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American Pie (song)

"American Pie" is a nearly nine-minute long 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. An urban legend is that the song was named after the plane that Holly, Valens, and Richardson died in.

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 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".

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. In 2000, Madonna also did a space-age sounding cover of "American Pie" for a movie.

None of the singers in the plane crash are identified by name. 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 commented "It means I never have to work again.") It alternates in style between folk ballad and rock, but overall it is a rock and roll anthem.

The "Standard Interpretation"

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, conciously or unconciously, when he wrote the lyrics will remain unknown unless McLean decides to discuss it.

According to this interpretation, the song is a tribute to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, though most especially Holly. The only interpretation of the song which McLean has ever confirmed is that the beginning is a reference to Holly; he wanted to spark a revival of interest in the musician, who had been dead for twelve years. With the deaths of Holly et al, McLean felt that dance music was gone. Not long after the song was released though, his fear was proven groundless -- see disco music[?], electronica, techno music, dance music.

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.

In the first verse, the singer expresses his desire to become a musician because "I could make those people dance/And they'd be happy for awhile". "February made me shiver" refers to the winter plane crash, which occurred on February 2, 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, Ella Holly, who was pregnant at the time of his death.

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 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 at 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).

The third verse begins with "For ten years now we've been on our own." The "moss grows fat on a rolling stone" may be a criticism of the alleged greed of the Rolling Stones. The timespan refers to the ten years between the plane crash in 1959 and McLean's writing the song sometime in the late 1960s. The references to the jester, king and queen are probably Elvis Presley (nicknamed The King) and Bob Dylan (or Buddy Holly) as the jester. The queen may be Connie Francis, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom or Little Richard. The royal pair may also refer to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his wife, Jackie Onassis, wih the jester being Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby. The jester sang in a "voice he borrowed 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. "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 Christ, who was also forced to wear a crown of thorns in the Bible. The thorny crown may be a reference to 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, Vladmir Lenin, while "Marx" could refer to Groucho Marx or the other Marx Brothers. "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 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.

The fourth verse begins with a reference to the Beatles' "Helter Skelter" who is "in a summer swelter", perhaps referring to the Summer of Love or the "long, hot summer" of Watts, California[?]. 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 Democratic National Convention of 1968[?], 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).

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. 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 Candlestick Park. "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 the song playing at the Altamont Speedway[?] during the notorious Rolling Stones concert in which a fan was killed by the Hell's Angels, who had been hired as security for the concert. 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.

The sixth verse begins with "I met a girl who sang the blues", probably referring to Janis Joplin or Billie Holliday, 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 all record stores (which is sacred as rock and roll is sacred, as per the earlier line "Can music save your mortal soul") or just to the Fillmore West[?]. 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" may be the Trinity of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, or Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, or Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, or John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy (three political figures that were assassinated). Holly/Valens/Big Bopper is the most likely intended trio, as this 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. 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.

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

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