In the autumn of 1971 Don McLean’s elegiac American Pie entered the collective consciousness, and over thirty years later remains one of the most discussed, dissected and debated songs that popular music has ever produced. A cultural event at the peak of its popularity in 1972, it reached the top of the Billboard 100 charts in a matter of weeks, selling more than 3 million copies. By identifying this great success it illustrates that it was no ordinary song. With its boldness, originality and it being thematically ambitious created uncertainty.
Presenting the idea that we weren’t entirely sure what the song was about, provoking endless debates over its epic cast of characters. But however open to interpretation the lyrics may have been, the song’s emotional resonance was unmistakable: McLean was clearly relating a defining moment in the American experience—something had been lost. Opening with the death of singer Buddy Holly and ending near the tragic concert at Altamont Motor Speedway, we are able to frame the span of years the song is covering—1959 to 1970—as the “10 years we’ve been on our own” of the third verse.
It is across this decade that the American cultural landscape changed radically, passing from the relative optimism and conformity of the 1950s and early 1960s to the rejection of these values by the various political and social movements of the mid and late 1960s. American Pie appears to chronicle the course of rock ‘n’ roll, it is not, as is sometimes suggested, a mere catalogue of musical events.
In using the cast of rock ‘n’ roll players from the 1960s and setting them against the backdrop of Buddy Holly’s death, they become polarized—metaphors for the clash of values occurring in America at this time: Holly as the symbol of the happier innocence of the fifties, the rest as symbolic of the sixties growing unrest and fragmentation. And as each verse sums up chronological periods in time—the late 1950s, 1963-66, 1966-68, 1969, 1970—another blow against the happier innocence of another era is registered: another day the music dies.
Verse 1 of American Pie looks back from the early seventies and introduces the catalyst for the story about to unfold. “A long long time ago I can still remember how the music used to make me smile”. The narrator here is nostalgic for a simpler and more optimistic kind of music—a music that can make people smile, and that could help them forget their troubles—and a music that very much represents the happier optimism of the 1950s in America. “But February made me shiver”, he also identifies Buddy Holly by the month in which he dies. Holly’s passing had a profound effect on him, which is displayed throughout the song. The day the music died” this reflects and supports the idea that the day the music died becomes the day the innocence and optimism within America died The chorus is the primary key in understanding American Pie as the theme of America’s lost innocence is clearly stated. “So bye bye Miss American pie” Miss American Pie”* is “as American as apple pie,” so the saying goes; she could also be a synthesis of this symbol and the beauty queen Miss America. Either way, her name evokes a simpler time in American life when these icons held more meaning.
She is the America of a passing era, and he is bidding her farewell. “Drove my Chevy to the levee” alludes to a drive “along a levee” mentioned in a series of popular 1950s Chevrolet television commercials sung by Dinah Shore and which serves as a signpost to that era—just as the Chevrolet itself is a familiar icon of 1950s America. Also, given that a drive to a levee carries the suggestion of romance in a car, we can almost see him on a date here. But the date is over, the levee is dry—someone he once loved has betrayed him; something that once gave him sustenance has evaporated. This’ll be the day that I die” is a rewording of the line “cause that’ll be the day when I die” from the chorus of Holly’s hit that’ll be the day.
This signifies McLean’s way of both mourning the death of that music and way of life, and pointing to Holly as his symbol of it. Verse 2 erupts with the idea that the narrator reaches little further back in time to the days of his youth, the late 1950s—a time of sock hops, pickup trucks and pink carnations—as he courts a woman who ultimately spurns him. This is a fickle lady here, and the narrator questions her loyalties. And can you teach me how to dance real slow? ” This is a romantic dance. He is courting her. The slow dance itself is yet another reference to the fifties and the kind of dancing that went out of fashion in the following decade; it also alludes to the slower pace of life in America at this time. This verse helps us to further identity Miss American Pie, whose brief introduction in the chorus needed this additional exposition; and which, along with verse 1 and the chorus, also serves to establish the 1950s as the reference point for the rest of the song.
In so doing, McLean characterizes the period primarily through its musical symbol (Holly), using him and the music (“those rhythm and blues”) as a metaphor for the innocence of the times, and a sacred thing. The “day the music died” now takes on the significance of a lost faith in the values of a passing era and the sorrow the narrator feels at their passing: blow number two. Having personified America as a woman, “Bye bye Miss American Pie” now more clearly becomes a farewell to the America he once knew.