By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ is one of the most famous songs in the annals of rock music. McLean’s most popular song – when asked what the song meant, he famously said ‘it means I don’t have to work if I don’t want to’ – ‘American Pie’ has attracted numerous commentaries and interpretations.
The song’s lyrics are closely bound up with one of the best-known lines from the track, ‘the day the music died’. And yet the song is not, according to its creator, about the death of music at all.
How can this be? And what is the real meaning of ‘American Pie’? Let’s take a closer look at McLean’s enigmatic and suggestive lyrics.
‘American Pie’: background and context
Before ‘American pie’, or warm apple pie, became synonymous with a 1999 film in which the dessert takes on a less salubrious meaning, it was closely associated with the homely, domestic vision of the American family which dominated in the 1950s.
After the end of the Second World War, and whilst Britain was still enduring rationing and austerity, the United States flourished. The 1950s is America’s lost paradise, as many later cultural products attest, from Back to the Future (in which Marty McFly travels back from Reaganite 1985 to a happier, more optimistic America of 1955) to Happy Days and much else in between.
And so bidding farewell or ‘bye bye’ to ‘Miss American Pie’ is to acknowledge the passing of that confident, hopeful vision of America which flourished in the 1950s and paved the way for the self-confidence of the 1960s, with flower power, hippies, free love, and – of course – the continued deification of rock music and music stars.
McLean’s song, which was released in 1971, reflects on the decade or so following the untimely death of Buddy Holly in 1959. On 3 February 1959, Holly, along with fellow rock ‘n’ roll stars Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, died in a plane crash in Iowa. This became known as ‘the day the music died’, after a line from ‘American Pie’.
‘American Pie’: summary
The song begins with the singer delivering newspapers as a young boy on his paper round. The newspapers contain the tragic news about the deaths of Holly and his fellow rock ‘n’ rollers. The young McLean was strongly affected by this event, which he dubs ‘the day the music died’.
Whilst some of the lyrics that follow are frustratingly elliptical or gnomic (who wrote the Book of Love, and just who was dancing in the gym, and what relationship are they supposed to have had with the singer?), the general theme is the same: that day in February 1959, the ‘day the music died’, changed everything for the singer.
It changed his outlook on life, and on America. The levee (the embankment of a river) has run dry, suggesting a lack of fertility or growth. There’s a suggestion that we’re a few years on from the events of 1959: the singer is now a teenager dealing with the first disappointments attendant upon falling in love (presumably, then, the person dancing in the gym was a sweetheart who was being unfaithful to the singer).
This is yet another symptom of his disillusionment with life and with the hopeful dreams that Holly and those early pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll had given young Americans of his generation. The American dream is being exposed as a sham.
Throughout the lyrics that follow, McLean considers the ‘ten years’ (or so) since the death of Buddy Holly. The reference to moss growing fat on a rolling stone cleverly alludes to both the Rolling Stones and to the Bob Dylan song ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. (Dylan will later return as the ‘jester’ in a ‘cast’: almost certainly a reference to Dylan’s recovery from a motorcycle accident. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones is alluded to later in the song, as ‘Jack Flash’, a nod to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.)
Similarly, Lenin reading a Karl Marx book cleverly combines the Bolshevik leader of the Russian Revolution with John Lennon, who championed socialist causes; but as anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm will know, the October Revolution of 1917 was later betrayed by Stalin, making a mockery of the revolutionists’ ideals.
Lennon and The Beatles are also summoned through McLean’s use of the phrase ‘Helter skelter’, a riotous track from the Fab Four’s 1968 White Album. One fan of that track was Charles Manson, who thought the phrase ‘helter skelter’ was giving him a secret message; Manson would later lead his ‘family’ of followers to murder Sharon Tate and others in 1969, a shocking event that has itself become emblematic of the end of the 1960s’ optimistic ideals.
The sergeants playing a marching tune probably also alludes to the Beatles and their 1967 Summer of Love classic, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh point out in Behind the Song that the line can also be interpreted as a reference to the Vietnam was and the pro-war song ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler.
‘American Pie’: analysis
In their Behind the Song, Heatley and Leigh call ‘American Pie’ rock music’s equivalent to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, that landmark work of modernist poetry which has invited a number of different, and often contradictory, interpretations.
Both Eliot and McLean also famously refused to comment on the ‘true’ meaning or ‘real’ meaning of their best-known works. Eliot later said of The Waste Land that it was ‘just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’, and complained that one early critic of his poem had ‘over-understood’ it.
Are we in danger of similarly ‘over-understanding’ McLean’s ‘American Pie’: that is, of overinterpreting its lyrics and finding meanings within them which were not intended by the writer of the song?
And from that follows another question: if we do locate meaning within the song which McLean didn’t himself consciously intend, does that mean our interpretation is necessarily wrong? What if our interpretation gives the song meaning to us, albeit of a more private, personal kind?
This issue, of course, depends on whether you subscribe to an ‘intentionalist’ view of literary (or music) analysis or whether you follow Roland Barthes, who in an influential 1960s article argued for the ‘death of the author’, remarking that the real meaning of a literary (and musical, we might add?) work lies ‘not in its origin [the author, or songwriter] but in its destination [the reader, or listener]’.
However, even though McLean has gone so far as to say that ‘American Pie’ is not about the death of music as a cultural force, it may well be a song about the death of one particular kind of music: rock ‘n’ roll. Another well-known line from the song, ‘this’ll be the day that I die’, is an obvious allusion to Buddy Holly’s own ‘That’ll Be the Day’, whose chorus culminates with the words ‘that’ll be the day that I die’. The dream of rock ‘n’ roll was buried with Buddy Holly.
McLean, a folk singer whose music inspired the writing of another 1970s classic, ‘Killing Me Softly’, is reflecting on the end of the high point of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural force. But ‘American Pie’ is bigger than that. This eight-minute epic of a song is also about the decline of mid-century America and the confidence the nation had had in the 1950s and 1960s.