What does that song mean?

The Truth about “American Pie”

Posted Feb 13th 2011, 06:51

Don McLean struck gold when he wrote and sang “American Pie,” often called his legacy and a lasting contribution to the mythos of Americana. Since its creation and distribution, the song has entered into a field of misinterpretations that tag it as a thinly veiled reference to the female anatomy, or as a general remonstration about sixties-era counterculture, or as a swipe at nefarious political forces – something largely dependent on the eye of the beholder.

What many fail to understand is McLean’s vow of silence on the actual meaning of the song, the inspiration for which he attributes only to the untimely death of Buddy Holly. Lyric Interpretations proudly goes where many have gone before and offers its own much-awaited analysis on the actual meaning behind “American Pie.”

Let’s start with the first stanza, and go from there.

A long, long time ago

Naturally, McLean means the sixties, right? He wrote “American Pie” during that era, after all.

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 awhile
But, February made me shiver with every paper I’d deliver

This is where many armchair song interpreters claim that McLean is offering his remonstrations about his idol – the great Buddy Holly. In one interview to a reporter, McLean stated that inspiration for the song began when he opened a newspaper with a headline announcing Holly’s untimely demise.

I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside the day the music died

So clearly, we have an answer to the riddle wrapped inside an enigma: “American Pie” is McLean’s way of mourning the deceased American music legend. Right?

So, bye, bye, Miss American Pie

Wait, what?

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing…
This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The most celebrated and famous lyrics in “American Pie” are also the most enigmatic and subject to widely careening degrees of interpretation. No one knows what McLean means by the inclusion of such an important piece of Americana.

Did you write the Book of Love and do you have faith in God, above?
If the Bible tells you so
Now, do you believe in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul? And…
Can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you’re in love with him, because I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes – man, I dig those rhythms and blues
I was a lonely, teenage broncin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck, but..
I knew I was out of luck the day the music died.

The only way to interpret the remainder of the song seems to pivot on an understanding of McLean’s biographical history – which most of us don’t know by heart. The longer he mourns his idol, the more it seems that this is a story about Don McLean, not Buddy Holly.

More American Pie song meanings


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