With 2.5 million copies sold, the American Pie vinyl has become one of the most recognized and loved albums in American history.
With 2.5 million copies sold, the American Pie vinyl has become one of the most recognized and loved albums in American history.
Ruby Morris

Rumors of the Pie

Don McLean’s classic “American Pie” is a history lesson with metaphors that listeners have been trying to decipher for decades.

“American Pie” by Don McLean has proved a timeless classic of American music history. While the tune is played religiously at July 4th cookouts and Labor Day parades, the history of the song goes so much deeper than just another American pride anthem. 

This 8-minute-and-42-second ballad covers key events and cultural shifts in the ’50s and ’60s, ranging from the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson and the rise of Bob Dylan and The Beatles to the political battleground that was the 1960s.

However, there is a twist to this history-loaded song. McLean denies the listeners any confirmation on the meaning of these lyrics. He only alludes to major historical musical revolutions.

He once said, “I have never analyzed the lyrics to the song. They are beyond analysis. They are poetry.”

Nevertheless, fans have been working for years to decipher their meaning. 

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

The intro begins with a reflection on music of the ’50s and the effects it had on McLean and the music-lovers around him. 

McLean then sings about February 3rd, 1959. On this infamous day, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The three singers made great contributions to the music world — labeling this sad day as “The Day the Music Died.” McLean even dedicated the album to Holly. 

Continuing the intro, McLean describes his reaction to finding out his biggest inspirations were killed.

But something touched me deep inside

The day the music died

He repeats the phrase “The Day the Music Died” five more times throughout the song. His feelings surrounding the changing of American culture are exposed, and it is often believed that he felt the death of those artists symbolized the end of an era and a shift to a new genre of art and its ensuing shift of values.                  

So, bye, bye, Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to The Levee, but The Levee was dry

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye

Singin’, “This’ll be the day that I die

This’ll be the day that I die”

This well-known  refrain is repeated seven times throughout the song. The phrase “American Pie” comes from the phrase “As American as apple pie.” “American Pie” has become a symbol of national pride, prosperity, and a symbol of the American dream. 

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 dancing in the gym

You both kicked off your shoes

Then I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck

With a pink carnation and a pickup truck 

But I knew I was out of luck  

The day the music died

In this verse, McLean is believed to highlight some famous songs in the ’50s. “The Book of Love,” for instance, was a song written by the Monotones. McLean also discusses the hold that religion had on the country in the ’50s. Being a Catholic, Don saw the cultural shift in the US as moving farther away from the church and further embracing ideas such as sexual freedom and the use of psychedelics. The lines “And do you have faith in God above / If the Bible tells you so?” are a nod to his disapproval of this cultural shift and the gospel hit “The Bible Tells Me So,” written by Dale Evans in 1955.

McLean then examines the culture of dancing in the ’50s, which was viewed as more intimate, a representation of the commitment between two people. However, with the cultural shift came more casual relationships. Dancing was viewed as something less serious and more for recreation. McLean still held onto those traditional values of the ’50s. In his mind, seeing the girl he danced with dancing with another guy was viewed as cheating. He drowned his sorrows in rhythm and blues.

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

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

These verses were likely written to capture the cusp of the ’60s into the ’70s, about ten years after the plane crash. The next few lines are suspected to be about Bob Dylan. In ’65, Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan was known for folk music up until this point, when his music took a genre shift to more of a rock vibe. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Dylan (the “jester”), Peter Seger (the “king”), and Joan Baez (the “queen”) sang a rendition of Dylan’s “Blowin in the Wind.”

Seger and Baez were two of the biggest names in the folk industry at the time — hence the possible reference to them as the king and queen. Dylan was booed loudly during his performance at the festival because many fans were angry that he was veering from his roots and playing an electric guitar.

Transitioning to the lines about the coat, on the cover of Dylan’s album “The Freewheelin’,” he is wearing a windbreaker similar to that of James Dean on the movie cover of Rebel Without a Clue. The metaphorical nature of this verse makes it one of the most difficult to decipher.

Oh, and while the king was looking down

The jester stole his thorny crown

This phrase is perhaps another nod at the rapid growth of Dylan. While Elvis Presley, the “king” of rock and roll, was away at war, he assumed a lead face in the world of rock and roll, presumably stealing the crown of fame. While the meaning of “thorny crown” is unclear with potential religious meanings, perhaps it is symbolic of the struggles that came with the rise of rock and roll culture, such as heavy alcoholism and drug abuse.

Another theory about these lyrics regards the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, stole the “thorny crown” from JFK when he murdered him

The courtroom was adjourned

No verdict was returned

These lines further support the JFK interpretation, as Oswald was murdered on November 24th, two days following his killing of JFK. 

And while Lennon read a book on Marx

The quartet practiced in the park

This set of lyrics is believed to be about the politicization of the Beatles music and their last show at Candlestick Park in California. Songs like “Revolution 1” discussed topics such as Deconstruction, Communism, and the defiance of social norms. This use of art differed drastically from some of their earlier and more light-hearted songs, such “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

And we sang dirges in the dark

The day the music died

A dirge is a song of mourning. Most likely, these lines honor the deaths of well-known people that defined the ’60s, such as JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Helter Skelter in the summer swelter

“Helter Skelter” is the infamous song by the Beatles. Charles Manson, a serial killer, used this song as “inspiration” for his most famous killing. Manson was a cult leader who had conspiracies of an apocalyptic race battle. He felt that “Helter Skelter” was a prophesy, and the Beatles were speaking directly to him. The Tate-LaBianca killings (aka the Manson Family murders) brought about the fear known as the “Satanic Panic.” It is assumed that Manson’s conspiracies and actions were a result of psychedelic drugs.

The birds flew off with a fallout shelter

Eight miles high and fallin’ fast

It landed foul on the grass

“Eight Miles High” was a song written by The Byrds and was one of the first psychedelic rock songs released, having a heavy influence on the emerging genre.  “It landed foul on the grass,” is most likely an acknowledgement of the dangers of the drug culture.

The next few lines are a series of football metaphors to illustrate the tense political climate of the sixties.

The players tried for a forward pass

Forward pass” is a metaphor referring to the start of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s.

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast,

Now, the half-time air was sweet perfume

“Sweet perfume” is thought to be a reference to the flower child subculture that emerged as an anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. It is also believed to be another reference towards the rise in drug use.

While the 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?

This section is a continuation of the conversation about the Civil Rights Movement. The players taking the field are a representation of the protests that happened in the ’60s, such as the shootings at Kent State, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the anti-war march on the Pentagon.

Oh, and there we were, all in one place

All in one place” is likely a reference to the music festival Woodstock in ’69.

A generation lost in space

With no time left to start again

These lines have several possible references. Most widely agreed upon is the moon landing in ’69. Some other possible explanations are the release of David Bowie’s Space Oddity or the beloved show Lost in Space — both being significant culture pieces in ’69.

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

This section marks the end of the culture of the ’60s.

This section touches on the follow-up to Woodstock, the Altamont Free Festival that was led by The Rolling Stones in December of ’69. This concert was a wake-up call to the anarchistic tendencies of the counterculture movement. Hell’s Angels was a motorcycle group that was tasked with handling security at the show.

Unsurprisingly, it ended up being a bad idea. Hell’s Angels were paid in advanced with alcohol and other drugs. While The Rolling Stones were playing “Sympathy For the Devil,” the Hell’s Angels beat up and stabbed a black man to death.

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

Chaos ensued and reached such a height that The Stones had to climb a fence and be helicoptered out of the concert. It is thought that McLean viewed the tragedy that happened as a sacrifice the band had to pay for sympathizing with the devil for profit.

Perhaps McLean used the lyrics “I saw Satan laughing with delight” as a way of saying that the decade was destroyed by counterculture and drug use, and Satan had won with the defilement of society.

I met a girl who sang the blues

And I asked her for some happy news

But she just smiled and turned away

The girl who sang the blues is rumored to be Janis Joplin, a lead figure in the counterculture movement of the ’60s. Supposedly, McLean is asking her for reassurance, but due to their differing views she is unable to give him what he needs.

I went down to the sacred store

Where I’d heard the music years before

But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

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

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

McLean makes a nod to the “sacred store,” most likely the record store he would frequent in the ’50s. In the ’60s, revolutionary works were released. Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, and The Velvet Underground are just a few of the artists that hit mainstream music and took off. Dylan, in particular, could be heard in any record shop, but Bill Haley and Buddy Holly had nearly been forgotten about by both the masses and the entertainment industry. 

The next few lines are a bit ambiguous, though many believe that there is a correlation between the representation of human despair (children screamed, lovers cried, poets dreamed), and McLean’s description of America leaving God behind. With the end of the ’50s came the end of a conservative decade and the beginning of a decade of anti-conformity and a rise in counter-culture.  Much of the entertainment industry at the time viewed this movement as positive, but McLean felt that the abandonment of religion was the downfall of art and humanity. 

And the three men I admire most / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost / They caught the last train for the coast” is believed to allude not only to Holly, Valens, and Richardson but also The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of Christianity. “The last train to the coast” is a euphemism for death. 

They were singin’, “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie”

Drove my Chevy to The Levee, but The Levee was dry

Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey in Rye

Singin’, “This’ll be the day that I die”

McLean’s song is a legendary piece of timeless art. Featured in Marvel movies and Tom Hank’s Finch, this widely-loved song has stood the test of time, all while teaching us about some of the most important people and movements of American history and luring us in with even deeper interpretations.

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About the Contributor
Ava DiGiacomo, Opinions Editor
This is Ava's second year writing for the NASH Uproar. She loves writing about her passions and is looking forward to being the Opinions editor. When she is not writing, she spends her times doing work for NA For Change and hanging with friends or listening to music.

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