"Bye bye Miss American Pie..."


I did not write this. I stole this from a Geocities bootleg copy in fear that it disappears.

This particularly enigmatic song has been discussed at least once a year
since Usenet had a newsgroup for discussing music.  These discussions
frequently repeat themselves, but occasionally introduce new information
and new interpretations.  Having tired of watching the same process repeat
itself for ten years, I've created this, the annotated "American Pie".

This posting consists of: the lyrics to the song (left-justified) with
comments (indented); the chords, for those who'd like to tackle it;
some miscellaneous notes; and references.  Comments are most welcome;
comments backed up with references are *very* welcome.  I have attempted
to note where the interpretation is questionable.

The roots of this posting are in the "Great American Pie" Usenet discussion
of 1983; much of it comes from wombat's (the original wombat, not me)
posting in net.music on June 16, 1985.  As Robert Williams has pointed
out to me, the entire song can be viewed as one big projective test, so
interpretations vary quite a bit.  I've tried to be inclusive while
also indicating which ones I buy into and which I don't; your mileage
may vary.

AMERICAN PIE by 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 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 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. (unconfirmed)

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 
                        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 

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/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 prominence.

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 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.

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.

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 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).  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 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. (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 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 reminiscint of Groucho.)

The quartet practiced in the park

                        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 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 

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.

While sergeants played a marching tune

                        Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band".

                        Or, perhaps McLean refers to the Beatles' music
                        as "marching" because it's not music for dancing.

                        Alternatively, the "marching tune" could refer
                        to the draft.  (See below)

We all got up to dance
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.

                        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",
                        but the album sold poorly because the Beatles'
                        release got most of the press.

                        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 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


(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?

'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 they may refer to Jack Kennedy
                        and his quick decisions during the Cubam 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 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".

                        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
                                This could be a reference to Jimi Hendrix
                                burning his Stratocaster at the Monterey
                                Pop Festival.

                                It's possible that this refers to the burial
                                of Kennedy, but I'm not sure I buy this.
                                For one thing, it doesn't fit chronologically,
                                and for another, McLean seems more interested
                                in music than politics.

I saw satan laughing with delight
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 East,
                        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.
                        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.

And in the streets the children screamed

                        "Flower children" being beaten by police
                        and National Guard troops?

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: neither can 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, perhaps this is a reference to the famous
                        "God is Dead" headline in the New York Times.

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 McLean.

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.

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, and other melodramatic but
thoroughly enjoyable stuff like that.  The week after the movie came
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 rec.music.folk)
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/et.al. 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 would have
created an amalgam of Dylan songs and Beatle arrangements.

Lynn Gold tells me that  "Life" magazine carried an annotated version
of American Pie when the song came out; does anybody have a copy?

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 what
was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and was later found by
the lonely, teenaged McLean as he wandered drunkenly on the levee.

Of course, such a view poses problems.  McLean vehemently denies any
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, Andrew.  I'll take it under advisement. ;-)


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Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, by Irwin Stambler,
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Rock Chronicle, by Dan Formento, Delilah/Putnam, 1982.

Rock Day by Day, by Steve Smith and the Diagram Group, Guiness Books, 1987.

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
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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  
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