[24hoursupport] Re: Testing Message 2

  • From: "Ron Allen" <chizotz@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: 24hoursupport@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 18 Apr 2002 21:45:05 -0500

Testing. Please ignore.

Don McLean's "American Pie", a Line-By-Line Analysis

Drawn from "The Annotated American Pie", a compilation of Usenet posts on
the subject since 1983, posted by Rich Kulawiec. None of the material here
is original to me, and I make no claim to it. This is being passed on
mainly because I like the song and find this analysis fascinating.

The format of this posting is in the form of the lyrics to the song
beginning with a bracket ([) followed by blocks of text decribing what the
lyrics may be (in many cases almost certainly are) referring to. It should
be noted that Don McLean refuses to confirm or deny any of the speculation
about the meaning of specific lyrics of "American Pie".

The entire song is a tribute to Buddy Holly and a commentary on how Rock
and Roll changed in the years since his death. It seems to be a lament
about the move away from "danceable" music in Rock and Roll and attributes
that move to the absence of Holly's influence.

---- begin analysis ----

     [A long, long time ago

American Pie reached #1 in the US in 1972. Buddy Holly died in 1959.

     [I can still remember how
     [That music used to make me smile
     [And I knew that if I had my chance
     [That I could make those people dance
     [And maybe they'd be happy for awhile

One of Rock and Roll's early functions was to provide dance music for
various social events. McLean recalls his desire to become a musician
playing that kind of music.

     [But February made me shiver

Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959, in a plane crash in Iowa during a
snow storm.

     [With every paper I'd deliver

Don McLean's only job other than professional singer-songwriter was being a

     [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, and she had a
miscarriage shortly thereafter.

     [But something touched me deep inside
     [The day the music died

The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also killed 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

     [So bye bye Miss American Pie

The plane that crashed was named "American Pie".

     [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 of which contains
the line "That'll be the day <pause> that I die".

     [Did you write the book of love

"The Book of Love", a hit by the Monotones in 1958

     [And do you have faith in God above
     [If the Bible tells you so

"The Bible Tells Me So", song by Don Cornell, 1955 Could also be a
reference to the Sunday School song which goes, "Jesus loves me this I
know, for the Bible tells me so". However...

Don McLean is a deeply religious person, this much is acknowledged fact.
Throughout this song there are religious references, as wells as references
to music, Rock and Roll in particular, being something of a God-figure or

     [Now do you believe in Rock and Roll?

The Lovin' Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John Sebastian's "Do You Believe
in Magic". The song has the line, "Do you believe in magic/it's like trying
to tell a stranger about 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 throughout the 60's as things such as psychedelia
and the ten-minute guitar solo gained prominence.

     [Well I know that you're in love with him
     ['Cause I saw you dancing in the gym

In the early days of Rock and Roll, dancing was an expression of love and
carried a connotation of committment. Dance partners were not as readily
exchanged as they would be later.

     [You both kicked off your shoes

A reference to the "sock hop", typically a school dance event held in the
gymnasium. Sneakers were not the fashion staple they are today, and the
street shoes of the day would mar and damage the gymnasium floor. Dancers
had to take off their shoes and dance in their socks to prevent such

     [Man I dig those Rhythm 'n Blues

A little history: before the popularity of Rock and Roll, music, like most
everything in the US, was highly segregated. The popular music of black
performers for largely black audiences was called, first, "race music"
which was later softened to Rhythm and Blues. In the early 50's, as they
were exposed to it through radio personalities such as Allan Freed, white
teenagers began listening too. Starting about 1954, a number of songs from
the Rythm and Blues charts began appearing on the overall popular charts as
well, usually in cover versions by established white artists (Examples:
"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
McGuire Sisters; "Tweedle Dee", LaVerne Baker covered by Georgia Gibbs). By
1955, some of the Rythm 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 that produced Buddy Holly.

     [I was a lonely teenaged broncin' buck
     [With a pink carnation and a pickup truck

"A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)", Marty Robbins, 1957

     [But I knew that I was out of luck
     [The day the music died
     [I started singin'

     [Now for ten years we've been on our own

McLean was writing "American Pie" in the late 60's, 10 years after the
plane crash.

     [And moss grows fat on a rolling stone

It's unclear who the "rolling stone" is. It is most likely a reference to
Bob Dylan. "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965 was Dylan's first major hit.

This could also refer to the stagnation of Rock and Roll in general, or
possibly to the changes in the music business in general and in Rock and
Rollers, especially with regards to the huge amounts of money some of them
were beginning to make at the time.

     [But that's not how it used to be
     [When the jester sang for the King and Queen

The jester is Bob Dylan, as becomes more clear later on. This is most
likely a reference to the Kennedys, the King and Queen of "Camelot", who
were present at a civil rights rally in Washington DC with Martin Luther
King. Bob Dylan performed at this rally.

It's been suggested that the King is Elvis, which seems obvious, but then
who is the Queen? Speculation has been made that it could be Connie Francis
or Little Richard. However, the Kennedy explanation makes much more sense.

     [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. On the cover of "The
Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Dylan is wearing just such a red windbreaker and
is posed in a street scene similar to one seen in a well-known picture of
James Dean.

     [And a voice that came from you and me

Bob Dylan's roots are in American Folk music. Folk music is, by definition,
the music of the masses... hence coming "from you and me".

     [Oh and while the King was looking down
     [The jester stole his thorny crown

Now the King seems to refer to Elvis, whose career was in decline while
Dylan's was ascending. The thorny crown could be the price of fame. Dylan
had said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of his early idols.

     [The courtroom was adjourned
     [No verdict was returned

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.

     [The quartet practiced in the park

The Beatles 1964 Candlestick Park concert lasted only 35 minutes, hence
they were only practicing.

     [And we sang dirges in the dark

A dirge is a funeral or mourning song, so this likely directly lamenting
the death of Holly's style of Rock and Roll.

     [The day the music died
     [We were singing...

     [Helter Skelter in summer swelter

"Helter Skelter" is a Beatles song that appears on the "white" album, made
infamous by Charles Manson who claimed that God and/or the devil was
speaking to him through that song, causing him to lead his followers in the
Tate-LoBianco murders.

"Summer swelter" likely is a reference to "the long hot summer" of Watts.

     [The birds flew off to the fallout shelter
     [Eight miles high and falling fast

The Byrds "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 possession of marijuana.

     [The players tried for a forward pass

A football metaphor, obviously, but about what? Could refer to The Rolling
Stones trying for an opening that didn't really happen until The Beatles
broke up.

     [With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

On July 29, 1966, Bob Dylan crashed his Triumph 55 motorcycle while riding
near his home in Woodstock, NY. 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

The Beatles again, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". The sergeants
are, of course, The Beatles, and their music called a marching tune since
it's not music for dancing.

     [We all got up to dance
     [But we never got the chance

Again, there was no music to dance to.

     ['Cause the players tried to take the field
     [The marching band refused to yield

This refers to the dominance of The Beatles on the Rock and Roll scene. For
example, The Beach Boys released "Pet Sounds" in 1966, an album which
featured some of the same sort of studio and electronic experimentation as
"Sgt. Peppers", but the album sold poorly because the Beatles release got
most of the press. The dominance of The Beatles in the Rock world led to
more "pop art" music and a dearth of traditional Rock and Roll.

     [Do you recall what was revealed
     [The day the music died
     [We started singing

     [And there we were all in one place


     [A generation lost in space

The "hippies" were also frequently called "the lost generation". A common
term for being under the influence of drugs was "spaced out". 

     [With no time left to start again

"The lost generation's" 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
     [Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
     ['Cause fire is the devils only friend

It's possible that "Jack" is Jack Kennedy. The previous four lines could
refer to the Cuban missile crisis, with the "candlestick" representing
ICBMs and nuclear war.

However, it's also possible that "Jack" is Mick Jagger of The Rolling
Stones. The Stones released "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in May, 1968, and did hold
a concert at Candlestick Park. This would also make sense as a prelude to
the next four lines.

     [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 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 that song from their show for the
next six years.

The last seven lines could, as a whole, be commenting on how The Rolling
Stones put the final spadeful of dirt on the grave of Holly's Rock and

     [And as the flames climbed high into the night
     [To light the sacrificial rite

This could be referring to Jimi Hendrix burning his Stratocaster at the
Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix' drug-related death could be the
"sacrificial rite", i.e. that drugs were the rite of passage for "the lost
generation" and they sacrificed not only Holly's kind of music in the
process but also, frequently, their lives.

     [I saw Satan laughing with delight
     [The day the music died
     [He was singing...

     [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

Joplin died of a drug overdose on October 4, 1970. This follows logically
from the previous verse.

     [I went down to the sacred store
     [Where I'd heard the music years before

The sacred store likely means the record store. Early in the song, McLean
asks "Can music save your mortal soul?", thus record stores would be sacred
places. In Holly's time, it was standard practice for record stores to
allow customers to preview records in the store.

     [But the man there said the music wouldn't play

Two meanings: First, that no one was listening to Holly's music anymore and
that kind of Rock and Roll was unavailable at the record stores. Second, by
the time "American Pie" was being written, record stores had discontinued
the practice of previewing records in the store (music previews in the
store has since resurfaced).

     [And in the streets the children screamed

The many protests of the 60's and the "flower children" being beaten by the
police and National Guard troops.

     [The lovers cried and the poets dreamed

The trend towards psychedelia and away from Holly's style of music.

     [But not a word was spoken
     [The church bells were all broken

This refers to the dead musicians; like broken bells, they can't produce
any more music.

     [And the three men I admire most
     [The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens.

     [They caught the last train for the coast
     [The day the music died

Obviously, this means that on "the day the music died", Holly/Bopper/Valens
left the scene.

     [And they were singing...
     [(refrain x2)

---- end analysis ----

Some further 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, "Chantilly Lace". There was
a fourth person who was going to ride the plane. The fourth person lost --
or perhaps won would be more appropriate -- a coin toss with Richardson to
see who would get to fly to the next destination and who would have to use
other transportation. That fourth person was 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 "Rebel Without A Cause", 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. Dean's impact on American youth culture at the
time was similar to Dylon's. Both were a symbol for the youth of their
time, a reminder that they had something to say and that they demanded to
be listened to.

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