Reflection on “American Pie” by Don McLean on the occasion of his 50th birthday


She is celebrating her 50th birthday today. Miss American Pie, of course.

And on this date, we mark the golden anniversary when the pop song “American Pie” hit the music charts on November 27, 1971, ranking No. 69 on the Billboard charts.

On January 15, the epic song written and sung by Don McLean began a four-week stint as the nation’s number one hit and remained on the charts for a total of 19 weeks.

When you hear it on the radio, it probably brings up memories of when you first heard it. The enigmatic lyrics have been the subject of much curiosity and discussion since they first appeared on the air; the longest song – 8 minutes, 42 seconds – to ever reach number 1.

During a 35-year career in education, mostly as an English teacher, I have had to help decipher the lyrics to the song with hundreds of students. Many still tell me to this day that they think of my class every time they hear the song on the radio.

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For years, McLean avoided requests for lyrics explanation, which cleverly mixes musical history with national events dating back to the Eisenhower era and through the turbulent 1960s.

When asked once what American Pie meant, McLean joked, “It means I never have to work again if I don’t want to.”

While noting that other people have performed his lyrics, he added, “Long ago, I realized that songwriters need to make their statements and move forward, maintaining a dignified silence.”

So if you can find a copy of the song’s lyrics, dig them up and let me try to shed some light on the rock’n’roll epic, stanza by stanza …

What is the meaning of the song American Pie?

The biggest clue to McLean’s inspiration came from a line on the back of the album that read “Dedicated to Buddy Holly,” in homage to the pioneering rocker killed in a plane crash in 1959.

Through the lyrics of the song, the tragedy – which also claimed the lives of other rock’n’roll stars Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” – became known as “The Day the Music is dead”.

As each stanza ends with this phrase, it not only mourns the death of rock stars, but symbolizes the loss of innocence and memories of the happier times of McLean’s youth.

In the song’s opening, McLean longs for the opportunity to “make these people dance” through his own music. He remembers his youth delivering papers when he found “bad news on the doorstep” one day in February, unable to remember whether he cried over a widowed wife.

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Obviously, these lyrics refer directly to Buddy Holly’s plane crash on February 3, 1959 and the fact that Holly left a bride only six months old when he was killed.

In the next verse, this “lonely young teenager” gets kicked out of the ball and drives his Chevrolet to the dole while the “good old boys” drink whiskey and rye and sing, “This will be the day I die. . “

It should be noted that Holly’s first hit with her band, The Crickets, was “That’ll Be the Day”.

The song also sprinkles nicely with some of the rock hits of the 50s and early 60s: “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation),” Lonely Teenager “and” Book of Love “.

The images come out of the next set of lyrics, featuring the King (Elvis Presley), Queen (possibly Connie Francis) and the jester (Bob Dylan), who wore a coat reminiscent of James Dean in his album, “The Freewheelin ‘ Bob Dylan, and sang in a “voice that came from you and me”.

Although the jester (Dylan) never literally took the crown from the king (Elvis), by the early 1960s folk music became more popular commercially than the oldies of the 1950s.

The quartet performing in the park were the Beatles who actually performed in a park – the Shea Stadium for one of the biggest concerts of the decade. Lenin reading a book on Marx is a reference to John Lennon and his positions on religion and politics.

References to the Beatles continue with the line “Helter Skelter in the summer swelter”, which is not only one of their song titles, but also gives insight into the Manson murders. Or maybe it could be related to the mounting hostilities in Vietnam, or the race riots in the downtown area in the United States.

“Eight Miles High” was another song title from The Byrds, allegedly one of the first drug-related tunes of the time. As the players (the Beatles and their popularity) attempted a forward pass, the jester was sidelined in a cast, noting Dylan’s near-fatal motorcycle crash in 1966.

The sweet scent at halftime is likely a reference to marijuana, “while the sergeants played a marching tune,” another nod to the Beatles who developed a new character as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band for their new album. And the mystery of “what was revealed” may relate to the hoax that Paul McCartney was dead, sparking crazy rumors in 1969.

As the song progresses, “We were all in one place, a generation lost in space.” Did that mean the crowds that attended Woodstock got lost in a drug haze, or maybe they got lost in space with the focus on man’s first moon landing? the same summer of 1969?

The lyrics that start out as a nursery rhyme, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sitting on a chandelier” actually refers to the Rolling Stones song “Jumpin ‘Jack Flash”. The Devil or Satan would be the symbol of Mick Jagger, of the Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil” and of their album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, probably a center of mockery of McLean.

“No angel born in hell could break this spell of Satan,” is a reference to the Rolling Stones’ attempt to run their own Woodstock and Altamont Speedway in California which turned into a tragedy. The Stones hired the notorious Hell’s Angels to provide security for the concert and ended up beating several of the spectators, killing one.

In the melancholy final stanza, McLean “met a girl who sang the blues … The” sacred store “is the record stores of the past that did not play the same tunes from her childhood.

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“And in the streets the children shouted,” a reference to the campus protests which turned violent, in particular the Kent State massacre. “The church bells were all broken,” probably spoke of a younger generation turning away from the church.

The “three men I admire the most” who “took the last train to the coast” could have been the rock’n’roll trio Holly, Valens, Big Bopper, or maybe it was another triumvirate that was a victim of assassinations in the 1960s: Kennedy, King, Kennedy.

And although the music was never really dead, it has changed.

Life has changed. But the world goes on.

And one of the most prolific songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era tells the story of music, culture, history, and days gone by better than any composition before or since.

Comments and suggestions for The Gardner Scene can be sent to Mike Richard at [email protected] or in writing to Mike Richard, 92 Boardley Road, Sandwich, MA 02563.


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