THE ANNOTATED AMERICAN PIE
(What the song is talkin' about!)
By Rich Kulawiec
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 #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
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
But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on
February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm.The news came to
most of the world on the morning of February 3, which is why it's known as The
Day The Music Died.
With every paper I'd deliver,
McLean's only job besides being a full-time singer-songwriter was being a
Bad news on the doorstep...
I couldn't take one more
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed
Holly's recent bride, Maria Elena, was pregnant when the crash
took place; she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
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
Miss American Pie *is* rock and roll music. Don McLean dated a
Miss America candidate during the pageant. (unconfirmed)
Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole 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 that I die"
Did you write the book of
"The Book of Love" by the Monotones; hit in
And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you
In 1955, Don Cornell did a song, which was written entirely by Dale Evans ,
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.
Dave Tutelman tells me that this particular song wasn't exactly a gem of rock
There's also an old Sunday School song which goes: "Jesus
loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so" (Stephen Joseph Smith tells me
that Bartlett's gives the source of this as "The Love of Jesus", by Anna
Bartlett Warner, 1858.)
Now do you believe in rock 'n
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/it's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll."
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 prominence.
know you're in love with him
'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
Slowdancing COULD just be dancing, or it could be vertical "making
out". It wasn't hard to watch a couple slow-dancing and figure out whether they
had some sort of relationship, if you knew anything about slow dancing. So just
the fact they were dancing didn't tell you anything, but if "I saw you dancing
in the gym" I could tell from watching whether there was anything between you
(figuratively :-). (Thanks to Dave Tutelman for this note.)
kicked off your shoes
A reference to the beloved "sock
hop".(Leather-soled street shoes tear up wooden basketball floors, and
rubber-soled sneakers grip too much for dance moves, so dancers had to take off
Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues
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 Rattle and Roll", Joe Turner, covered by Bill
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. ---Rsk)
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
But I knew that I was out of luck
The day the music
I started singing...
Now for ten years we've been on our own
writing this song in the late 60's, about ten years after the
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
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.
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 taxes.
But that's not how it used
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 is 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 rally.)
In a coat he borrowed
from James Dean
In the movie "Rebel Without a Cause", James Dean has
a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film (see note at
end of Annotated American Pie). 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 and Prince Consort
of England. He was *not* properly attired, so perhaps this is a reference to
And a voice that came from you and me
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. (i.e. Presley is looking down from a
height as Dylan takes his 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
This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven, but McLean
seems to be talking about music, not politics at this point in the song. With
that in mind, perhaps he meant that the arguments between Dylan and Elvis fans
over who was better just couldn't be settled.
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 reminiscint 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".
It's also a pun on "Lenin".
The quartet practiced in the
There are two schools of thought about this; the obvious one is
the 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
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.
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
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
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 possession of marijuana.
The players tried for a forward
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
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
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
Oh, but we never got the chance
The Beatles' 1966
Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes. 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.
Some folks think this refers to either the 1968
Deomcratic Convention or Kent State; following on from the Chicago reference
above, this could be another comment on protests. But perhaps 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 studio and electronic
experimentation as "Sgt. Pepper" (1967) -- but the album sold poorly.
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 draft: the
government/military-industrial-complex establishment refused to accede to the
demands of the peace movement.
Do you recall what was revealed,
The day the music died?
We started singing
there we were all in one place
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
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
So come on Jack be nimble Jack be
Probably a reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones;
"Jumpin' Jack Flash" was released in May, 1968.
Jack Flash sat on a
The Stones' Candlestick park concert?
fire is the devil's only friend
"Sympathy for the Devil", by the
Stones -- seems to fit with some of the surrounding material.
possible that this is a reference to the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil".
But I doubt it.
An alternative interpretation of the last four lines is
that they 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 1969, 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 to 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".
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
likely interpretation is that McLean is still talking about Altamont, and in
particular Mick Jagger's prancing and posing while it was happening. The
sacrifice is Meredith Hunter, and the bonfires around the area provide the
(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
the above is correct, then Satan would be Jagger.
The day the music
He was singing...
a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her
for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
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 et.al.'s music? Or, as above, the discontinuation of the
in-store listening booths.
It's also possible that this line and the
two before it refer to the closing of the Fillmore West in 19?? -- but I've
been unable to verify that it was actually closed when this song was written.
And in the streets the children screamed
children" being beaten by police and National Guard troops; in particular,
perhaps, the People's Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970.
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: neither can produce any more music.
And the three men I
admire most The Father Son and Holy Ghost
Holly, The Big Bopper,
-- 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 metaphor.
the music died.
This tends to support the conjecture that the "three
men" were Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens, since this says that they left on
the day the music died.
And they were singing...
of what's on TV?
Looking for some of those great old movies?
DVD TV SHOWS