The Complete True Story Behind “American Pie” by Don McLean

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.

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 .”


Singer-songwriter Don McLean poses for a portrait in June 1970. (Photo by Julie Snow/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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.

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