American Pie (song)

"American Pie" is an eight-and-a-half minute long classic pop song by singer-songwriter Don McLean, about "the day the music died".



Recorded in 1971 and released that year on the album of the same name, it was a #1 US hit in 1972 (see 1972 in music). It is an allusive history of rock and roll, inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) in a plane crash in 1959.

Although McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Buddy Holly, none of the singers in the plane crash are identified by name in the song itself. Later performers are also alluded to with easily decoded identifications, leading to much discussion, encouraged by McLean's canny lifelong refusal to explain the lyrics. (Asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean once replied, "It means I never have to work again." Later, he more seriously stated, "You will find many 'interpretations' of my lyrics but none of them by me.… Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.")

The "standard interpretation"

During its initial popularity, guessing about the meaning of the song's lyrics was a popular pastime; many radio stations and disc jockeys published unofficial interpretations. Over the years, assisted by the collective power of the Internet, something approaching a "standard interpretation" of the song has emerged. How much of it was actually in McLean's mind, consciously or unconsciously, when he wrote the lyrics is a matter of popular debate among fans.

According to this interpretation, the song is a tribute to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, though most especially Holly. With the deaths of these three, McLean felt that dance music was gone.

Contrary to popular belief, McLean has discussed the meaning of the song on multiple occasions, in his 2000 Starry, Starry Night video he said, "I'm very proud of the song. It is biographical in nature and I don't think anyone has ever picked up on that. The song starts off with my memories of the death of Buddy Holly. But it moves on to describe America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasizing it might become, so it's part reality and part fantasy but I'm always in the song as a witness or as even the subject sometimes in some of the verses. You know how when you dream something you can see something change into something else and it's illogical when you examine it in the morning but when you're dreaming it it seems perfectly logical. So it's perfectly okay for me to talk about being in the gym and seeing this girl dancing with someone else and suddenly have this become this other thing that this verse becomes and moving on just like that. That's why I've never analyzed the lyrics to the song. They're beyond analysis. They're poetry." [1] (

First Verse

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.
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,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.

In the first verse, the singer expresses his desire to become a musician because "I could make those people dance/And maybe they'd be happy for awhile." "February made me shiver" refers to the winter plane crash, which occurred in the early hours of February 3, 1959. "With every paper I'd deliver" refers to McLean's only job besides singer/songwriter; he was a paperboy as a young man. "I can't remember if I cried/When I read about his widowed bride" refers to Holly's wife, Maria Elena, who was pregnant at the time of his death, and later miscarried.


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 and rye
Singin', this'll be the day that I die
this'll be the day that I die.

The chorus is simple, with most reviewers equating "Miss American Pie" with all types of American music or everything that is good about the country. There is also an unconfirmed rumor that McLean dated a Miss America contestant for a time. The chorus ends with "this'll be the day that I die." Holly had a popular song called "That'll Be The Day", in which the line "that'll be the day that I die" is repeated in the chorus. "Bye, bye Miss American Pie" may also refer to the loss of innocence caused by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, since "American pie" may be an oblique reference to apple pie, a symbol of traditional American values and morality. In addition, the singer drives a Chevy to the levee; Chevrolet was an American company at a time when foreign cars were very popular. Some believe that the reference to "rye" may mean Rye, New York with "The Levee" being the name of a bar where McLean and his friends mourned the death of Buddy Holly. The belief that "Miss American Pie" was the name of the plane that crashed is an urban legend — the plane had no name, only a registration number.

Second Verse

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 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.

The beginning of the second verse ("Did you write the book of love"... "if the Bible tells you so") may be McLean questioning the final destinations (i.e. Heaven or Hell) of the dead musicians. The "Book of Love" is a reference to the 1958 song by the Monotones. The line "Can you teach me how to dance real slow" may refer to the decline of slow-dancing that accompanied the rise of psychedelic music. Rock and roll from the 1950s included frequent slow songs, played at sock hops and other dances. Sock hops are referenced later in the second verse, with "I saw you dancing in the gym" (sock hops were frequently held in gyms) and "You both kicked off your shoes" (shoes would scuff the floor of gyms, hence teens danced in socks). These lyrics show a deep jealousy, possibly the writer loving a girl a lot but, her not realizing this love or not wanting to receive it "dances" with another person either out of spite or love for that person.

Third Verse

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
Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lennon read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died.

The third verse begins with "Now for ten years we've been on our own" - the song was being written in the late 1960s, about ten years after the plane crash. The "moss grows fat on a rolling stone" may be a criticism of the alleged greed of the Rolling Stones; "a rolling stone gathers no moss" is of course a traditional proverb. A strong case has been made that the jester who "sang for the king and queen" was Bob Dylan, since the song says that he sang "in a coat he borrowed from James Dean". Dean famously wore a red windbreaker in Rebel Without a Cause, and Dylan was shown in a distinctly similar windbreaker on the cover of one of his albums. It makes sense for the King to be Elvis Presley (nicknamed The King), and the queen may be Connie Francis, or Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (to whom Dylan gave a command performance), or Little Richard. The royal pair may also refer to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jackie Kennedy, with the jester being Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby.

Assuming that the jester really does refer to Dylan (or maybe Buddy Holly), the fact that he sang in a "voice that came from you and me" refers to the populist origin of folk music, such as sung by Bob Dylan, or similarly, the populism of Buddy Holly. A further interpretation, supporting the Dylan claimants, is Dylan's untrained vocal style, which stood out a mile from those of his early contemporaries. "While the King was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown" may refer to Dylan overtaking Presley in popularity, or to Buddy Holly's meteoric rise to fame. The "thorny crown" is a reference to Jesus, who was also forced to wear a crown of thorns in the Bible, and it can carry connotations of the price of fame and power, similar to the Sword of Damocles. The lines may also be interpreted to mean that JFK's legacy of populism, as he "was looking down" was transferred to Bob Dylan instead of Lyndon Baines Johnson, JFK's successor as president--hence, the line means that politicians are no longer interested in the trials of the common man. "The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned" may mean that the lone gunman theory of JFK's assassination was not accepted, or refer to the trial of the Chicago 7, or simply that fans of Elvis and Dylan were perpetually unable to reconcile their differences because the music of the 1950s and the 1960s were incredibly different from each other. "Lennon read a book on Marx" refers to John Lennon (of The Beatles) actually reading about socialism in the work of Karl Marx and indicates the political message of music, unheard of during the 1950s but predominant by the end of the 1960s. "Lennon" may also be a play on words, referring to the Communist leader of the USSR, Vladimir Lenin, while "Marx" could refer to Groucho Marx or the other Marx Brothers, whose style of verbal wit was evident in the Beatles' own interviews and writing. "The quartet practiced in the park" may refer to the Beatles (a quartet) playing in Shea Stadium, or it may refer to The Weavers, a musical group from the early 1960s that McLean was friends with; they were later blacklisted because of McCarthyism. Some critics believe that the Beatles are the quartet and are practicing in the park because their brand of music was still unpopular, as the early rock and roll of Buddy Holly et al was still popular. The park could also be a reference to England, as viewed from the US. The last line of the verse is "we sang dirges in the dark", perhaps referring to art rock or progressive rock, frequently long, symphonic and undanceable music that was becoming popular at the time. A dirge is a funereal song, so this may refer to the deaths of countless people, including Buddy Holly. Also, it may be the national mourning that occurred after the assassination of JFK.

Fourth Verse

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 sweet perfume
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

The fourth verse begins with the line "Helter Skelter in a summer swelter", a reference both to the Beatles tune and to the Tate/LaBianca murders of August 1969 (or perhaps the 1967 Summer of Love or the "long, hot summer" of Watts, California in 1965). The line "the birds flew off ... eight miles high, and falling fast," likely refers to The Byrds and their controversial song Eight Miles High from 1966. The reference to their flying off "with the fallout shelter" may be a reference to their entering the counterculture music scene in 1965 covering Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" making it much more widely popular and the peace protest song "Turn, Turn, Turn" by Pete Seeger. Alternately, "fallout shelter" may be 1960s slang for a drug rehabilitation center. The jester returns to the song and is "on the sidelines in a cast", referring to Dylan's 1966 motorcycle crash that badly injured him. The beginning may also refer to the sudden rise to fame of the Beatles after Holly's death (with Holly being the jester and the cast being death). "The halftime air was sweet perfume" may refer either to the use of illegal drugs, such as marijuana, or the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which was broken up by tear gas, making the "sweet perfume" an ironic reference. "The sergeants played a marching tune" may refer to the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard, who used tear gas the DNC in 1968, or to the Beatles magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which is "marching" music because it is not meant to be danced to. The "marching tune" may also be the draft. "We all got up to dance/But we never got the chance" could be a reference to the Beatles thirty-five minute concert at Candlestick Park in 1966, or to the lack of dance music being created at the time. The following two lines ("Cause the players tried to take the field/The marching band refused to yield") may bring back the DNC of 1968, with the marching band being the protestors and the players being the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard. The players may also be the Ohio National Guard, referring to the infamous shootings of unarmed protestors at Kent State University. More generally, some have interpreted it as an indictment of the military-industrial complex's refusal to heed the desires of the people of the United States on the subject of the Vietnam War. Others intepret this line as the rivalry between intelligent, art rock (such as the Beatles) and fun, dance rock (such as the Beach Boys).

Fifth Verse

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.

The fifth verse begins with "There we were all in one place/a generation lost in space" which probably refers to the hippie generation congregating at Woodstock, who were "lost in space" because of rampant drug use. "Lost in space" could also be a reference to the space race between the U.S and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They may also be "lost in space" because of the lack of good music at the time. Because the alleged drug abuse, the hippies had "no time left to start again" as they had spent so much time stoned. "So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick" may refer to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and their 1968 song "Jumping Jack Flash" as well as a nursery rhyme with the same line. "Jack Flash sat on a candlestick" is also from the nursery rhyme and may refer to the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway. "Fire is the devil's only friend" may refer to "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Rolling Stones, or "Friend of the Devil" by the Grateful Dead. Alternatively, the "fire" refers to the fire that burned the plane Holly died in; Holly died from the fire itself, and not the crash. The entire beginning of this verse has also been interpreted as referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with "Jack" referring to John F. Kennedy, the devil being either Cuba, Communism or the Soviet Union and candlesticks referring to ICBMs or other nuclear weapons. "Sympathy for the Devil" was part of the Rolling Stones' set in their notorious concert at Altamont, during which a a black man named Meredith Hunter was killed by Hells Angels, who had been hired as security for the concert. (However, the song playing at the time of the killing was "Under My Thumb", not "Sympathy for the Devil" as is commonly thought.) The rest of the verse ("As I watched him on the stage...I saw Satan laughing with delight" may refer to this concert. McLean may have been among those who blamed the song ("Sympathy for the Devil") for inciting the riot because of the Rolling Stones frequent allusions to alleged Satanic themes; in this case, "Satan laughing with delight" may be Mick Jagger. However, the Rolling Stones recorded many roots-rock covers (which McLean probably liked) and were unusually dance-oriented for their time. "To light that sacrifical rite" may also refer to Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire in concert at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, though the rest of the verse seems to refer to 1968. Some have claimed that the end of this verse refers to McLean prophetically knowing that the plane would crash and kill his musical heroes but was unable to stop it.

Sixth Verse

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away.
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.

The sixth verse begins with "I met a girl who sang the blues", probably referring to Janis Joplin or Billie Holiday, who "smiled and turned away" (died of an overdose) when McLean asks her if she has any "happy news". The "sacred store" may refer to a literal church or synagogue where McLean had heard music in his childhood ("years before"), or to record stores and music performance venues (which are seen as sacred as rock and roll is sacred, as per the earlier line "Can music save your mortal soul") or just to the Fillmore West. There is also an allusion here to many of the origins of rock and roll in the church music of the American south. The following line, "But the man there said the music wouldn't play", may mean the discontinued practice of record stores allowing shoppers to preview music before buying it, or that listeners had stopped listening to Buddy Holly and similar rockers, or that good music was no longer being created. "In the streets the children screamed" may refer to brutal tactics used to disperse protestors in Chicago, Kent State University or, most likely, Berkeley, California's People's Park riots. The broken church bells later in the verse may be the people killed and injured at these protests, or to the death of innocence caused by the US government's heavy-handed tactics, or to the dead musicians from the plane crash.

"The three men that I admire most/The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost" is an unmistakable allusion to the Christian Trinity of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost, as it is a quote of a phrase used weekly in churches of many denominations. But it is presumably a metaphor for something else. The interpretation that is most consistent with the main topic of the song is that the three stand for Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. This line is followed by "they caught the last train for the coast/the day the music died" and "the day the music died" is the day Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper died and "going west" (as in to the West Coast of the United States) is a common metaphor for death. However, thoughtful people also hold out for Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, or John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy (three political figures who were assassinated). Some critics believe this is a reference to the many religions (generally New Age) that came from California in the 1960s. Many other critics believe that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were the intended subject, and that the lines refer to the supposed abandonment of the United States by God, who had protected the nation through World War 1 and World War 2 but not when greed became the motive for the Vietnam War.

Cultural References

Other cultural references to: (lines used in the song are in bold)

  • "The Book of Love" - a 1958 song by The Monotones (note: may also refer to the Kama Sutra)
  • "The Bible Tells Me So" - a 1955 song by Don Cornell (this may not be a deliberate reference)
  • "The Love of Jesus" - a children's religious song (Anna Bartlett Warner, 1858) that includes the lines "Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible tells me so", changed in the song to If the Bible tells you so. For many people raised in Sunday School, this song is roughly as familiar as "Happy Birthday". The title of the Don Cornell song is almost certainly a reference to this song.
  • "Do You Believe In Magic" - (parallels the line "Do you believe in Rock and Roll?'") a massive 1965 hit by The Lovin' Spoonful, written by John Sebastian
  • a pink carnation - a flower traditionally given to dates before proms and dances, as in the late-1950s Marty Robbins hit, "A White Sports Coat (and a Pink Carnation)"
  • "Like a Rolling Stone" - a 1965 song by Bob Dylan, and his first hit single, off the album Highway 61 Revisited (Dylan had retired from touring, perhaps explaining the line "moss grows fat on a rolling stone")
  • The Rolling Stones - a rock and roll band (The Rolling Stones were criticized for alleged greediness, perhaps explaining the line "moss grows fat on a rolling stone")
  • Rebel Without A Cause - a film starring Sal Mineo and James Dean; Mineo is shot and killed in a coat he borrowed from James Dean. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was Dylan's first album, and he wore a similar red windbreaker to the one used in the movie on the album cover with the background reminiscent of the movie.
  • "Helter Skelter" - a song by The Beatles off The White Album; Charles Manson claimed he was inspired to kill by the song
  • "Eight Miles High" - a 1966 song by The Byrds off Fifth Dimension; it was one of the first records widely banned, due to the drug references
  • "Lost in Space" - a television show

Music and popularity

Musically, the song alternates in style between folk ballad and acoustic rock. The epic scope and enduring popularity of the song qualify it as a rock and roll anthem.

The song remains popular, with nightly manglings in karaoke sessions and drunken singalongs even among people not yet born when it was originally recorded. Along with "Stairway to Heaven", "Hey Jude" and "MacArthur Park", it is a standard choice for disc jockeys who have to take a bathroom or other long break when they are working alone.

"American Pie" is also a popular "last song" for radio stations that are changing format from music to news-talk or sports, because of the line "the day the music died".

The song was voted No.5 on the "Songs of the Century" list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Covers and related songs

The epic length and deeply personal nature of the song has made it largely resistant to cover versions; a few attempts have been made, however, first and most bizarrely by the Brady Bunch in 1972. Ska band Catch 22 made a reggae version of the song a staple of their live show and released several recordings of it; alternative rock band Killdozer recorded a thrashing, ironic version of the song in 1989. Several disco versions have appeared over the years, and in 2000, Madonna also did a space-age sounding cover of "American Pie" for the movie The Next Best Thing.

In 1999, parodist "Weird Al" Yankovic did a Star Wars-inspired parody of "American Pie" entitled "The Saga Begins" in which the lyrics recount the whole plot of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace through the eyes of Obi-Wan Kenobi. McLean not only gave permission for the parody, but also made a cameo appearance in its video.


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