Digital Tradition Mirror

American Pie - Program Notes

American Pie--Program Notes
(Don McLean)
        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.

(Verse 1)

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

a snowstorm.

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 <pause> that I die".

(Verse 2)
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 Rat

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...


(Verse 3)

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 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.


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 ab

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...


(Verse 4)

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 Stones, i.e. they were waiting for an opening which

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

tear gas.
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 Candlestic

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

The day the music died?
We started singing


(Verse 5)

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

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...


(Verse 6)
I met a girl who sang the blues
        Janis Joplin.
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's music?  Or, as above, the discontinuation of the in-store

listening booths.
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: neithe

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

Catholic schools.
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...

Refrain (2x)

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)

Other notes:

"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,
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
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/ 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

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 wha
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,
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 w
subject. I won't even attempt to attach keywords. RG


Thanks to Mudcat for the Digital Tradition!

Contents: ? A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Main Page