Was It A Tribute To Buddy Holly?
Was It A Protest Song?

Iíve received many letters recently asking about the lyrics to this extraordinary song penned by Don McLean. Although I first published this in Reminiscing #37 (July 1985), Iíve been asked repeatedly to print the explanations again, so I will. As you will discover, "American Pie" is actually a protest song about the music of the 1960s. Although Don McLean has always refrained from publicly explaining his lyrics, when I first showed him what I had written, he simply smiled. I asked how accurate it was and he said there werenít any "glaring" mistakes. Each set of lyrics is followed by our explanation.

A long long time ago, 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 theyíd be happy for a while
Here, McLean is talking about rock Ďní roll music of the 1950s and the "fact" that he still remembers it from "a long time ago". Also, he is stating that if he could play the music again, it would bring back memories and make people smile.

But February made me shiver, with every paper Iíd deliver
Sad news on the doorstep, I couldnít take one more step
I canít remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
No doubt here that McLean is talking about the plane crash that took Buddy Holly from us. Notice the use of the pronoun "his" when talking about the widowed bride. Has this been a general statement without Buddy Holly in mind, the pronoun would have been "the". Also, McLean was delivering newspapers in 1959, thus, giving us a clue to his age. Most paper carriers are in their teens or younger.

But something touched me deep inside,
the day the music died
This last line of each verse is where Iíll probably receive the most argument. I believe the phrase "The day the music died" refers to the death of 1950's music in general of which that plane crash was a part. If youíll bear with me a bit longer, I think youíll see this much clearer.

(Chorus) Bye Bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And good olí boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing thisíll be the day when I die
Thisíll be the day when I die
The conclusion about the phrase "American Pie" is that Don McLean is referring to the era of the 1950s, not just the music. Youíll see this as we get further along. When he drove to the levee and found it dry, McLean was referring to the fact that the music of the 1950s was no longer being produced or played. "Good Ďol boys drinking..." also refers to the 1950s when "whiskey and rye" was the staple before drugs. "Thisíll be the day when I die" is also important. As the pronoun "I" is used, we can only assume that Don McLean himself is representing the rock Ďní roll era of the 1950s. So, keep in mind that "American Pie" is the 1950's era, and Don McLean is the Ď50's music.

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 Ďní roll
can music save your mortal soul
then you can teach me how to dance real slow
McLean is telling us that 1950's rock Ďní roll had some beautiful love song type ballads, and he is simply asking you if that music had become part of your life. If so, then can you "teach" him about todayís music, of course, referring to the 1960s. As for "music saving your mortal soul", McLean is referring to the popular music of the day enhancing devil worship, drugs, mysterious lines in songs when records are played backwards, and so on.

Well, I know that youíre in love with him
ĎCause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Then I dig those rhythm and blues
Since McLean is representing rock Ďní roll music of the 1950s, the "him" in the lyrics is meant to be the music of the 1960s, which the teenagers of that era liked. However, McLean states that "he" likes rhythm and blues of the 1950s.

I was a lonely teenage broning buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I know I was out of luck
The day the music died
Here, McLean is lonely because 1950's music has been dominated by 1960's music, along with the movements of that era. Thatís why he was "out of luck". When the music of the 1950s died, McLean, representing the music, also died.  Then it is followed by the chorus explained previously.

Now for ten years weíve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But thatís not how it used to be
Lots of clues here. "For ten years..." refers to the period from 1959 to 1969 when 1950's music was simply forgotten and "on itís own". "Moss grows fat on a rolling stone" could refer to the English group The Rolling Stones, but I believe it refers to Bob Dylan. His monster hit "Like A Rolling Stone" made Dylan a lot of money but music of that time seemed to stagnate, thus, "moss grows fat" etc. Then, McLean says it wasnít always that way, "Thatís not how it used to be".

When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In a voice that came from you and me
Here McLean is talking about the jester, whom most people agree is Bob Dylan. Some people believe that the "king" here refers to Elvis Presley, but then whoíd be the queen? If you take all three lines together, Dylan performed for royalty in England wearing a leather jacket, reminiscent of a 1950's James Dean type character. McLean is saying that although 1960's music has "taken over", it is still borrowing heavily from the 1950s - "in a voice that came from you and me".

Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
no verdict was returned
Assuming here that the "king" is Elvis Presley, McLean complains that while Presley was "away" from his audiences doing those awful movies, Dylan "stole" his musical crown. "Courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned" means that although Presley was the king of 1950's music, no one really captured that title from him in the 1960s. The 1960's had many musical stars, but no one personal superstar who overrode all the others. (The Beatles were a group.)

Then while Lennon read a book of Marx
The quartet kept practice in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died, we were singing
Here, "quartet" refers to the Beatles, as does "Lennon". In this country, reading a book by Karl Marx would be radical and unheard of. The Beatles, by that time, had been doing radical things with their music, which was unheard of. Because of that, "we", those from the 1950s, sang in the dark. That is, we played our Ď50's records, but to ourselves as the teenagers of the day were wrapped up in the í60's music and movement. "Dirges" is funeral music, the music of the 1950's had died.

This is followed by the chorus explained previously.

Helter skelter, in the summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
They landed foul on the grass
McLean is lamenting that the music now (60's) had no direction, that the music was being affected by drugs ("grass") and that the music was turning "foul" (protest songs) because of the unrest, college demonstrations, and the war. Everything was "falling fast". The Byrds, by the way, were supposedly discovered by Bob Dylan.

The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance
Lots of info here. The "players" (artists of the 1960s) tried to change the music (go forward) but the jester (Bob Dylan) was still there (a part of the game but on the sidelines) but in a cast, obviously referring to the near fatal accident he had. Then, "The halftime air was sweet perfume" relates to the fact that "halfway" between 1959 and 1969 is 1964 which is when the Beatles (Sergeants) burst upon the scene with their new music (sweet perfume). While a marching tune is played, we all got up to dance, but couldnít. The "marching tune" is the Beatles music a few years later ("Sgt. Pepper") when it evolved to the point that you could not simply dance to it, the music had become more narrative than musical.

íCause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
the day the music died
The players (artists of the past) tried to take the field (become popular once again), but the marching band (The Beatles) refused to yield (They had become so popular, they overrode everyone else). Then McLean asks if you remember what was revealed when the music died (Do you realize what was lost when we traveled from the innocence of the 1950s into the turbulent í60's.)

This is followed by the chorus explained previously.
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space with no time left to start again
So come on jack be nimble Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candle stick
íCause fire is the devilís only friend
"All in one place" could refer to Woodstock although I rather doubt it. If you look ahead in the lyrics, I believe it refers to the December 6, 1969 concert at Altamont, California. Many of those attending were" lost in space" (on drugs). Jack Flash refers to the Rolling Stones, and in particular, Mick Jagger. He had been warned that his life was in danger there, thus, the motorcycle gang, the Hellís Angels, were hired as part of the security force. "No time left to start again" means that the í60's generation was now out of control and could never return to the good old days of the 1950's again.

Oh, as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell, could break that Satanís spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial right
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died, he was singing
As McLean (representing the happy 1950s) watched Mick Jagger on stage (in the '60's with the riots, war, drugs, etc.), he clinched his fists with rage at the changes that had taken place. As the concert went on (flames climbed higher into the night), McLean then saw "Satan laughing with delight" (because of the presence of the Hellís Angels, one of those attending the concert was stabbed to death). "He" (Satan) was laughing at all that was going on.

This is followed by the chorus explained previously.

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away.
The "girl" here is Janis Joplin, and McLean asks her if she has any "happy news", that is, will the music ever return to the simplicity of the '50's. She smiles and turns away. I think she is simply answering "no" to the question. Others believe that this means that Janis started singing the blues then "turned away" (or dies - from that overdose). I believe itís the former.

I went down to the sacred store
Where Iíd heard that music years before
But the man there said the music wouldnít play
McLean went to the music store to hear the music of the 1950's but the man in charge said he didnít have any of that music played "years before", no one was playing it anymore.

In the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
Not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
McLean refers to the street riots during that time of turmoil. The lovers cried because the U.S. was finally withdrawing from Viet Nam. No one "spoke" and church bells didnít ring upon our veteranís return simply because this was a war in which we basically did not win. Weíd rather forget about it.

And the three men I admired most
The father, son, and holy ghost
They caught the last train to the coast
The day the music died.
The trilogy referred to here is not exactly a religious one. McLean is speaking of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , three men who worked hard to bring about peace and understanding and all were murdered - thus, they caught the last train to the coast. Remember, Don McLean is talking about the American Pie, the 1950's era, not just about the music. So, with all that in mind, donít you agree that "American Pie" is somewhat of a protest song?

Reprinted from Rockiní 50s #20, copyright © 1989 by Bill Griggs