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40 Years Later, Fans Still Slice Up Don McLean's 'American Pie'

There are still mysteries, but we think we've got some of this figured out. Do you agree?

A long, long time ago ...

"'American Pie' is a dream," Don McLean said recently. "In a dream, you know, a loaf of bread will become a beautiful girl, and it makes sense." In other words, even the guy who wrote the most dissected, analyzed and argued-over song of the past 40 years doesn't have a clue what some of its rich cultural and political imagery means. And that makes us feel a whole lot better about taking a shot at getting under the crust of "American Pie."

Album cover

But February made me shiver / With every paper I'd deliver

When he first performed “American Pie” in 1972, Don McLean crystalized for an entire generation the shock of the air crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. For all time, Feb. 3, 1959, became The Day the Music Died.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I can’t remember if I cried / When I read about his widowed bride

Buddy Holly had married his sweetheart Maria Elena just six months before the crash. She was pregnant, and miscarried soon after Holly died. To this day, she has never visited Buddy's gravesite. 



Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Miss American Pie

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee / But the levee was dry / Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye

"Miss American Pie" may be Dinah Shore, the 1950s star who sang "See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet." McLean may also be referencing a bar called The Levee in his hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y. (When it closed down, the story goes, patrons headed up the road to drink their "whiskey in Rye"). The song those boys were singing echoes Buddy Holly’s hit "That’ll Be the Day." McLean is saying "bye-bye" to the carefree '50s as they give way to the turbulent '60s.

Courtesy of Chevrolet

Did you write the book of love?

One of the biggest hits of 1958 was "Book of Love," by the Monotones — one of the quirkier songs of the era ("I wonder wonder who-mba-doo who? (thump) Who wrote the book of love?"). When it came to sock-hop rock 'n' roll innocence, the song had few peers. 

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Do you believe in rock 'n' roll?

Do you have faith in God above / if the Bible tells you so? / Do you believe in rock 'n' roll? / Can music save your mortal soul? 

From Elvis's gyrations on The Ed Sullivan Show to John Lennon's observation that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, rock and America's conservative churches were often on a collision course. For fans, that made it more fun.

Hal Mathewson/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Dick Clark didn't seem to mind on American Bandstand, but the line carries a fond resonance for all who remember an overzealous high school dance chaperone pushing them to a "safe distance" from their partner.

ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

With a pink carnation and a pickup truck

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck / with a pink carnation and a pickup truck

It’s hard to imagine the line isn’t inspired by Marty Robbins’ 1957 hit "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)" — a mournful teenage song about a guy with a broken heart on prom night.  

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A coat he borrowed from James Dean

When the jester sang for the king and queen / In a coat he borrowed from James Dean / and a voice that came from you and me 

Scowling, serious and rebellious, young Bob Dylan assumed the role of popular culture's angry young man — of which Dean was the 1950s prototype.  As for that "coat he borrowed," the jacket Dylan wears on the cover of his Freewheelin’ does echo the one Dean had in Rebel Without a Cause.

Toronto Star/Zuma Press/Corbis

While the king was looking down / the jester stole his thorny crown

Poor Elvis Presley (the King); he was out in Hollywood making bad movies and generally averting his gaze from reality while the whole music world — led by the social consciousness-raising Dylan — virtually forgot him.

Everett Collection

Lenin read a book on Marx

The leftist leanings of John Lennon (Lenin, get it?) fed the social content of the Beatle's songs. But some suspect the lyric also refers to Lennon's dry, sarcastic sense of humor, reminiscent of that other Marx, the one named Groucho.

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

Helter skelter in a summer swelter

The easy answer: This is an allusion to Charles Manson's California killing spree in August 1969 — Manson claimed to have been inspired, in part, by the Beatles' "Helter Skelter." 

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Eight miles high

The birds flew off with a fallout shelter / Eight miles high and falling fast

This has to be about The Byrds, whose 1966 song "Eight Miles High" got banned from radio because its lyrics could be construed to be about drug use. The band denied it (We’re shocked … shocked!), but years later they admitted, well, yeah, you know …

Byrds 45 rpm disk

The jester on the sidelines in a cast

The players tried for a forward pass / With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Everyone's pretty happy with the notion that the jester is again Dylan, who had to quit performing for two years after a 1966 motorcycle accident nearly killed him.

Douglas R. Gilbert/Redferns/Getty Images

The halftime air was sweet perfume

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume / While the sergeants played a marching tune / We all got up to dance / Oh, but we never got the chance 

The pot-infused ("sweet perfume") sound of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band heralded the era of the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow and Iron Butterfly's In A Gadda Da Vida.  You know; music that's less for dancing and more for sitting around trying to remember where the door is.  McLean, a die-hard lover of old-time rock 'n' roll, is mourning its replacement by the new psychedelia.

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

The marching band refused to yield

The players tried to take the field / the marching band refused to yield

Three pretty good suggestions for this one:

A) The "players" are the demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago being evicted from Grant Park by police ("the marching band").

B) The "marching band" is the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles and their ilk, dominating the world's music with their complex, recording studio-based sound.

C) A little bit of both.

Lee Balterman//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

No angel born in Hell

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

One of the few no-way-to-get-it-wrong allusions in "American Pie" is this reference to Mick Jagger (Jack Flash) and the Rolling Stones' performance at the Altamont concert on July 20, 1969. The Stones hired Hell's Angels to keep the massive crowd in line. The result: A man named Meredith Hunter was beaten to death by the Angels, and his body was dragged onstage. The last song Hunter ever heard was the Stones singing "Sympathy for the Devil." The event incinerated the last shred of innocence of 1960s rock 'n' roll. 

Robert Altman/Retna

I met a girl who sang the blues

I met a girl who sang the blues / And I asked her for some happy news / But she just smiled and turned away 

The raspy, bluesy style of Janis Joplin was a throwback to rock's roots. With her death of a drug overdose at 27 in 1970, she "turned away" — and the "happy news" of rock's rebirth went with her.

Elliot Landy/Redferns/Getty Images

The Father, Son and Holy Ghost

The three men I admire most / the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost / They caught the last train for the coast 

Maybe the most puzzling line in the whole song — especially since it’s basically the last. Is this a reference back to the trio of rock greats who died in the 1959 plane crash? Is it about JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King? Or is McLean suggesting his sense of abandonment by God Himself? The most intriguing notion is that McLean is writing about John "Trane" Coltrane, whose 1965 album track, "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" marked the jazz great's complete transition from melodic to atonal, avante-garde music. 

JP Jazz/Redferns/Getty Images

Bye-Bye

Don McLean thought this 1975 concert in London would be among his last. Instead, he's launching a 40th anniversary tour this fall. Like all good poetry, "American Pie" is every bit as open to the interpretation of the listener's heart as it is to the author's. What do YOU think?

Anwar Hussein/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Quiz

Can you Name a Katy Perry Song or Two?

You may know all the lyrics to American Pie, but can you sing along to any of today's Top 40 hits? See how hip you are to today's music scene by taking our Pop Music Quiz. 

around the
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Dish Up More 'American Pie'

Does this music make you smile (or cry)? Let's hear your thoughts and unique insights on the American Pie community message board. Also, right now our favorite version of the song is one that got the whole town of Grand Rapids, Mich., singing and dancing. They call it the Grand Rapids LipDub, and you can find it on YouTube.

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