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From: [email protected] (Rich Kulawiec)
Subject: The Annotated "American Pie"
Date: 3 Jan 93 21:13:38 GMT
Reply-To: [email protected]
Organization: Go Big or Go Home
Lines: 749

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.

Credits, in rough chronological order:
[email protected]
[email protected]

[email protected] (Ihor W. Slabicky)
[email protected] (Stephen Hull)
[email protected] (Dan O'Neill)
[email protected] (Sharon McBroom)
[email protected] (Martin Terman)
[email protected] (Rich Kulawiec)
[email protected] (Tim Kennedy)
[email protected] (Rick Schubert)
[email protected] (Paul Maclauchlan)
[email protected] (Ronald van Loon)
[email protected] (Colleen Wirth)
[email protected] (Taed Nelson)
[email protected] (Barry Schlesinger)
[email protected] (Tom Sullivan)
[email protected] (Howard Edwards)
[email protected] (Gerry Myerson)
[email protected]
[email protected] (Dave Hayes)
[email protected] (Robert L. Williams)
[email protected] (Elizabeth Gilliam)
[email protected] (Chris Sullivan)
[email protected] (David T. Pilkey)
Dan Stanley at Fitchburg State College (courtesy of
Timothy J. Stanley, [email protected])
[email protected] (Lynn Gold)
[email protected] (Andrew J. Whitman)

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 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.

---Rsk 1/3/93

Revision history:

1/20/92 Constructed from various old postings
1/27/92 Added comments from Usenetters on first draft
2/3/92 More comments folded in; reposted today, the
anniversary of The Day the Music Died
8/18/92 Added comments generated by the Februrary posting.
1/3/93 Caught up on lots of updates that have been languishing
in my inbound mail queue for months.


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 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 so"

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 marijuana.

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'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

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/ 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. 😉


Billboard Book of Number One Hits, by Fred Bronson, Billboard, 1985.

Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, revised edition, by Irwin Stambler,
St. Martin's Press, 1989.

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
House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.

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
Harold Hayes, Esquire Press, 1987.

It was Twenty Years ago Today: An Anniversary Celebration of 1967, by
Derek Taylor, Fireside, 1987.