American Pie: The Great American Song?
First published: Sunday February 6th, 2022
Here in America, we have a tendency to call ascribe the word "great" to a lot of things we do. The idea initially came from the Great American Novel, a hotly debated idea that there is a single novel that can completely encompass the American experience. From there, people have attempt to apply the label to other media: The Great American Painting, The Great American Movie, and so on.
It's quite surprising then that there have been no attempts to define a Great American Song, even though America has been a global center for the music industry since the '50s. If there is one song that deserves that honor, though, I would say it's "American Pie" by Don McLean, released in 1971. For nearly 50 years, "American Pie" held the record for being the longest song (clocking in at 8 minutes, 42 seconds) to reach Number 1 on the Billboard, only recently surpassed by Taylor Swift's new, 10 minute rendition of "All Too Well." Beyond that, "American Pie" has been listed as the fifth greatest song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America. And it's not difficult to see why—with its ballad-like structure, catchiness, and cryptic lyrics, "American Pie" tells the story of 1960s America like no other song, or history textbook, can.
One of the things that stands out most about the song is its ambiguity. McLean never names names, preferring to use allusions and Biblical/cultural references to give meaning to his song. For many years, he refused to divulge the true meaning of his song, quipping, "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to." Luckily for us, however, in 2015, McLean sold the original manuscript of his song, chock full of notes on the lyrics. While there are many things in the song still up for interpretation, we do have a general idea of what he was trying to say.
I'm not planning on picking apart the song lyric by lyric—you'll find many websites that do this (in particular, I recommend this one). What I will do is explain, in general, the context behind the song, and why it still has lasting appeal. So, whether you're an longtime fan of the song, or newcomer who wants to learn, let's explore "American Pie"!
Note: This blog will be very music heavy. While you could just read the blog, I think listening to the audio really helps accentuate how music evolved over the '60s. There's no need to listen to all the songs in their entirety (especially because it would probably take an hour to get through all them), but at the very least I recommend listening to snippets to get a feel for them. If necessary, get some headphones, tuck yourself into a quiet place, and enjoy!
The Day The Music Died: 1955 to 1960
"A long long time ago/I can still remember how that music used to make me smile..." the song begins. McLean, in question, was born in 1945, and so he was entering adolescence right at the end of the '50s. At the same time, rock 'n roll in its earliest form was in full swing with the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash. It is also at this time that an up and coming band, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, was starting to score hit songs on the Billboard, such as "That'll Be The Day" and "Peggy Sue." Note the style—heavily blues-influenced, it was meant to be soothing and harmonious, with emphasis on the swooping vocals and the riffing guitar.
Holly started his career in music by opening for Elvis several times in 1955. By the next year, he had gotten his band together, and by 1957, he had appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, the top American talk show of the time (if it sounds familiar, it's probably for a reason we'll get to later!). Ironically, though, it was not through his career that Holly would be immortalized, but his untimely death.
In the cold winter of 1959, Holly and his band were touring the Midwest, along with other new artists such as Ritchie Valens, famous for his single "La Bamba," and J.P. Richardson, better known as "The Big Bopper." Sick of the unheated tour buses, which had given The Cricket's drummer frostbite, Holly chartered a private plane to take them from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota for their next venue. While the plane was initially meant only for Holly and his band, Richardson had the flu and thus traded a seat with one of The Crickets, while Valens was allowed to take the other seat after winning what would be one of the most consequential coin tosses in history (ironically, after winning, Valens is reported to have said, "That's the first time I've ever won anything in my life!"). Due to the wintry conditions and faulty equipment, the plane crashed shortly after takeoff, immediately killing everyone on board.
The first verse of "American Pie" recounts McLean coming to terms with this tragedy, as a young boy inspired by Buddy Holly's music that "used to make [him] smile." To him, it not only the end of an era of music, but an end to his childhood, a time of innocence and simple happiness. It's also worth noting that when McLean was 15, just a year or two after The Day The Music Died, his father also passed away (warning: article contains strong language), leaving him deeply traumatized. McLean himself has admitted this verse is just as much about the death of his dad as it is about Buddy Holly, equating what he sees as the greatest tragedy in his life with the greatest tragedy in American musical history.
The Jester Stole His Thorny Crown: 1960 to 1964
After the solemnity of the first verse, the second verse picks up in tempo and beat. The verse starts with a reflection on religion ("Do you have faith in God above?") and rock 'n roll ("Can music save your mortal soul?"), shaping the idea of music as a source of purity. It's also in this verse that we are introduced to an important character—a high school sweetheart of McLean's who dumped him for another boy at a high school dance ("I know that you're in love with him/'Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym"). The "Miss American Pie" of the chorus is often identified with this character at surface level, and with America on a deeper level.
The real revolution, so to speak, begins in the third verse, with the introduction of an enigmatic character: The Jester. The Jester, described as wearing a coat "borrowed from James Dean" and singing in a voice that "came from you and me," is identified as Bob Dylan, based on his fashion sense and his raspy voice. Debuting his first album in 1962, Dylan's folksy sounds and rough style of singing, accompanied by a backbone of harmonica and acoustic guitar, was a sharp departure from the smoother rhythms of Holly and the like. However, Dylan's popularity was fueled not only by his melodies, but also by his lyrics, which were seen as being aligned with the Civil Rights Movement and the early anti-Vietnam movement. With songs like "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Masters of War," Dylan leaned more into politics than any of his predecessors.
"American Pie" notes that when the Jester sang for the "King" and "Queen," he stole the King's "thorny crown." There are several theories on the identity of the King and Queen; a likely pair are Pete Seeger and Joan Baez who were, before Dylan, the preeminent figures in American folk music. Again, the religious imagery is present, as Jesus wore a crown of thorns before the Crucifixion; thus, Dylan's taking this crown sets him up metaphorically as America's messiah of music.
(Funnily enough, in 2015, when asked about his opinion on his characterization in the song, Dylan said, "A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like 'Masters of War', 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', 'It's Alright, Ma' - some jester. I have to think he's talk about somebody else." Dylan clearly wasn't a fan.)
His reign, however, didn't last forever; his turn to the sharper sound of electric instruments around 1965, exemplified by "Like a Rolling Stone," alienated much of his fanbase, and in 1966 he suffered from a serious motorcycle accident and stopped touring for a while. This is mentioned in the fourth verse ("The Jester, on the sidelines, in a cast"). Meanwhile, from across the sea, the new big sensations of American music were coming...
The Quartet Practiced In The Park: 1964 to 1968
Remember I mentioned "The Ed Sullivan Show" when talking about Buddy Holly? Well, here it is again, back and better than ever. And you definitely know the people on this time. The Fab Four. The British Invaders. The Beatles!
McLean first alludes to The Beatles at the end of the third verse, in what is one of my favorite parts of the song: "While Lenin read a book on Marx/The quartet practiced in the park." Lenin sounds an awful lot like Lennon, doesn't it? While, as I said earlier, McLean never names names, he's able to use the pronunciation of this name to his advantage and subtly (or maybe quite obviously) reveal who he is referencing.
When The Beatles went on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, they became a huge sensation in America, sparking the era of Beatlemania and forever infusing American rock music with their own British influences. While The Beatles covered many different types of music, they were most notable for their fusion of styles ranging from folk to '50s rock to classical to foreign influences, especially Indian. A good example of this is "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," which was the first major song in the West to use the sitar, while staying true to earlier elements of rock.
Around 1967 and 1968, there were two major changes in The Beatles' music. First was their turn to more experimentation with sound, such as feedback from electric guitars and sampling from other songs. Second was their increasingly political messaging, largely spurred by Lennon, who had became a social activist and ardent opponent of the Vietnam War. The combination of these two elements led to songs such as "Revolution" and "All You Need is Love," which sympathized with protesters while—and this part is critical—affirming the need for nonviolence and cooperation.
The fourth verse of "American Pie" depicts the growing conflict between young, peaceful activists, influenced by the Beatles ("the players tried to take the field") and authorities ("the marching band refused to yield"). This came to a head during the police crackdown against protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Unfortunately, while many protesters remained peaceful, the aggressive reaction to the antiwar movement made some protesters question their nonviolent ways and advocate for more radical measures. This led to the rise of groups such as the Weather Underground (not related to the weather organization of the same name), which was involved in several bombings in the late '60s and early '70s. And with things spiraling out of control, it's a perfect time to introduce our final act...
As The Flames Climbed High Into The Night: 1968 to 1970
The Rolling Stones. Fronted by Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones went one step further than the Beatles, melding American blues, English rock, heavy electrical instrumentation, and aggressive vocals to create what would come to be known as hard rock. A song that's pretty emblematic of this style is "Jumpin' Jack Flash" ("Jack Flash sat on a candlestick"). Additionally, in terms of lyrics, The Rolling Stones did not shy away from controversy, with more provocative and charged ideas incorporated in their songs. A prime example of this is 1968's "Sympathy for the Devil," which tells the story of human history—from Satan's perspective!
It is in part because of this song that the nickname for Jagger in "American Pie" is Satan. However, it's also, once again, religious symbolism: McLean is contrasting what he sees as the purity of Buddy Holly's music with the decadence and chaos of Mick Jagger's music. And chaos it was...
While Woodstock is probably the most famous 1969 concert, Altamont was the most consequential. Held at the Altamont Speedway in California, it was billed as a Woodstock for the West Coast. Unfortunately, it was anything but. While Woodstock was mostly peaceful, Altamont quickly descended into chaos. Members of infamous biker gang, Hell's Angels ("No angel born in hell"), were invited to the concert—as security guards. As the night went on, the guards got increasingly more aggressive and violent. It all came to a head when one member of the audience, Meredith Hunter, tried to go onstage. He quickly ended up in a confrontation with one of these security guards, which got him killed ("And as the flames climbed high into the night/To light the sacrificial rite"). Guess who was performing at that time? You guessed it—The Rolling Stones ("I saw Satan laughing with delight"). Beyond the murder of Hunter, there were three other deaths, two from a car accident and one from a drowning, with stolen cars and property damage throughout. No wonder it was called "Rock and Roll's all-time worst day" by Rolling Stone magazine (named after Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," not the band)!
They Caught The Last Train For The Coast: 1970 to 1971
After three verses of exploring the developments happening in American music and culture, McLean finally returns to himself at the end of song. The verse starts by mentioning Janis Joplin ("a girl who sang the blues"), who died in 1970 of a heroin overdose, as just another example of the psychological toll of the '60s. From there, it branches out into more religious imagery—"I went down to the sacred store," once again equating early rock with spirituality. The most remembered part of this verse, though, is the last few lines: "And the three men I admire most/The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the coast/The day the music died." Beyond the obvious Christian interpretation of the Holy Trinity, the identity of these three are still unclear and heavily debated. One interpretation is the three major American leaders who were assassinated in the '60s: JFK, RFK, and MLK. Another is the remaining member of Holly's band The Crickets, who fatefully escaped the plane crash on The Day The Music Died. Regardless, it is meant to show McLean's loss of faith in the America he once so loved.
Something that few people know is that, in his original manuscript, McLean had another verse, that went like this:
"And there I stood alone and afraid/I dropped to my knees and there I prayed/And I promised him everything I could give/If only would make the music live/And he promised it would live once more/But this time one would equal four/And in five years four had come to mourn/And the music was reborn"
It is commonly agreed that the four he is talking about in this verse are The Beatles, and that he is implying they led to the revival of old American music. This makes sense, as, like I said, The Beatles incorporated elements of '50s rock more than any other major band of the '60s, and they became popular in America in 1964, five years after The Day The Music Died. He ended up describing to scrap this verse in the end though, because he didn't think it fit the mood of the song.
So, is the end of the song meant to be depressing? At McLean originally meant it, yes, but even so I like to think there's a bit of hope. The last chorus is repeated twice, and the second time, that last line ("This'll be the day that I day") goes from using minor chords to major chords, making it feel uplifting. Additionally, Don McLean himself has said:
"In a sense, 'American Pie' was a very despairing song. In another though, it was very hopeful. Pete Seeger told me he saw it as a song in which people were saying something. They'd been fooled, they'd been hurt, and it wasn't going to happen again. That's a good way to look at it—a hopeful way."
At the end of the day, "American Pie" was about making sense of a very tumultuous time in American history, and while McLean acknowledges that there's no returning to the days of his childhood, he, and the people of America, can accept the reality of the situation and resolve to do better in the future.
The Song's Lasting Impact
Before I end, I think it's important to talk about how this song continues to be a force in American culture even today, more than 50 years after it was released. The song is a culmination of what is probably the most significant, influential decade in modern American history. When I talked about the progression from Buddy Holly to Mick Jagger, I wasn't talking about a phenomenon unique to the '60s; much of the sound we use in music today can be traced back to this period. Similarly, the social movements conceived at that time—civil rights, peace, environmentalism—are still very much with us today (though thankfully radical groups like Weather Underground have died out). While McLean may not have imagined his song would be relevant so far in the future, it continues to be a timeless classic because it gives us a glimpse at American culture in its formative years, at the time when America was transforming from what it was in the past to what it is today.
The fact that "American Pie" is still celebrated and revered in pop culture today is a testament to this. The most famous cover of the song is this one by Madonna, released in 2000. While it's much shorter than the original and in a very different style, it still became very popular, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard in many countries (though strangely only No. 29 in America, because it wasn't released commercially here). McLean himself was impressed, calling it a "gift from a goddess" and describing it as "mystical and sensual."
"American Pie" has also spawned numerous parodies. The most famous is "The Saga Begins" by Weird Al Yankovic, telling the story of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace from Obi-Wan Kenobi's perspective. McLean also apparently rather enjoys this version, saying there are times he almost sings the lyrics to this, instead of the actual lyrics, because his kids sing it so much.
Beyond these covers, "American Pie" definitely has a place in pop culture. In the recent Marvel movie Black Widow, "American Pie" is sung by the deeply conflicted villain, Red Guardian, as a way to calm and comfort a character he loves. Famous boxer Tyson Fury briefly went viral as he emotionally sang this song with his audience after winning a hard-fought match to become the heavyweight champ in 2020. And, as I mentioned before, "American Pie" enjoyed another surge in popularity just a few months ago when it was unseated as the longest No. 1 song by Taylor Swift's "All Too Well." Swift herself sent flowers to McLean and said, "I will never forget that I'm standing on the shoulders of giants." (In turn, McLean congratulated Swift on beating his record and thanked her for the flowers, posting "What a class act!" on Instagram.)
The greatest testament to "American Pie," though, comes from the city in the picture above: Grand Rapids, Michigan. After the Rust Belt locale was listed off as a "dying city" by Newsweek in 2011, longtime residents of the city, Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson, sent out to prove them wrong. Raising $40,000 and gathering 3,000 people, they were able to create what is widely considered one of the greatest lip dubs of all time. The whole video brought together people from all walks of life, including business owners, firefighters, football players, and even the mayor, standing on the back of a white convertible. It also has a pillow fight, a wedding, explosions, plenty of dancing, and more guitars than you can count! Describing it doesn't do it justice—go ahead and watch the video!
It's the perfect song for the perfect occasion. If there's any proof that "American Pie" can be a song of hope as much as a song of despair, it's this video right here, reminding us that, even at our lowest points, we can find joy in all coming together and singing our favorite song. Sometimes, the music never dies :)
Hopefully you all enjoyed my first major attempt at a blog, and gained a newfound appreciate for this song if you didn't have it already. If nothing else, you now know not to hire Hell's Angels as your bodyguards!
If you want a challenge, PapaFurchetta and Jerry928 have both made quizzes that require you to list out every lyric of "American Pie." Or, if you're a Beatles fan like me, you may want to try my quiz and see if you can tell the four members apart! Also, if you have extra thoughts on this song, or anything else you think is deserving of the title of "Great American Song" (or of your country if you aren't American), feel free to share in the comments!