AMERICAN PIE--PROGRAM NOTES
The entire song is a tribute to Buddy Holly and a commentary on
how rock and roll changed in the years since his death. McLean seems to
be lamenting the lack of "danceable" music in rock and roll and (in part)
attributing that lack to the absence of Buddy Holly et al.
A long, long time ago...
"American Pie" reached number 1 in the US in 1972, but the album
containing it was released in 1971. Buddy Holly died in 1959.
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.
One of early rock and roll's functions was to provide dance music for
various social events. McLean recalls his desire to become a musician
playing that sort of music.
But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during
With every paper I'd deliver,
Don McLean's only job besides being a full-time singer-songwriter
was being a paperboy.
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
Holly's recent bride was pregnant when the crash took place; she
had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
But something touched me deep inside,
The day the music died.
The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took the lives
of Richie Valens ("La Bamba") and The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace")
Since all three were so prominent at the time, February 3, 1959,
became known as "The Day The Music Died".
Bye bye Miss American Pie,
Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant.
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinkin whiskey and rye
Singing "This'll be the day that I die,
This'll be the day that I die."
One of Holly's hits was "That'll be the Day"; the chorus contains
the line "That'll be the day
Did you write the book of love,
"The Book of Love" by the Monotones; hit in 1958.
And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you so?
In 1955, Don Cornell did a song entitled "The Bible Tells Me
So". Rick Schubert pointed this out, and mentioned that he hadn't
heard the song, so it was kinda difficult to tell if it was what
McLean was referencing. Anyone know for sure?
There's also an old Sunday School song which goes:
"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so"
Now do you believe in rock 'n roll?
The Lovin' Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John Sebastian's
"Do you Believe in Magic?". The song has the lines:
"Do you believe in magic" and "It's like trying to tell a
stranger 'bout rock and roll."
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Dancing slow was an important part of early rock and roll dance
events -- but declined in importance through the 60's as things
like psychedelia and the 10-minute guitar solo gained
Well I know you're in love with him
'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
Back then, dancing was an expression of love, and carried a
connotation of committment. Dance partners were not so readily
exchanged as they would be later.
You both kicked off your shoes
A reference to the beloved "sock hop". (Street shoes tear up
wooden basketball floors, so dancers had to take off their shoes.)
Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues
Some history. Before the popularity of rock and roll, music,
like much else in the U. S., was highly segregated. The popular
music of black performers for largely black audiences was called,
first, "race music", later softened to rhythm and blues. In the
early 50s, as they were exposed to it through radio personalities
such as Allan Freed, white teenagers began listening, too.
Starting around 1954, a number of songs from the rhythm and blues
charts began appearing on the overall popular charts as well,
but usually in cover versions by established white artists,
(e. g. "Shake Rattle and Roll", Joe Turner, covered by Bill
Haley; "Sh-Boom", the Chords, covered by the Crew-Cuts;
"Sincerely", the Moonglows, covered by the Mc Guire Sisters;
Tweedle Dee, LaVerne Baker, covered by Georgia Gibbs). By 1955,
some of the rhythm and blues artists, like Fats Domino and
Little Richard were able to get records on the overall pop charts.
In 1956 Sun records added elements of country and western to
produce the kind of rock and roll tradition that produced Buddy
Holly. (Thanks to Barry Schlesinger for this historical note.
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
"A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)", was a hit for
Marty Robbins in 1957. The pickup truck has endured as a symbol
of sexual independence and potency, especially in a Texas context.
(Also, Jimmy Buffet does a song about "a white sport coat and a
pink crustacean". )
But I knew that I was out of luck
The day the music died
I started singing...
Now for ten years we've been on our own
McLean was writing this song in the late 60's, about ten years
after the crash.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
It's unclear who the "rolling stone" is supposed to be. It
could be Dylan, since "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) was his first
major hit; and since he was busy writing songs extolling the
virtues of simple love, family and contentment while staying
at home (he didn't tour from '66 to '74) and raking in the
royalties. This was quite a change from the earlier, angrier
Dylan. The "rolling stone" could also be Elvis, although I don't
think he'd started to pork out by the late sixties. It could refer
to rock and rollers in general, and the changes that had taken
place in the business in the 60's, especially the huge amounts
of cash some of them were beginning to make, and the relative
stagnation that entered the music at the same time. Or, perhaps
it's a reference to the stagnation in rock and roll.
Or, finally, it could refer to the Rolling Stones themselves;
a lot of musicians were angry at the Stones for "selling out".
Howard Landman points out that John Foxx of Ultravox was
sufficiently miffed to write a song titled "Life At Rainbow's
End (For All The Tax Exiles On Main Street)". The Stones at
one point became citizens of some other country merely to save
But that's not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the King and Queen
The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later. There are
several interpretations of king and queen: some think that
Elvis Presley the king, which seems pretty obvious. The queen
is said to be either Connie Francis or Little Richard. But see
the next note. An alternate interpretation is that this refers
to the Kennedys -- the king and queen of "Camelot" -- who were
present at a Washington DC civil rights rally featuring Martin
Luther King. (There's a recording of Dylan performing at this
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In the movie "Rebel Without a Cause", James Dean has a red
windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film
(see note at end.) In one particularly intense scene, Dean
lends his coat to a guy who is shot and killed; Dean's father
arrives, sees the coat on the dead man, thinks it's Dean, and
loses it. On the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Dylan
is wearing just such as red windbreaker, and is posed in a
street scene similar to one shown in a well-known picture of
James Dean. Bob Dylan played a command performance for the
Queen of England. He was *not* properly attired, so perhaps
this is a reference to his apparel.
And a voice that came from you and me
Bob Dylan's roots are in American folk music, with people like
Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Folk music is by definition the
music of the masses, hence the "...came from you and me".
Oh, and while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
This could be a reference to Elvis's decline and Dylan's ascendance.
TUNE FILE: resley is looking down from a height as Dylan takes his
CLICK TO PLAY
place.) The thorny crown might be a reference to the price of
fame. Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis,
one of his early idols.
The courtroom was adjourned,
No verdict was returned.
This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven.
And while Lennon read a book on Marx,
Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the
introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles.
(Of course, he could be referring to Groucho Marx, but that doesn't
seem quite consistent with McLean's overall tone. On the other
hand, some of the wordplay in Lennon's lyrics and books is
reminiscent of Groucho.) The "Marx-Lennon" wordplay has also
been used by others, most notably the Firesign Theatre on the
cover of their album "How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When
You're Not Anywhere At All?". Also, a famous French witticism
was "Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho."; "I'm a Marxist of
the Groucho variety".
The quartet practiced in the park
There are two schools of thought about this; the obvious one is
Beatles playing in Shea Stadium, but note that the previous line
has John Lennon *doing something else at the same time*. This
tends to support the theory that this is a reference to the
Weavers, who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. McLean
had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early
60's while performing in coffeehouses and clubs in upstate New
York and New York City. He was also well-acquainted with Pete
Seeger; in fact, McLean, Seeger, and others took a trip on the
Hudson river singing anti-pollution songs at one point.
Seeger's LP "God Bless the Grass" contains many of these songs.
And we sang dirges in the dark
A "dirge" is a funeral or mourning song, so perhaps this is meant
literally...or, perhaps, this is a reference to some of the new
"art rock" groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing.
The day the music died.
We were singing...
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
"Helter Skelter" is a Beatles song which appears on the "white"
album. Charles Manson, claiming to have been "inspired" by the
song (through which he thought God and/or the devil were taking
to him) led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Is
"summer swelter" a reference to the "Summer of Love" or perhaps
to the "long hot summer" of Watts?
The birds flew off with the fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
The Byrd's "Eight Miles High" was on their late 1966 release
"Fifth Dimension". It was one of the first records to be widely
banned because of supposedly drug-oriented lyrics.
It landed foul on the grass
One of the Byrds was busted for possesion of marijuana.
The players tried for a forward pass
Obviously a football metaphor, but about what? It could be
the Rolling StoneTUNE FILE: hey were waiting for an opening which
CLICK TO PLAY
really didn't happen until the Beatles broke up.
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph 55 motorcycle while
riding near his home in Woodstock, New York. He spent nine months
in seclusion while recuperating from the accident.
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
Drugs, man. Well, now, wait a minute; that's probably too obvious.
It's possible that this line and the next few refer to the 1968
Democratic National Convention. The "sweet perfume" is probably
While sergeants played a marching tune
Following from the thought above, the sergeants would be the Chicago
Police and the Illinois National Guard, who marched the protestors
out of the park and into jail. Alternatively, this could refer to
the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Or, perhaps
McLean refers to the Beatles' music in general as "marching"
because it's not music for dancing. Or, finally, the "marching
tune" could be the draft.
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
The Beatles' 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes.
Or, following on from the previous comment, perhaps he meant
that there wasn't any music to dance to.
'Cause the players tried to take the field,
The marching band refused to yield.
Following on from the Chicago reference above, this could be
another comment on protests. If the players are the protestors
at Kent State, and the marching band the Ohio National Guard.
This could be a reference to the dominance of the Beatles on
the rock and roll scene. For instance, the Beach Boys released
"Pet Sounds" in 1966 -- an album which featured some of the same
sort of studied and electronic experimentation as "Sgt. Pepper"
(1967) -- but the album sold poorly. Some folks think this
refers to either the 1968 Deomcratic Convention or Kent State.
This might also be a comment about how the dominance of the Beatles
in the rock world led to more "pop art" music, leading in turn
to a dearth of traditional rock and roll. Or finally, this might
be a comment which follows up on the earlier reference to the
draft: the government/military-industrial-complex establishment
refused to accede to the demands of the peace movement.
Do you recall what was revealed,
The day the music died?
We started singing
And there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
Some people think this is a reference to the US space program,
which it might be; but that seems a bit too literal. Perhaps
this is a reference to hippies, who were sometimes known as the
"lost generation", partially because of their particularly acute
alientation from their parents, and partially because of their
presumed preoccupation with drugs. It could also be a reference
to the awful TV show, "Lost in Space", whose title was sometimes
used as a synonym for someone who was rather high...but I keep
hoping that McLean had better taste.
With no time left to start again
The "lost generation" spent too much time being stoned, and had
wasted their lives? Or, perhaps, their preference for psychedelia
had pushed rock and roll so far from Holly's music that it
couldn't be retrieved.
So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick
Probably a reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; "Jumpin'
Jack Flash" was released in May, 1968.
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
The Stones' Candlestick park concert? (unconfirmed)
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend
It's possible that this is a reference to the Grateful Dead's
"Friend of the Devil". An alternative interpretation of the last
four lines is that the may refer to Jack Kennedy and his quick
decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the candlesticks/fire
refer to ICBMs and nuclear war.
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
While playing a concert at the Altamont Speedway in 1968, the Stones
appointed members of the Hell's Angels to work security (on the
advice of the Grateful Dead). In the darkness near the front of
the stage, a young man named Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed
death -- by the Angels. Public outcry that the song "Sympathy for
the Devil" had somehow incited the violence caused the Stones to
drop the song from their show for the next six years. This incident
is chronicled in the documentary film "Gimme Shelter". It's also
possible that McLean views the Stones as being negatively inspired
(remember, he had an extensive religious background) by virtue of
"Sympathy for the Devil", "Their Satanic Majesties' Request"
and so on. I find this a bit puzzling, since the early Stones
recorded a lot of "roots" rock and roll, including Buddy Holly's
"Not Fade Away".
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
The most likely interpretation is that McLean is still talking
about Altamont, and in particular Mick Jagger's prancing and posing
while it was happening. The sacrifice is Meredith Hunter, and the
bonfires around the area provide the flames.
(It could be a reference to Jimi Hendrix burning his Stratocaster
at the Monterey Pop Festival, but that was in 1967 and this verse
is set in 1968.)
I saw Satan laughing with delight
If the above is correct, then Satan would be Jagger.
The day the music died
He was singing...
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
Janis died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I'd heard the music years before
There are two interpretations of this: The "sacred store" was Bill
Graham's Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues
of all time. Alternatively, this refers to record stores, and their
longtime (then discontinued) practice of allowing customers to
preview records in the store. (What year did the Fillmore West
close?) It could also refer to record stores as "sacred" because
this is where one goes to get "saved". (See above lyric "Can music
save your mortal soul?")
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
Perhaps he means that nobody is interested in hearing Buddy Holly
et.al.'s music? Or, as above, the discontinuation of the in-store
And in the streets the children screamed
"Flower children" being beaten by police and National Guard troops;
in particular, perhaps, the People's Park riots in Berkeley in
1969 and 1970.
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
The trend towards psychedelic music in the 60's?
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
It could be that the broken bells are the dead musicians: neither can
produce any more music.
And the three men I admire most
The Father Son and Holy Ghost
Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens--or--Hank Williams, Presley and
Holly-- or--JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy-- or --
the Catholic aspects of the deity. McLean had attended several
They caught the last train for the coast
Could be a reference to wacky California religions, or could just be
a way of saying that they've left (or died -- western culture often
uses "went west" as a synonym for dying). Or, perhaps this is a
reference to the famous "God is Dead" headline in the New York
Times. David Cromwell has suggested that this is an oblique
reference to a line in Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale",
but I'm not sure I buy that; for one thing, all of McLean's
musical references are to much older "roots" rock and roll
songs; and secondly, I think it's more likely that this line
shows up in both songs simply because it's a common cultural
The day the music died
This tends to support the conjecture that the "three men" were
Holly/Bopper/Valens, since this says that they left on the day
the music died.
And they were singing...
Chords to the song:
The song appears to be in G; the chords are:
Intro: G Bm/F# Em . Am . C .
Em . D . . .
G Bm/F# Em . Am . C .
Em . A . D . . .
Em . Am . Em . Am .
C G/B Am . C . D .
G Bm/F# Em . Am . C .
G Bm/F# Em . Am . D .
G . C . G . D .
Chorus: G . C . G . D .
G . C . G . D .
G . C . G . D .
Em . . . A . . . (all but
Em . . . D . . . last chorus)
C . D . G C G . (last chorus)
"Killing Me Softly With His Song", Roberta Flack's Grammy Award-winning
single of 1973, was written by Charles Gimble and Norman Fox about
The Big Bopper's real name was J.P. Richardson. He was a DJ for a
Texas radio station who had one very big novelty hit, the very well
known "Chantilly Lace". There was a fourth person who was going to
ride the plane. There was room for three, ahd the fourth person lost
the toss -- or should I say won the toss. His name is Waylon
Jennings...and to this day he refuses to talk about the crash.
(Jennings was the bass player for Holly's band at the time. Some people
say that Holly had chartered the plane for his band, but that Valens
and/or Richardson was sick that night and asked to take the place of
the band members.)
About the "coat he borrowed from James Dean": James Dean's red
windbreaker is important throughout the film, not just at the end.
When he put it on, it meant that it was time to face the world, time to
do what he thought had to be done, and other melodramatic but
thoroughly enjoyable stuff like that. The week after the movie came
out, virtually every clothing store in the U.S. was sold out
of red windbreakers. Remember that Dean's impact was similar
to Dylan's: both were a symbol for the youth of their time, a reminder
that they had something to say and demanded to be listened to.
American Pie is supposed to be the name of the plane that crashed,
containing the three guys that died. (Reported by Ronald van Loon
from the discussion on American Pie, autumn 1991, on rec.music.folk)
Dan Stanley mentioned an interesting theory involving all of this;
roughly put, he figures that if Holly hadn't died, then we would not
have suffered through the Fabian/Pat Boone/et.al. era...and as a
consequence, we wouldn't have *needed* the Beatles -- Holly was
moving pop music away from the stereotypical boy/girl love
lost/found lyrical ideas, and was recording with unique instrumentation
and techniques...things that Beatles wouldn't try until about 1965.
Perhaps Dylan would have stuck with the rock and roll he played in
high school, and the Byrds never would have created an amalgam of
Dylan songs and Beatle arrangements.
Lynn Gold tells me that "Life" magazine carried an annotated version
of American Pie when the song came out; does anybody have a copy?
If so, please contact me, because I'd love to see it.
Still other notes:
Andrew Whitman brings a sense of perspective to all of this by noting:
As to what they threw off the bridge, Bobbie Gentry once went on record with
the statement that it was the mystery that made the song, and that the mystery
>would remain unsolved. Don McLean later used the same device to even
greater success with "American Pie," which triggered a national obsession
on figuring out the "real meaning" of the song.
Well, probably not a national obsession, but certainly the life's work
of many talented scholars. According to the latest edition of the
"American Pie Historical Interpretive Digest" (APHID), noted McLean
historian Vincent Vandeman has postulated that cheezy country
songs may have played a much more prominent role in the epic
composition than had originally been thought. In particular, the
"widowed bride," usually supposed to be either Ella Holly or
Joan Rivers, may in fact be Billie Jo. According to this radical
exegesis, the "pink carnation" of McLean's song is probably what
was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and was later found by
the lonely, teenaged McLean as he wandered drunkenly on the levee.
Of course, such a view poses problems. McLean vehemently denies any
knowledge of Choctaw Ridge, and any theory linking the two songs
must surely address this mysterious meeting place of Billie Jo and
her husband Billy Joe. Vandeman speculates that Choctaw Ridge may
have been the place McLean drove his Chevy after drinking whiskey
and rye, and that McLean may have been unaware of the name because
of his foggy mental state. Still, there appear to be many tenuous
connections in Vandeman's interpretation - Tammy Wynette as the
girl who sang the blues, the proposed affair between Wynette and
Billie Joe which later led to d-i-v-o-r-c-e and Billy Joe's
suicide, the mysterious whereabouts of George Jones, and why
McLean insisted on driving a Chevy to the levee instead of a more
economical Japanese car.
My own view is that none of it makes much sense. Vandeman's theory
is intriguing, but it seems far more logical to hold to the traditional
interpretation of "American Pie" as an eschatological parable of
nuclear destruction and the rebirth of civilization on Alpha Centauri.
[ Thanks, Andrew. I'll take it under advisement.--Rsk ]
Billboard Book of Number One Hits, by Fred Bronson, Billboard, 1985.
Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, by Irwin Stambler,
St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Return of the Straight Dope, by Cecil Adams, Ballatine Books, 1994, p.39
Rock Chronicle, by Dan Formento, Delilah/Putnam, 1982.
Rock Day by Day, by Steve Smith and the Diagram Group, Guiness Books, 19
Rock Topicon, by Dave Marsh, Sandra Choron and Debbie Geller,
Contemporary Books, 1984.
Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, ed. by Jon Pareles and
Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Rolling Stone Record Guide, ed. by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random
House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, by Todd Gitlin, Bantam Book, 1987.
Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire's History of the Sixties, ed. by
Harold Hayes, Esquire Press, 1987.
It was Twenty Years ago Today: An Anniversary Celebration of 1967, by
Derek Taylor, Fireside, 1987.
Don Wegeng mentioned that some of his comments came from an interpretation
broadcast by radio station WIFE (AM) in Indianapolis, which was the most
popular station in Indy when American Pie was a hit. RSK
NOTE: This should be the Digital Traditions final word on the
subject. I won't even attempt to attach keywords. RG