Don Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big

Don McLean’s “American Pie” entered the
world stage in 1971 and forever changed the course of rock music. Throughout history, rock music has played a significant
role in the lives of many. The early 50s were a time of economic prosperity,
hopefulness and optimism. But in the late 50s, a tragic accident altered rock
and roll history and foreshadowed what would come in the 60s. On February 3,
1959, the crash took the lives of three rock legends: Buddy Holly, Ritchie
Valens and the Big Bopper. Music lovers and artists like Don McLean would never
forget it. “American Pie” is predominantly about this tragedy. McLean trademarked
this day in history as “the day the music died.” McLean considers the music
that died to be standard rock & roll songs and “mourns this as the end of
the entire 50s era” (Morgan, BBC). The
singers of “That’ll Be the Day,” and “Go, Johnny, Go!” and “Chantilly Lace”
were dead. Rock music would never be the same. History shows that people turn
to music in times of crisis seeking hope, direction and inspiration. This paper
will analyze the lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie” and show that his words
are more than just words. This paper will also show the importance of music
genre, in this case rock music, and how music functions as a means for creating
a political awareness. The political and historical significance in the song is
rooted deeply in history; the lyrics were written by McLean to reminisce on the
good old days and hope that the future generations would learn certain lessons
for the future.

“American Pie” became like
an anthem for the 1970s generation. The song was so catchy and intriguing that
people memorized every line. “Their children in turn grew up singing it –
fascinated by the mysterious lyrics with their cryptic references to 50s
innocence, the turbulent 60s, and 70s disillusion” (Morgan, BBC). The song includes several
metaphors and references that are made to represent real people; McLean alludes
to several big figures of the time. The song includes references to Karl Marx,
the Beatles, John Lennon, James Dean, Charles Manson, the Rolling Stones,
Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Kennedy, and the Vietnam War. McLean was
pointing to the idea that the “American Dream” is over. As optimism in the 1960s
shifted towards cynicism in the 1970s, “American Pie” became the number one
song in 1972. But in 2015, the lyrics were sold at auction for $1.2 million. “I
thought it would be interesting as I reach age 70 to release this work product
on the song American Pie so that anyone who might be interested will learn that
this song was not a parlor game,” McLean said (Gambino, The Guardian). It can be safe to say that McLean made a major
impact on music’s history and the legacy of “American Pie” will never die. What made “American
Pie” unique from most songs at the time was that it was bold and ambiguous; the
fact that people didn’t know what the lyrics meant made it more thought
provoking and attractive. This notion of ambiguity has also led to years of
debates over what the words mean. The timelessness of “American Pie” lies in the song’s “emotional resonance”
(Morgan, BBC). Because “music has
deep connections to our emotional life,” the repetition of certain phrases like
“the day the music died,” “bye bye Miss American Pie,” and “this’ll be the day
that I die,” is significant because it serves as constant emotional reminders
(Street, 167).

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Many still debate on what McLean’s intent
was in composing the song. But it is clear that he is telling a particular
story about the American experience. “People ask me
if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity,” McLean said in an early interview,
as the Guardian reported. “Of
course I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics
had to do with the state of society at the time” (Gambino, The Guardian). McLean believed that something had been lost,
and he continues the melancholic tone throughout in order to emphasize this and
engrain it in the minds of the listeners. “That song didn’t just
happen,” said McLean. “It grew out of my experiences. “American Pie”
was part of my process of self-awakening; a mystical trip into my past” (Goodman,
Huffington Post).

“American Pie” is a folk
rock song. The genre of the song plays an important role in defining its
political and historical significance. Because “music is a form of ‘symbolic
representation,’ akin to language, but not identical to it,” both the genre and
style of the song is as important as the lyrics (Street, 167). Music has “an
intimate connection with our emotional depths,” and this is extremely evident
in McLean’s “American Pie” (Street, 167). “In the
1950s, rock & roll meant disruption: It was the clamor of young people,
kicking hard against the Eisenhower era’s ethos of vapid repression. By the
onset of the 1960s, that spirit had been largely tamed or simply impeded by
numerous misfortunes, including the film and army careers of Elvis Presley and
the death of Buddy Holly” (Gilmore, Rolling
Stone). The context of the lyrics starts at the 1950s, a time that
was relatively optimistic, then shifts to the 1960s where non-conformity, loss
of values, and social and political movements became the norm. “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I
tried to capture in words and music,” McLean said (Morgan, BBC). “Don McLean says similar ominous things in a pop language
that a mainstream listener could understand. The chorus is so good that it lets
you wallow in the confusion and wistfulness of that moment, and be comforted at
the same time” (Gambino, The Guardian).

McLean’s musical masterpiece is poetry to one’s ears.  The message in McLean’s lyrics was
more powerful and reached a larger audience because a widely accepted genre,
rock, was used.

Throughout the literary
analysis of the lyrics, one will see McLean’s intent of reminding the world
that music is dead, innocence is lost, and the American Dream is no more. “Basically
in ‘American Pie,’ things are heading in the wrong direction,” he told Christie’s,
as the Newcastle Herald reported. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t
know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a
sense” (The Guardian). The song begins by McLean reminiscing on the times
“music used to make him smile” and if he knew he had his chance, “he would make
those people dance. Maybe they’d be happy for a while.” This already sets a
melancholic and nostalgic tone, yet the beat of the song is catchy and
attractive. McLean here is thinking about the optimistic style of music he grew up
with. A music that can make people smile and that could help ease their
worries. This refers to the optimism of America in the 1950s that faded in the
60s. “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” (McLean, 1971). McLean
remembers the day of February 3, 1959, as a boy who delivered newspapers, when
the plane tragedy shook the country and took the lives of Holly, Valens and
Bopper. For McLean, the accident was the final blow to this music ’cause these
three were that only major artists left. When he says, “February made me
shiver” he is referring to the month that Buddy Holly died. He also pays
tribute to his “widowed bride.” It is evident that this tragedy left a deep
mark on McLean. So much so that McLean makes a parallel between the deaths of
music and Buddy Holly. This tragedy was the catalyst for McLean writing
“American Pie.”

The most known and iterated
part of the song is “Bye, bye Miss American Pie.” It follows every chorus. Jim
Fann, author of “Understanding
American Pie,” believes that Miss American Pie is “as American as
apple pie, so the saying goes” (Morgan, BBC).

It has also been said that it could be referring to the beauty queen “Miss
America,” and this name alludes to a simpler and more optimistic time in
society. I believe that because of the glum tone of the song, especially with
the amount of times that McLean repeats “Bye, bye Miss American Pie,” he is
pointing to the loss of American innocence and he is bidding farewell to the
“good old days.” Screenwriter and producer of the “American Pie” movie
franchise, Adam Herz, bring up an interesting point about the notion of
“American Pie”. He states that the title also refers to the quest of losing
your virginity in high school, which is as “American as apple pie” (Morgan, BBC). The
writer is using “pie”
as a metaphor for a first sexual experience. It is worth noting that the lyric
reads “Miss American Pie” and does not refer to males, as America is feminine
in the English language. “Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry”
could be alluding to driving to the “levee,” which is typically a ridge of
sediment deposited naturally alongside a river by overflowing water. It can be
said that the levee being dry could refer to a slight exaggeration that
everything is evaporating at the time, even nature. The melancholic tone of the
song suggests that the levee being dry is something negative for McLean: something
that once gave him life is dry.

“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 and roll? Can music save your mortal soul” (McLean, 1971)? In
this verse, McLean introduces religious imagery to emphasize the symbolism of
“loss.” Loss plays an important role in the song because not only did music
lose three of the most important rock artists of all time, but also music in
general has lost its innocence, authenticity and goodness. “Faith in the
music now replaces faith in God,” Fann observes. From “the sacred
store” to the broken church bells, from this point forward, “whatever
is couched in religious terms can be seen as referring back… to the happier
innocence and faith of the 1950s,” says Fann (Morgan, BBC). This verse is significant because McLean uses religion to
allude to the importance of music in society. He continues to evoke a sense of
“loss of goodness” by implying that the “good old days” are over. In this
verse, he makes references to two songs by important rock artists of the 1950s:
“The Book of Love” by the Monotones and Don Cornell’s “The Bible Tells Me
So”.  The religious imagery continues in
the next verse when McLean brings up the pink carnation: “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” (McLean,
1971). Pink carnations carry great
significance. In Christianity, it is believed that they first appeared on earth
from the Virgin Mary’s tears – making them the symbol of a “mother’s undying
love.” McLean could be using this as a metaphor to refer to the undying love of
music or the idea that music is undying and immortal.

“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” (McLean,
1971). This is where McLean brings in
significant popular figures in pop culture. “Oh and while the King was
looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown” (McLean, 1971). He
introduces Bob Dylan, as the jester. Dylan became a revolutionary in the music
world in the 1960s. He replaced Elvis, who was the musical king of the 50s.

It’s also significant that the King was looking “down,” further emphasizing McLean’s
notion that things were going downhill in the music world and with the loss of
the good old days, people were more glum. The image of the jester is very
interesting because it can mean many things. In the English dictionary, a
jester is defined as a “professional joker or fool.” The word “joker” also has
an interesting significance. In one sense, both “jester” and “joker” refer to a
playing card that is used in most games as a wild card. Perhaps McLean is
referring to Dylan as a wild card. A wild card can allude to a person or thing
whose influence is unpredictable or whose qualities are uncertain. It can be
said from these observations, and the fact that a jester is not necessarily a
character with the most positive connotations, that either McLean was not a big
fan of Dylan or he did not believe in Dylan’s lasting popularity because the
world was changing. “The jacket Dylan borrowed from James Dean can be seen on
the iconic cover sleeve of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (Morgan, BBC). McLean
used subliminal images in popular culture to not only make the song attractive
to listeners at the time, but to give it a sense of timelessness as well. In
the verse “Helter skelter in a summer swelter,” McLean alludes to the Beatles
song “Helter Skelter,” released in 1968 on their “White Album.” Many
believe that it is also a reference to the Charles Manson murders in the summer
“swelter” of 1968. This is because Manson once stated that he was inspired by
the Beatles’ song to perform these massacres. It is said that Manson played the
album repeatedly to his followers because it had an apocalyptic message
“predicting an uprising of oppressed races” (Gilmore, Rolling Stone).

“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” (McLean, 1971). In this verse, McLean is telling a
story about an important night in rock music history – the disaster at Altamont
Speedway Free Festival in northern California. The concert featured big names
such as Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby,
Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones as the final act. Mick
Jagger, the front man of the Rolling Stones was dressed in a red cape singing
about rebellion and fire. One of the members of the Hells Angels motorcycle
gang began engaging in “bloody clashes with the rioting audience” (Morgan, BBC). “And as the flames climbed high into the night, to light the
sacrificial rite. I saw Satan laughing with delight” (McLean, 1971). McLean
accused Jagger for not stopping the performance; this is why he refers to
Jagger as “Satan laughing with delight.” This is another example of why music
has died, and McLean reminds the listener over and over again. “Just as
Woodstock was heralded as the landmark of the counterculture movement,
‘Altamont was the event that signaled its demise. Reality steps in,” says
Fann (Morgan, BBC). McLean used this
tragedy in the song as a message to the young generation that something was
wrong.

“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” (McLean, 1971). Singer
Janis Joplin rose to fame in the late 1960s and was known for her “powerful,
blues-inspired vocals” (Biography.com) In 1970, Joplin died of a drug overdose.

In this verse, McLean turns to Janis Joplin for hope. But the rhythm and blues
are gone, and they aren’t even sold in the record stores that McLean refers to
as “sacred” – this portrays the importance of small details for McLean, such as
record stores. It seems everyone had forgotten about the great music released
in the 1950s, especially Janis Joplin’s music. McLean carefully constructs a
narrative that tells an important, underrated story about the life of great
musicians such as Joplin; he believes that music should not die with the
artist, but in this case, everything is dying. He also paints a bigger picture
in reiterating the loss of innocence and the loss of greatness in music in
general at this time. Throughout the song, whenever McLean attempts to achieve “happy
news,” he is let down. This is significant in the narrative he is constructing
about music losing its “virginity” and the sacredness of music.

“Where I’d heard the music years before
but the man there said the music wouldn’t play” (McLean, 1971). McLean isn’t
being theoretical here; he is referring to the fact that the music actually
wasn’t playing. “Literally, the music stores that had once provided
listening booths for their customers were by this time no longer offering this
service” (Morgan, BBC). But even more
so, “the cynicism of this generation had annihilated the innocent world
the narrator had grown up in” (Morgan, BBC).

Even here, McLean is referring to the loss of innocence in enjoying music at
the store that was once “sacred” to him. He is melancholic about the fact that
that kind of music wouldn’t play anymore; he wanted listeners to also feel this
way and remember the better times. 

“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” (McLean, 1971). McLean is clever. He shifts
from children screaming, lovers crying, and poets dreaming to describing that
no words were spoken and church bells were broken, as if there were suddenly no
sounds. The turmoil and chaos diverges back into religious imagery, again
highlighting the importance and sacredness of music and how now it is “broken.”
“And the three men I admire most. The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” (McLean,
1971). McLean circles back to the plane crash, which is how he starts the song
– it makes a full circle, like the circle of life. Here, the Father, Son and
Holy Ghost refer to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. This
allusion to the Holy Trinity could also be representative of the three most
important political assassinations of not only the 1960s, but American history
in general: John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. McLean is placing
extreme emphasis to remind everyone about the day that music died. He is also
highlighting the importance of these figures in society at the time, and
music’s role in people’s lives, as he is comparing people to the Holy Trinity.

“American Pie” bid farewell
to the 50s and 60s. Even today, McLean remains melancholic about the world we
live in. He doesn’t feel differently than he did in the 1970s when he wrote the
song. “I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015,” McLean said, as People Magazine reported. For a
long time, it was a “truism that rock & roll could make a difference: that
it was eloquent and inspiring and principled enough to change the world — maybe
even to save it.” Don McLean’s “American Pie” proves that music may not be able
to save the world, but it can truly make an impact, even decades after its
conception. Although McLean released the meaning of the lyrics a few years ago,
parts of the song are still cryptic. This is what makes the song immortal and
dreamlike: it allows listeners to interpret the lyrics in their own way like
poetry. If the song was written more literally, people may not have been able
to resonate with it. This ambiguity is what has sparked so much discussion over
the last decades, and has kept “American Pie” more relevant in pop culture than
ever.

After analyzing the lyrics of Don McLean’s
“American Pie,” and acknowledging the importance of rock music in America in
the 50s and 60s, it is clear that music has the power to create political
awareness and reach a larger audience than words alone can. It is this
relationship between music and language that allows for political and social awareness
and for music to be effective. McLean’s lyrics, allowed for “American Pie” to
make a lasting impact on the world. Music can “embody the idea of our urgent
need for and attachment to things outside ourselves that we do not control.” McLean
was aware of this, and utilized “American Pie” as a means to convey his
powerful message to the world: we weren’t the same, America wasn’t the same,
romance and innocence were lost, and the world was changing whether we liked it
or not. 

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