“American Pie” is an eight-and-a-half minute epic, written in symbolic language that caused everyone to wonder who were these people – the Jester, the King and Queen, Jack Flash and the others. It was a great tune and all, but what did it mean?
“American Pie” became an instant hit upon its release in 1971, and stayed at number one on the chart for four weeks. It sold 3 million copies, and was named by the Songs of the Century education project as the number five song of the twentieth century. But what did it mean?
If you’re seriously interested, let me recommend the Web site Understanding American Pie. Author Jim Fann gives this general impression, though the song is dissected in great detail on the site:
“Coming as it did near the end of this turbulent era, American Pie seemed to be speaking to the precarious position we found ourselves in, as the grand social experiments of the 1960s began collapsing under the weight of their own unrealized utopian dreams, while the quieter, hopeful world we grew up in receded into memory. And as 1970 came to a close and the world this generation had envisioned no longer seemed viable, a sense of disillusion and loss fell over us; we weren’t the people we once were. But we couldn’t go home again either, having challenged the assumptions of that older order. The black and white days were over.
“Bye bye, Miss American Pie.”
But what does the songwriter himself say? Don McLean has only acknowledged that “The day the music died” refers to the death of rock legend Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash. Beyond that, he refused to explain. McLean explained to the Web site The Straight Dope:
“As you can imagine, over the years I have been asked many times to discuss and explain my song “American Pie.” I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of bringing about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur…You will find many “interpretations” of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn’t this fun?
“Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.” –Don McLean, Castine, Maine