valens at last minute and took the bus instead.
Bye Bye, Miss American Pie
The chorus of the song is a primary key to understanding its meaning because this is where the theme of the countries lost innocence is stated quite clearly.
“Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.”
Mrs. Krantz of Minneapolis beams at her apple pie baking in the oven in 1951.
In the chorus, McLean conveys his sadness at the loss of America’s innocence. American Pie is a metaphor for the country, and the chorus is thus a farewell to the all-American pie. It is thought that he was also inspired by the expression “as American as apple pie” that is often used to describe something that is quintessentially American. Other interpretations state that this could also be a synthesis of the American pie and the beauty queen Miss America.
No matter the interpretation, the name “American Pie” evokes a simpler time when icons had meaning, and life had more taste. McLean bids farewell to the America of a passing era.
Turning the Attention to the Chevy
The phrase “Drove my Chevy to the levee” refers to a well-known series of Chevrolet commercials that were very popular on American television in the 1950’s. , and the lyrics went like this:
” Drive your Chevrolet through the USA,
America’s the greatest land of all
On a highway or a road along a levee…
..life is completer in a Chevy
So make a date today to see the USA
And see it in your Chevrolet.”
Car buyers flock to a dealership to see the new models of the 1953 Chevrolet, Lynwood, California, 1953. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
McLean chose to allude to this particular commercial because the Chevy was the mark of the regular American family in that period. For those not familiar with the term, a levee is a dam built to prevent inundations, but sometimes the term refers to the steep bank of a river. Driving the Chevy to the levee relates to romance, but the lyrics have a double meaning, because “The Levee” was also a party spot in, where McLean used to listen to music with his friends.
An alternate theory holds that, since rye is a kind of whiskey, McLean is singing “drinking whiskey in Rye.” McLean home was New Rochelle, which did indeed feature a bar called “The Levee.” Allegedly, this bar shut down or “went dry,” causing patrons to drive across the river to Rye, New York.
The choice of words “the levee is dry” also alludes to the disappearance of something that once gave McLean great pleasure – just like the evaporating American dream.
This Will Be the Day That I Die
Once they reach their favorite places to drink, McLean and his friends raise their glasses to “the good ole boys,” mourning the death of Buddy Holly and his band. One of the key lines of the song, “This’ll be the day that I die” is a rewording of a line from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” hit: “Cause that’ll be the day when I die.
“The Levee”, later became “Tin Lizzies” and is currently called “The Beechmont Tavern“Source: yelp.com
” In that particular song, Holly fears that his love would leave him, which would mean the end of the world for him. McLean uses the line with a double edge: to point to Holly as a symbol of the song, and to mourn the death of music as he knows it and a whole world with it.
The Book of Love Makes an Entrance
The second verse of the song introduces some of the most discussed themes of “American Pie” – the Book of Love and the Rolling Stones.
“Did you write the Book of Love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so
Do you believe in rock n’ 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 & 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”
Source: njarts.netThis is a verse in which the singer reaches back even further in the days of his youth, a time when he courted a woman who ended up despising him. While the woman is referenced in the song as the writer of the Book of Love, it is widely believed she is a symbolic figure, and the Book of Love reference is about the 1957 hit by The Monotones, “The Book of Love.”
The song was written by Warren Davis, Charles Patrick, and George Malone, three of The Monotones members. The idea for the chorus line “I wonder, wonder, wonder who, who wrote the book of love” came to lead singer Charles Patrick after he watched a Pepsodent toothpaste commercial that featured the line “wonder where the yellow went.” The song includes a “boom” part, which was inspired by a kid who was kicking his ball against the garage door while the band was rehearsing.
Another Look at the Past through Rose Colored Glasses
Other elements in this verse point to McLean’s remembrance of the golden age in American history, a time of pickup trucks, sock hops, and pink carnations. At the time McLean wrote the song, most people had started to believe that the 1950’s had been a charmed moment in time, a period of unprecedented economic prosperity that followed World War II. This was a time when the majority of Americans found themselves free from many uncertainties and finally became able to enjoy themselves. They celebrated the achievement of the American dream with automobiles, suburban homes with white picket fences, kitchen appliances, and babies. By the time the 1960’s ended, the American dream had begun to fade as radical changes took the country by storm.
New England neighborhood with white picket fences (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
The religious references in the second verse are most likely related to the belief that many Americans conceived in the 1950’s, that they were living in a country blessed by God. The music itself becomes an object of faith in the song, with the line “Do you believe in rock n’ roll/ Can music save your mortal soul” and McLean suggests that the music of the golden post-war period is a symbol of the unquestioning innocence of those times.
From now on, the sacredness of the music will become a staple of the song, as it will be encountered again and again as the verses go on. Everything that relates to religious metaphors in the next verses is referring back to the music, which in turn is a metaphor in its own right, one for the faith and innocence of the 1950’s.
A Romantic Touch Filled with Dance
“And can you teach me how to dance real slow?” McLean goes back to the romantic touch of the previous verse and is shown here courting Miss American Pie. The picture of the sock hop is another reference to the 1950’s when school dances mostly took place in high-school gyms, and the students danced in their socks to avoid damaging the polished wood floors.
Young men and women sit awkwardly together on chairs beside the dance floor, during a high school dance in the gymnasium at Monterey Union High School, while other couples dance in the background, Monterey, California, 1950. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
The narrator is rejected at this point, as the girl who he is interested in goes dancing with someone else. McLean is thus left behind with his pink carnation and his truck. As he is left stranded, he can’t think about anything else but Bye Bye Miss American Pie. By personifying America as a woman, it becomes more evident that the entire song is a farewell to the country he once knew.
At this point, the song is all set up, and the listener can make some sense about everything that is about to unfold. From now on, the song sets the music of the new era against some of the most representative musical figures of the 1960s as well as the shattering changes they represented in American culture.
Like a Rolling Stone
The next verse marks the beginning of McLean’s descent into hidden meanings, and this is why it contains some of the most debated lyrics of the song.
“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”
Group shot of English rock and roll band The Rolling Stones posed in 1968. Clockwise from top left: Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones (1942-1969), Mick jagger and Keith Richards. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)
This it is a clear reference to the Rolling Stones, but also another tribute to Buddy Holly who sang “Well you know, a rolling stone, don’t gather no moss.” Most interpreters believe that this verse takes place between 1963 and 1966. The image of the Rolling Stone is referring to an old cliché that describes a person never puts down the rules, but in this context, it foreshadows the uprooting anarchy that Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones Will bring tour America at the beginning of the 70s.
It is also believed that the rolling stone reference is about Bob Dylan who sang “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, in what was to be later considered a major break from folk music. Shortly after, Dylan was involved in a motorcycle accident and paused his musical career for about a year, in a period that many believed marked a turning point in his career (hence the “moss grows fat” line).
The Arrival of the Jester
” 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”
The cover for the Bob Dylan album ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, released by Columbia Records in 1963. The cover features Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking near their apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City. (Photo by Blank Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
The jester that appears in the following lines of the third verse is widely believed to be associated with Bob Dylan, mostly because it is rather easy to identify him by the James Dean coat he sported on the cover of his “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album released in 1963. Because of this association, we get a date for the opening of verse three, 1963, one of the most critical years in American history because of the assassination of John Kennedy (November 22, 1963). Some historians consider the year so radical that it marked the starting point of the 60s.
“A voice that came from you and me” further identifies Dylan, who was mostly known for his distinctive, unpolished voice as well as his literate and introspective approach to folk music. The learn was the voice of a generation, and the Jester is a mythological figure that plays the role of a trickster, advising Royals by undermining them, something that Dylan also seemed to do by heralding a new order in popular music.
Why Would Dylan Borrow a Jacket from James Dean?
Most remembered as the rebel without a cause in the film with the same name, James Dean is the embodiment of rebellion and alienated youth that fits so well with Bob Dylan’s impact on American music in the same period. His portrayal of a rebellious and fragile teenager in “Rebel without a Cause” (1955) made Dean the symbol of youth in disarray and catapulted him to stardom.
American actor James Dean (1931 – 1955) holds American actor Natalie Wood (1938 – 1981) in a scene from ‘Rebel Without A Cause,’ directed by Nicholas Ray, 1955. (Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)
His tragic and premature death in a car accident right when his glory was beginning contributed to the creation of the Dean myth and his entry into the pantheon of American cinema. Dean was the first actor to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar award posthumously and win it. He is also one of the few actors (five in total) to be nominated in this category for their first film role. Dean is also known for his movies “East of Eden” (1955) and “Giant” (1956), which was released posthumously.
Bob Dylan Changes the Face of American Music
The most influential singer-songwriter of the century, Bob Dylan has changed the 60’s and the American culture with it. His work is mostly linked to that decade, mainly because some of his seminal work came out between 1964 and 1966. The only songwriter in history to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dylan has been a prominent figure in popular culture for over five decades, and songs such as “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” became anthems for the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights movement.
Photo of Bob DYLAN; performing live onstage (Photo by Bob King/Redferns)
Throughout his career, Dylan has incorporated a wide range of social, political, literary and philosophical influences in his music. In a career that spans half a century, he explored multiple styles ranging from folk and blues to rock and roll, gospel, country, and even jazz and Irish folk music. He was one of the first folk singers to use electrically amplified rock instrumentation, and he released his three most influential albums, “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” in the space of just 15 months, between 1965 and 1966.
Besides being the symbol of teenage angst, Dean was also a fashion icon, and the leather jacket he wore in “Rebel Without a Cause” has become iconic for the “bad boy” image. This explains the “coat (Dylan) borrowed from James Dean” line in “American Pie.”
A Verse Fit for a King
” And while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned.”
Rock and roll musician Elvis Presley performing on the Elvis comeback TV special on June 27, 1968. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
In the next lines, the King is most commonly identified with Elvis Presley, nicknamed at the time, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. McLean suggests here that Dylan has gone before the court and rock ‘n’ roll to challenge Presley’s dominion, which is also a metaphor for the challenge the country is confronted with as the younger generation started to challenge the assumptions of the older one.
Presley was the symbol of a youthful rebellion in its own, but one that had started in the 1950s, and by the time McLean wrote his song, his time became somewhat obsolete, because the new generation chose Dylan to be their new spokesman. The thorny crown metaphor is a symbol for the price of fame the winner of the emerging American cultural revolution had to pay.
The Presley Revolution
Just like Bob Dylan a decade later, Elvis Presley had started a revolution of his own in the 1950s. Often referred to as “The King” or “The Kind of Rock and Roll,” Presley is one of the major cultural icons of the 20th century. He began his musical career in 1954 at Sun Records. Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, he helped popularize the blossoming rockabilly genre, an energetic mix of country music and rhythm and blues.
Photo of Elvis PRESLEY; posed, on phone (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
In 1956, his contract was purchased by RCA Victor, and he landed his first Number 1 with the single “Heartbreak Hotel.” He then embarked on television appearances and released a string hit singles such as “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” (1956), “Love Me Tender” (1956), “All Shook Up” (1957), “A Fool Such as I”/”I Need Your Love Tonight” (1959), “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (1960) and “Return to Sender” (1962).
Presley’s singing talent and gestures were deemed provocative and indecent by the Puritan section of America, and they made him a figurehead of rock ‘n’ roll as well as a subject of controversy. The singer died suddenly in 1977 at his Graceland estate in Memphis, Tennessee, at the age of 42.
And What about the President?
Besides associating the king with Elvis Presley, some other interpretations point out that the king and queen are President John F. Kennedy and the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The role of the court jester is taken by alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, who also happens to share physical similarities with Bob Dylan.
President John Kennedy rides in a motorcade from the Dallas airport into the city with his wife Jacqueline and Texas Governor Johhn Connally.
Kennedy’s presidency was full of idealism and wit, and the first couple was challenging the institution of the Presidency, filling it with a fresh air that remembered many of the breadths of innovation that was sweeping the country in all respects. During the early 1960s, the Broadway play “Camelot” was very popular, and the public started to romanticize Kennedy’s presidency as modeled after King Arthur’s Court. This is why it can be interpreted that the assassination of the president in the fall of 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald could be associated with the jester stealing the crown of the king, robbing him of his authority.
The “no verdict was returned” is thus a reference to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of the president. Besides the shocking murder that paralyzed the country, Kennedy’s death was a severe blow to the morale of the nation, because it was the point that severed the old post-war innocence and replaced it with an ever-growing cynicism towards American government and culture. Once again, the word McLean once new was changing.
The Beatles Enter the Scene
” 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”
Photo of BEATLES; John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison – posed, group shot – outside Brian Epstein’s Belgravia house for Sgt. Pepper launch (Photo by Jan Olofsson/Redferns)
In the final four lines of the third verse, the Beatles arrive on the scene of music (“the quartet practiced in the park). Lenin here it is often believed to be a play on Lennon, but it is not clear what the correlation to Marx means. It has been speculated that it is a reference to Lennon via his song revolution because Marx is generally associated with the communist revolution. The dirges mentioned at the end are a possible reference to the tragic death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy but may also be a funeral mourning for the good old days.
Lenin reading a book on Marx can also be interpreted as the rise of communism in Eastern Europe and across the globe, as a background in the music setting of the period. If that is the case, Lenin is not a play on Lennon, but the Russian political figure himself, who based most of his thinking on the writings of Marx.
The idea of a cultural revolution in the works is poignant at this point, and as the Beatles grew more and more experimental, they would soon change the shape of rock ‘n’ roll just as Bob Dylan had managed to do before them. The park reference is mostly related to the famous 1966 farewell concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park when the Beatles retired from the public eye and began to create more straightforward music.
Fresh Wind from Across the Pond
Widely regarded as the most influential music band in history, The Beatles was a British musical group, originally from Liverpool, England. Formed in 1960, and comprising of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the group only had eight years of record career, from 1962 to 1970, during which they recorded 12 original albums and composed more than 200 songs mostly written by the Lennon / McCartney duo, whose success in the history of the recording industry remains unmatched.
THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS Photo of BEATLES, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr & John Lennon performing at Alpha Television Studios, Aston, Birmingham, Bigsby Vibrato. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
After starting off with the rock ‘n’ roll and beat music of the 1950s, the Beatles quickly changed their style, feeding on many sources to invent their musical language. Their technical and musical experiments, their worldwide popularity and their growing political consciousness over the course of their careers extended the Beatles’ influence beyond music to the social and cultural revolutions of their time. They remain the most sold artists in the world, and some of their best-known songs include “Love Me Do” (1963), “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967), “All You Need Is Love” (1967) “Hey Jude” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Come Together” (1969), and many more.
Entering a Cultural Minefield
The fourth verse marks the move to the most explosive period of the 60s, which took place between 1966 and 1969. Once again, the music mirrors the changes in culture and society.
” 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 half-time air was a sweet perfume
While 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?”
The Byrds perform live on stage in London in 1971. Left to Right: Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Roger McGuinn, Skip Battin. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
The 60s revolution became more pragmatic and organized under the new left and began fragmenting into numerous causes such as the black power, women’s rights, anti-war and counterculture movements as well as the revolutionary youth movements and progressive labor. This was also a period of sexual and spiritual freedom marked by the advent of drugs and philosophies of peace that eventually came to characterize the generation of this time in the eyes of the public.
At the beginning of this verse, McLean references the Manson murders as well as the song “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. There is also another reference to Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident and how the new generation tried to get his place while he was on the sidelines in a cast.
A Summer of Chaos
The first three lines of the fourth verse depict the chaos that took place in the summer heat at the end of the decade. 1967 was the year’s self-proclaimed summer of love as youth culture hippies from all over the country headed to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district where they lived out the counterculture’s refrains of drug-induced transcendence and brotherly love. However, as they lived a carefree existence, the calm waters were soon to be disturbed by several events that challenged the flower power existence of the hippies.
Three soldiers stand amid the rubble of a burned building in Washington, D.C. Riots and looting occurred in many U.S. cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This was the time when the violent Oakland anti-draft protests took place, but also the year the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy took place. Other significant imbalance included the black riots across the nation following the assassination of Martin Luther King as well as the riots at Columbia University and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
The “Helter Skelter” phrase is a metaphor for the Celtic events of this period and also a reference to the song of the same name by the Beatles. Another musical reference in this verse is “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds, which was released in 1966 and spoke of the drug culture of the period and foresaw the anarchy that was about to erupt in America. Both of the songs cater to the idea of falling fast, which in retrospect it is a metaphor for the following of the all the world and the advent of a new one.
Culture against the Government
The lines “It landed foul out on the grass/The players tried for a forward pass” refers to the youth culture making a pass against the government while attempting to change and transform the country. It is evident that the political and civil authorities do not take kindly to the challenges and that this has forever changed the American cultural dialogue.
Photo of Grateful Dead Photo by Waring Abbott/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
This verse speaks about the pragmatic agendas of the civil rights movement and about the musical players of the time. Bob Dylan is now representing the New Left, antiwar position, while the Beatles are at the forefront of the counterculture. Together with many others such as the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds, they are all symbols of the liberal political forces that compete on the rock ‘n’ roll and cultural front during this period.
“With the jester on the sidelines in a cast” is a line that refers to the nearly fatal motorcycle accident Bob Dylan was involved in on July 29, 1966. After the crash, he retreated to Woodstock, New York, to recuperate and also deal with the overwhelming sensations he was experiencing due to the pressures of his success. In the next few years, his work was not as well received by us his earlier one, mostly because he retreated from the social commentary and lyrical complexity that made him the voice of a generation. His role as a beacon of light in the social and musical context was soon to be taken by the Beatles.
The Death of Traditional Rock and Roll
The 1967 summer of love marked the midpoint of the 60s cultural revolution (“the half-time air”) and the sweet perfume referenced in these lines is viewed by some as a reference to the flowering of the movement, but many others believe that it has another meaning too, as the air of the summer was filled with marijuana. The defining musical album for the summer of love was the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which quickly became the marching tune of the counterculture (“While Sergeants played a marching tune.”)
(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
The next lines, (“We all got up to dance / But we never got the chance”) refer to the transformation of rock ‘n’ roll music that has now moved beyond its original roots that were dance-based towards something that became more experimental, drug-related, and political, in stark contrast to the simpler times of the 1950s, when it was all about dancing and having fun.
The pace gets more and more rapid as the radical youth players move away from the peaceful someone of love towards confrontational violence. “The marching band refused to yield” is a metaphor for the civil authorities who pushed back but also continues to be a metaphor for the music that keeps changing over and over again. here they are, a generation lost in space, which is now widely regarded as the last generation, left with no time to start over.
Do You Recall What was Revealed?
This is considered to be the most ambiguous line of the song, and it has been subject to many interpretations over the years. One of the most common suggestions is that it refers to ” Unfinished Music No. 1—Two Virgins,” an album released by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1968, where they appear naked on the cover. Another interpretation says that the line refers to the Chicago Police Department’s brutality in the context of the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention.
Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) and his wife of a week Yoko Ono in their bed in the Presidential Suite of the Hilton Hotel, Amsterdam, 25th March 1969. The couple are staging a ‘bed-in for peace’ and intend to stay in bed for seven days ‘as a protest against war and violence in the world’. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Moreover, in the fall of 1968, the first protest in the Miss America contest history occurred. As the pageant was hauled in Atlantic City New Jersey, the woman’s liberation movement, was critical of the Miss America contest stereotyping of women as sex symbols, gather outside the convention center where the event was held and they used a “Freedom Trash Can” to pass wigs, high heels, false eyelashes, as well as bras to symbolically free women of these sexual stereotypes. As the media mostly paid attention to the discarded bras, the line “Do you recall what was revealed” may be a reference to these braless protesters, in another rejection of the old attitudes of 1950s America.
Things Become Ugly
“American Pie” reaches its climax in the fifth verse, concerning the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and the bloody concert held in the fall of 1969 at the Altamont Motor Speedway, California. The flower power hippies drew together once more to recreate the atmosphere of the successful Woodstock music festival that took place a couple of months earlier.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones at The Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 in Livermore, California. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
” 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”
Approximately 300,000 people gathered at Altamont, and the alcohol and drug use led to escalating violence. The flower children weren’t able to recreate the atmosphere at Woodstock, but instead, they found themselves lost in space, with no place left to go, mostly because the momentum of the revolution was long gone. This verse is filled with references about the night of the Rolling Stones concert and the events that took place there.
The Rolling Stones and the Path to Darkness
In their song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the Rolling Stones play with fire and boast about their freedom, and that is what the “So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick” reference is about. The Rolling Stones had become of the darker voices in rock and roll at the end of the 60’s, with their latest albums, “Beggars Banquet” in 1968 and “Let It Bleed” in 1969 featuring a sort of aggressive nihilism that wasn’t present in their earlier songs. For this reason, McLean uses Mick Jagger and his band as representatives of those who incite to rebellion while pushing for personal freedom. As such, it doesn’t take long for the narrator to identify Jagger with the Devil.
Rolling Stones Live On Stage In USA (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
As violence starts during the concert, Jagger doesn’t end the show even after some of the people in the audience pleaded with his to do so. It is difficult to say whether his defiant attitude incited a riot, but as footage from the concert proves, he could have brought it to an end by leaving the stage.
Death Comes to the Concert
As the audience is mesmerized by the Rolling Stones’ performance, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, who were hired as security for the night, start to defend the stage violently, but without too much success. The moment is used by Mclean not only to reference the actual events that took place that night but also to use Jagger as the motive for the anarchy unfolding in the culture and society.
Hell’s Angels before the Rolling Stones appeared at the Altamont Speedway for the free concert they were headlining. (Photo by William L. Rukeyser/Getty Images)
The next lines, “And as the flames climbed high into the night/ To light the sacrificial rite” are a reference to the stabbing of a black man by a member of the Hells Angels during the concert. The victim was Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old African-American teenager who approached the stage armed with a revolver. Alan Passaro of the Hell Angels stabbed and beat him to death, and the entire incident was caught on camera. It subsequently became a theme for the “Gimme Shelter” documentary. Even though he was initially charged with murder, Passaro was later acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
The Revolution Comes to an End
The violence and indifference of the crowd present at the Altamont concert are seen by many as the sign that spelled the end of the cultural revolution that began in the earlier years. Mick Jagger is thus the symbol of the self-centeredness of the crowd, and many have said that the lyrics of “American Pie” find him responsible for not preventing or even for provoking the events of that night.
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4, 2015, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
The entire episode shows the epitome of the aggressive rebellion that transformed America from a somewhat innocent and naïve society into a slightly apocalyptic nation that used violent means to tear up the old order. “I saw Satan laughing with delight” is the climax of a moment that shows just how ugly things have become.
Who Are the Rolling Stones?
Formed in London, England, in 1962, The Rolling Stones that initially comprised of guitarist and original leader Brian Jones, pianist Ian Stewart, singer Mick Jagger, and guitarist Keith Richards. Ian Stewart was dismissed from the official formation by group manager Andrew Loog Oldham in May 1963 but continued to work with the group as road manager and pianist until his death in 1985. Jagger and Richards quickly formed a duet of songwriters and gradually took the helm of the group, in place of an increasingly erratic Brian Jones. Brian Jones chose the name of the band, which comes from a song by Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ Stone.”
(L-R) Musician Ronnie Wood, singer Mick Jagger, musicians Charlie Watts and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones perform during Desert Trip at the Empire Polo Field on October 14, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Jones died drowned in his pool in July 1969, shortly after he was laid off from the group. He was replaced by Mick Taylor, who toured and recorded five studio albums before leaving the Stones in 1974. Ronnie Wood, the former guitarist of Faces, took his place. Bill Wyman left the band in 1993. Bass-player Darryl Jones joined the Stones as well, but without becoming an official member.
The Rolling Stones have released 23 studio albums in the United Kingdom (25 in the United States), 32 compilations and eight live albums (9 in the United States). In 2012, the band sold more than 400 million records worldwide. They entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Queen of England knighted Mick Jagger in 2002.
The Girl Who Sang the Blues
“American Pie” comes to an epilogue as McLean mourns his loss over the ruins of his generation, looking for signs of the old world. He believes he had met a return to the age of innocence in “a girl who sang the blues,” but his relief is short-lived.
” I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away.”
Janis Joplin sings with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. (Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The girl who sang the blues is most likely Janis Joplin, the rock, and roll icon whose death of a heroin overdose in 1970 marked yet another loss for the musical movement. McLean hopes that her music would be the “happy news” that everybody has been waiting for, but the girl “just smiled and turned away,” just like rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and The Doors’ Jim Morrison did the same year.
The Female Voice of Rock and Roll
Janis Joplin was a unique presence in the music world in the 1960’s. Mostly because she was a female voice in a world dominated by male figures. Born on January 19, 1943, Joplin became the most successful female rock star of her time even though she had a very short career. She rose to fame in 1967 as the lead singer of the rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, before embarking on a solo career.
Photo of Janis Joplin (Photo by Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Joplin was a mezzo-soprano and was highly respected by critics and public alike. Her most famous songs include “Me and Bobby McGee, ” which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971, as well as “Cry Baby,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” and “Mercedes Benz.” Her exciting career ended abruptly when she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Joplin had only released three albums, and a fourth one, “Pearl” was released posthumously. The Rolling Stone magazine included her on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time at number 46, and she is still one of the top-selling musicians in the United States.
The Sacred Store Meaning
After he learns about Joplin’s death, the narrator turns to “the sacred store,” which is a euphemism for a record store, in line with the music as a religious experience vibe that was established earlier in the song. However, the music he wants to listen to would no play anymore. In the 1950s, many music stores offered listening booths for their customers, but as the 1970’s came, most of them weren’t providing this service anymore so that one can take the “the music wouldn’t play” line literally.
Photo of 70’s and RECORD STORE; Bleeker Bob’s Records (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
As he gets back on the streets, McLean learns once more that the world around him has become unrecognizable:
“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.”
Nothing is the same anymore, and what once a vibrant culture is now dead, aptly represented in song by the image of the broken church bells.
The Enigmatic Trio
The last lines of the song are again highly enigmatic ones, as they carry more than one association. McLean now shifts from the problems of the day and the sentiment of loss he experiences when witnessing a world that is changing before his eyes and focuses again on the plane crash the song began with.
“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.”
American senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925 – 1968) stands in an open-top convertible and shakes hands with members of a crowd as he campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination in Detroit, Michigan, May 15, 1968. (Photo by Andrew Sacks/Getty Images)
The three figures mentioned in these last lines may refer to the three performers who died in the plane crash, but they could also be a symbol of the three major political assassinations of the 1960s: John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. The violent deaths of these three historical figures were definitive in the shattering of the public’s optimism, so they could very well qualify as the people referenced in the song.
Don McLean Reveals the Meaning of the Song Himself
It wasn’t until 2015 that Don McLean decided to lift the veil on the meaning of the song. His decision was taken at the time the original manuscript of the song was sold at auction in New York. The manuscript that was put up for sale was accompanied by a note in which McLean mentions that “American Pie” is “a morality song” that showcases the decline of the USA together with its loss of innocence.
In an interview that was published in the auction catalog, McLean revealed that “Basically in American Pie, things are heading in the wrong direction (…) It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense.” Before the auction, whenever he was asked what the song meant, McLean would joke “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”
He also mentioned that “American Pie “is as relevant as ever, because the world went downhill since he wrote the song.”I was around in 1970, and now I am around in 2015… there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of American Pie.”
Besides the short explanation above, McLean refused to offer further revelations about who’s who in the song, stating that “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral, and I did, but it took a long time.”
The Making of “American Pie”
Producer Ed Freeman stated that the “American Pie” single is a combination of 24 different takes of McLean’s voice. This happened because the singer wasn’t the easiest person to work with, and as such, multiple takes were taken during the same session on May 26, 1971, with a live and unedited backing band track.
Don McLean attends 86th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2012, in New York City. (Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
The producer also stated that even though McLean was a very talented singer, he was sometimes criticized for singing with the same vocal inflections, so he decided to be more improvisational. “In my head, I knew what it was supposed to sound like—I don’t now remember how I arrived at that, but when I kept asking him to sing it in a certain way, he wouldn’t do it. He wanted to play with it every time, inserting slides, melismas and other things that, to my mind, didn’t fit. So we ended up recording him 24 times on 16-track tape and took different parts from different takes until I got every word the way I wanted it, without all the play, and I don’t think Don appreciated that very much…In Don’s case, I think he was happy with the finished vocal, but he was not happy with somebody else having that much influence,” said Freeman.
How Was the Song Recorded?
The song was recorded inside Studio A at New York’s Record Plant, on May 26th, 1971, and the recording equipment used was a 32-input Spectra Sonics console coordinated by engineer Tom Flye. Originally a musician who performed on keyboards and drums in a variety of bands, Flye was born in Chicago but relocated to New York in 1964. He started working at Record Plant as a recording engineer and worked on records by the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield before producer Ed Freeman took him on for the American Pie project.
New York’s Record PlantSource: pinterest.com
The Spectra Sonics board used for the recording was a piece of modern technology at the time, as it had a separate monitor system that allowed engineers to record on one side while playing back on the other. The producers were mixing live, as Flye recalls, and even though producer Ed Freeman originally wanted “American Pie” to go to stereo after starting in mono, the board wasn’t suitable for this, so the song ended up being recorded as a stereo mix. A U87 was used for the electric guitar, and the bass guitar was recorded with a DI.
A (Not So) Star-Studded Cast in the Background
“American Pie” ends with a campfire-type chorus, for which McLean used a background chorus that was credited as the West Forty-Fourth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir on the sleeve of the album. The ensemble was comprised of some of McLean’s friends, a mix of professional musicians and people with no musical background. Some of the members of the ad-hoc chorus included Carly Simon, Pete Seeger, and James Taylor and Livingston Taylor.
BOTTOMLINE Photo of Carly Simon (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)
As for the challenges the length of the song brought to the producing team, Ed Freeman remembers that “it was a complete nightmare to fit an eight-and-a-half-minute track onto one seven-inch single.” The track had to be cut in half very carefully and added to both sides of the record. The final running times were 4:11 minutes for Part One and 4:31minutes for Part Two.
Don McLean after “American Pie”
“American Pie” brought him fame, but McLean continued to record other songs for the next decades. His third album, “Don McLean,” was released in 1972 and peaked at number 23 on the Billboard 200 chart. One of the songs on the album, “The Pride Parade,” is about the overwhelming feelings the singer had to deal with as a result of his fulminant success. “Playin’ Favorites,” his fourth album, was released in 1973 and included McLean’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “Every day.”
Don McLean performs at the 2014 Stagecoach Country Music Festival – Day 2 at the Empire Polo Club on April 26, 2014, in Indio, California. (Photo by Jerod Harris/WireImage)
McLean’s final studio recording for United Artists was the 1974 album “Homeless Brother,” whose title was inspired Jack Kerouac’s book “Lonesome Traveler.” McLean moved briefly to Arista Records, where he released his “Prime Time” album in 1978. After a disagreement with Clive Davis, the Arista chief, McLean no longer had a record contract in the United States but released his single “Chain Lightning” by Festival Records in Australia and EMI in Europe. As a consequence of his international success, the singer signed a new deal in the United States with Millennium Records in 1981.
Further chart success followed in the 1980’s with singles “Since I Don’t Have You” and “It’s Just the Sun.” The “Don McLean Classics” album was released in 1992 and featured new studio recordings of “Vincent” and “American Pie.” The singer continued to record, and his latest album, “Addicted to Black” was released in 2009.
Why Was the “American Pie” Manuscript Sold at Auction?
The original “American Pie” lyrics headed to auction at Christie’s on April 7, 2015, where they sold for $1.2 million. The handwritten lyrics were a never-before-seen 16-page document that included 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text. When asked why he has decided to part with the lyrics at that specific moment, McLean stated: “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.”
American Pie” ManuscriptSource: nypost.com
He also mentioned that for years he hadn’t been sure he still had the manuscript but started to look for it in his boxes after former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres asked him about his thoughts on giving his papers to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When he found the manuscript, McLean said that it was the first time in decades that he saw it again.
The manuscript consists of multiple pages on colored paper and several pages taken out from a spiral notebook. It includes several lines that haven’t made the cut for the final version of the song, such as “And there I stood alone and afraid/I knelt to my knees and there I prayed/and I prepared to give all I had to give/If only he would make it live again.”
Madonna Covers “American Pie”
On March 3, 2000, Madonna released her version of “American Pie,” and included it in the soundtrack of her movie, “The Next Best Thing.” Even though the film was not a critical success, the song itself beat number 29 on the Billboard hot 100 chart as well as number one on the Billboard hot dance club songs chart. A video accompanied the musical release, showing Madonna dancing in front of an American flag with a tiara on her head. Her video also included working class citizens, same-sex couples, and teenagers and cheerleaders.
Madonna performs her ‘Rebel Heart’ Tour at Allphones Arena on March 19, 2016, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Zak Kaczmarek/Getty Images)
Madonna’s version became a worldwide hit and reached number one in several countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and more. The cover is much shorter than the original and only includes the beginning of the first verse as well as the second and sixth verses. It was also recorded as a dance-pop song and was co-produced by William Orbit.
Madonna’s Video and Critical Reception
Directed by Philipp Stölzl on January 10, 2000, in London, Madonna’s “American Pie” video pays homage to the 1970s, the period when the song was first performed. Madonna dances in front of a giant American flag and some shots show ordinary people, children, a woman in a shop, interracial families posing for a photo, a gay and lesbian couple kissing each other; roughly, what makes up the American population. Two versions of the video exist, the second one featuring a remix that is a more upbeat and dance-friendly version of the song.
Singer Madonna performs ‘Ghost Town’ onstage during the 2015 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on NBC from The Shrine Auditorium on March 29, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
The critics weren’t too excited with Madonna’s cover, but Don McLean himself praised it and stated that her version is “mystical and sensual” and “a gift from a goddess.” As of 2017, the “American Pie” cover is Madonna’s 16 bestselling single.
However, Rolling Stone included Madonna’s cover on the list of Worst Covers of All Time. The song came in third on the list after “Behind Blue Eyes” by Limp Bizkit and “Smells like Teen Spirit” by Miley Cyrus. The singer’s under five-minute song may have hit number one on the dance charts, but critics were so harsh that Madonna ultimately said: “It was something a certain record company executive twisted my arm into doing.”
Other Versions and Parodies
Besides Madonna’s cover, multiple versions and parodies of “American Pie” also exist. In 1999, a song titled “The Saga Begins” written and performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic recounted the plot of Star Wars Episode One as a parody of “American Pie.” McLean permitted the parody and praised it after its release.
American musician and comedian Weird Al Yankovic plays the accordion as he performs onstage at the Star Plaza Theater, Merrillville, Indiana, July 9, 2010. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
A live video of “American Pie” was used by the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a counter-reaction to a Newsweek article that claimed the city was dying. Many critics hailed the video as an extraordinary performance, with film critic Roger Ebert ever stating that it was “the greatest music video ever made. “The song was also used as a track for the series of music video games “Rock Band.”
The song was also revived for a Chevrolet ad in 2002, and the automotive company included the “Drove my Chevy to the levee” line, omitting, for obvious reasons, the “this’ll be the day that I die” part.
Fun Facts about “American Pie”
Don McLean owns the phrase “American Pie” as a registered trademark, so he got money for licensing the title for the “American Pie” movies. This comes as a surprise for many since the serious song has nothing to do with the comedy series.
From “Pinkie Pie” to “The Day Guitar Hero Died,” the song has been used as a parody by many YouTubers in the recent years.
The song was snubbed at the Grammys and other awards, even though it was a critical success. However, 29 years after its release, it was enshrined at the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Joelle Carter and Jason Biggs are caught in bed by parents Molly Cheek, Eugene Levy, and Larry Drake in a scene from the film ‘American Pie 2’, 2001. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
Even though the original song was over 8 minutes long, many radio stations in the US had a policy that limited airplay to 3:30 minutes. As such, the song was banned from those stations simply because of its length. There were voices at the time that suggested McLean wrote such a long song as a protest against said policy.
The song was responsible for the revival of interest in Buddy Holly, who wasn’t much remembered in the 1960’s. McLean himself said in an interview: “By 1964, you didn’t hear anything about Buddy Holly. He was completely forgotten. However, I didn’t forget him, and I think this song helped make people aware that Buddy’s legitimate musical contribution had been overlooked. When I first heard ‘American Pie’ on the radio, I was playing a gig somewhere, and it was immediately followed by ‘Peggy Sue.’ They caught right on to the Holly connection, and that made me very happy. I realized that it was gonna perform some good works.”
The “American Pie” Legacy
After all these years, “American Pie” is still a symbol of the musical revolutions o the 1970’s and remains in the public memory as one of the most significant song allegories of the century. The song keeps bringing joy to listeners, as it is a joyful remembrance of a world that is no more. The meaningful lyrics of “American Pie” bring back memories of the 1950’s and 1960’s, reminding listeners of fate and how the world around us is ever-changing.
AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – APRIL 19: Don McLean performs at Koninklijk Theater Carre on April 19, 2010, in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)
Considered by many as one of the greatest songs ever written, “American Pie” is here to remind us all of a more peaceful time when music was intertwined with political events and cultural changes and managed to capture the true spirit of the country. No other song managed to include so many references and nuances about the cultural background of a nation at a specific point in time. For this reason, “American Pie” remains a memorable creation that encapsulates the true American spirit beautifully.