Coll Writes

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642 Things to Write About Challenge: Week 48

Written By: Colleen - Dec• 02•13

I have wanted to do this topic since I first looked through this book way back in December 2012.  In high school and in college, I wrote about this song.  My dad played it for my sisters and I when we were younger and we couldn’t get enough of it.  I’ve always been fascinated by songs that cleverly sneak in history at the same time and this is no exception.  It’s the original “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and one of my favorite songs of all-time.  Plus, it kills 8-and-a-half minutes.  You could listen to it five times and be done with a run, all while trying to figure out every minute reference.  Doesn’t get much better than that.

Don McLean – American Pie – Right click to download.

“Write about a song.” 

Most people know that Don McLean’s “American Pie” was dedicated to singer Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 along with The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.  But the song is more than just a tribute to what has now been termed “The Day the Music Died.”  It chronicles the history of rock ‘n’ roll and the tumultuous 1960’s.  While the actual intent behind most of the lyrics remain unconfirmed by McLean, it’s always fun guessing and analyzing.  What we do know from McLean is that he did learn about the plane crash while delivering newspapers the day after it happened.  So without further ado, here’s how I interpret the lyrics of “American Pie” after a lot of research of many different sources.

Full lyrics:

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
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
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Now do you believe in rock and roll
Can music save your mortal soul
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

I started singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
But that’s not how it used to be
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

Oh, and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

And while Lenin read a book on Marx
A quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

We were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

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

‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

We started singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

Oh, 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

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died

He was singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

And they were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

They were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
And singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die”

After several days of research, here’s what I’ve come up with.  Feel free to add your own theories in the comments section.  Since it’s super long, I’ve put my interpretations after the jump.  Enjoy!

A long, long time ago

The song came out 13 years after Holly’s death.

I can still remember how that music used to make me smile

Rock ‘n’ roll music of the 1950s.

And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while

Reflecting on McLean’s desire to perform & ‘make people dance’ as a teenager.

But February made me shiver

The plane crashed on Feb. 3, 1959 during a snowstorm.

With every paper I’d deliver

McLean heard the news while delivering newspapers.

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

Buddy Holly’s wife was pregnant when he died; she miscarried days later from her grief.

But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

Dubbed this moniker because all three musicians were hugely popular at the time of their death and because the tragedy signaled the loss of innocence for many rock ‘n’ roll lovin’ teenagers like McLean.

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie

Bye, bye to the good ole days.

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry

Chevy is an American car. The rest of the line has several possible interpretations: 1. Another reference to the end of the good ole days/having to grow up. 2. The Levee was the nickname of a bar in McLean’s hometown. If he went as a 13-year-old in 1959, it would’ve been dry to him since he was too young to drink. 3. An alternative definition of “levee” is a party; the rock ‘n’ roll party ended for McLean when the trio died. 4. A reference to three black college students who were attempting to register to vote, but were killed by bigots & buried in a levee. The incident was the subject of the film “Mississippi Burning.”

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye

Again, a few possible interpretations: 1. “Them good old boys” are Holly, the Big Bopper, and Valens drinking & singing about their own deaths. 2. “Them good old boys” are the patrons of the bar, having an Irish wake for the trio as they sing their own version of Holly’s song lyrics “that’ll be the day that I die.” 3. Same as #2, but instead of drinking “whiskey and rye,” the line goes, “Drinking whiskey in Rye” (listen closely & it sounds like he’s singing it either way). Rye, NY is a town next to where McLean grew up (New Rochelle, NY), so it’s easy to believe he drove his Chevy to a bar dubbed the Levee in Rye where everyone was drinking whiskey and singing to the fallen singers.

Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

Play on Holly’s song “That’ll Be the Day.”

Did you write the book of love

Refers to the 1958 song “The Book of Love” by the Monotones, with the lyrics “Oh, I wonder, wonder who, who, who wrote the book of love?”

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

Refers to Don Cornell’s 1955 song “The Bible Tells Me So.” 

Now do you believe in rock and roll
Can music save your mortal soul

Reference to the controversy around early rock ‘n’ roll music being considered “ungodly”

And can you teach me how to dance real slow? 

Slow dancing was considered sexual in the 1950’s. It was an important part of early rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Well, I know that you’re in love with him 
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym

Goes hand-in-hand with the last line from the previous verse; slow dancing also indicated you were “going steady” with your partner. Scene is a school gymnasium

You both kicked off your shoes

Sock-hop!

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

In the late 1950’s, “rhythm and blues” was considered to be African-American music. Many radios gave into racist demands and would only play white cover versions of popular songs. McLean is potentially commenting against the racism in early R’n’R; he liked the original rhythm and blues.

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

Reference to the Marty Robbins’ song “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation.” A pick-up truck symbolized sexual independence.

But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

Again, he laments how the world he knew and loved is changing.

Chorus

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own

Sets the scene for the late 1960’s, ten years after the plane crash.

And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone

Possibly a reference to: 1. Bob Dylan, who took time out from touring after his motorcycle accident from 1966-1974 to write songs & collect royalties; 2. The drowning death of The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, in which drugs were suspected to pay a big part of; 3. The Rolling Stones “selling out” and moving to France to avoid paying taxes in the U.K.

But that’s not how it used to be

1. Dylan started out angry, but mellowed out during those off years. 2. Lamenting how his earlier musician heroes didn’t drink or drug themselves to death; 3. Before the Stones were considered sell-outs by fellow artists; 4. Shoutout to Dylan’s lyric “The times, they are a-changin’.”

When the jester sang for the king and queen

The jester is Bob Dylan. Several possible candidates for the king & queen: 1.The king & queen of England (see next line); 2. Martin Luther King Jr. & his wife. Dylan performed at a civil rights rally in D.C.; 3. President John F. Kennedy & his wife Jackie, considered the “King & Queen of Camelot,” who saw Dylan perform. 4. Elvis Presley (King of Rock ‘n’ Roll) and either Joan Baez (the Queen of the Folk Movement), Aretha Franklin, or Connie Francis. I think it’s a double meaning for #’s 1 & 4.

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean

References the coat Dylan wore on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” When Dylan performed for the Queen of England, he was dressed inappropriately.

And a voice that came from you and me

Dylan got his start in folk music, which is the “music of the masses.” Considered the mouthpiece of his generation.

Oh, and while the king was looking down

References Elvis’ decline

The jester stole his thorny crown

Dylan taking Elvis’ place, with the thorny crown being the price of fame.

The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

More double meaning: 1. The verdict in the trial of the Chicago Seven, which was reversed on appeal and never retried; 2. The Warren Commission‘s investigation into JFK’s assassination. Conspiracy couldn’t be proven.

And while Lenin read a book on Marx

Double meaning: Russian politician Vladimir Lenin and the Beatles’ John Lennon, both who believed in Marxist theories.

A quartet practiced in the park

The Beatles

And we sang dirges in the dark

The 1960’s was a tumultuous period in the U.S., with a lot of political unrest and protests; In Nov. 1965, more than 25 million people in North American were left without power after a huge blackout.

The day the music died

Chorus

Helter skelter in a summer swelter

Inspired by the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter,” Charles Manson killed Sharon Tate & the LaBiancas in August 1969, a summer marked by race wars.

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

Reference to The Byrds, their song “Eight Miles High” [about both fear of flying & drug use], and drug culture within rock ‘n’ roll.

It landed foul on the grass

One of the Byrds was arrested for marijuana possession.

The players tried for a forward pass

Beginning of the football game metaphor describing the music scene at the time. With Dylan temporarily out of the picture (below), others tried to take his place.

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

References Bob Dylan’s July 1966 motorcycle accident, which “sidelined him,” leaving his leg in a cast and sending him into a two-year seclusion.

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume

Double meaning on the times: 1. Marijuana use; 2. Tear gas used on the crowds at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

While the sergeants played a marching tune

Triple meaning: 1. The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band;” 2. Chicago police & Illinois National Guard marching protestors out of the park where the DNC was held & into jail; 3. The Vietnam War.

We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance

McLean’s commentary that the Beatles’ music wasn’t danceable. Also, their 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes.

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

Artists such as the Rolling Stones & the Monkees trying unsuccessfully to dethrone the Beatles.

Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

Chorus

Oh, and there we were all in one place

Woodstock.

A generation lost in space

Double meaning: 1. A “spaced-out” generation of drug-using hippies; 2. Using the title of the popular show “Lost in Space,” it references the Space Race during the 1960’s.

With no time left to start again

Lamenting: 1. That this generation had spent too much time stoned & wasted their lives; 2. Rock ‘n’ roll had now come so far from the Buddy Holly days that it would never be the same music again.

So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

These three lines have both political & musical connotations. Political: Jack = JFK. References to the Space Race (candlestick = rocket during the Apollo missions) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (quick decisions had to be made, candlestick/fire = missiles and nuclear war). Musical: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones, while Jack Flash is a street name for medicinal heroin.  The devil is Mick Jagger, who wrote “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Oh, 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

This entire verse allegedly references an incident at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1968, in which The Rolling Stones hired members of the Hell’s Angels to work as their security. During the show, a young man named Merideth Hunter was beaten & stabbed to death by the gang as he attempted to rush the stage with a pistol. [Video] Again, Satan is Mick Jagger.

And as the flames climbed high into the night

Tensions between the crowds & Hell’s Angels had escalated all day; The Stones opened with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

To light the sacrificial rite

The death of Hunter, during the songs “Sympathy for the Devil”/”Under My Thumb.”

I saw Satan laughing with delight

There were reports that Jagger continued prancing around on stage, smiling, and posing during the beating.

The day the music died

This section starts out with Woodstock and ends with Altamont Speedway. Woodstock was in Aug. 1969 and created with good intentions. Altamont was meant to be “the next Woodstock” in Dec. 1969 and is considered the “Worst Day in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a turning point in music’s history.

He was singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie…

The “he” is Mick Jagger.

Chorus

I met a girl who sang the blues

Janice Joplin

And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away

Reference to her death in Oct. 1970 due to a heroin overdose.

I went down to the sacred store

Double meaning: 1. Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, a famous rock ‘n’ roll venue during that time period; 2. Could also be the “sacred” record store, which brings us back to the beginning of the song, “Can music save your mortal soul?”

Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

1. The Fillmore closed in July 1971; 2. Unlike when McLean was a kid, record stores no longer allowed customers to preview music in the store. The times have indeed changed.

And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed

Reference to war protests by flower children that had to be broken up by police & the National Guard, particularly the Kent State protests.

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

Continuing with the “holy” theme of rock ‘n’ roll, these lines reinforce that rock as McLean knew it is officially over. Even the protest rock songs of the 1960’s were now dying out in favor of hits-oriented records. Those singers acted as “church bells,” crying out against something wrong, but not anymore.

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

Two possible meanings with this last verse: 1. The three men are either Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, which ties it back to the beginning or JFK, MLK, and Bobby Kennedy, all of who were assassinated during the time period of the song. The last train for the coast symbolizes their death. In 1966, The New York Times published an article titled “God is Dead,” which explored growing atheist sentiment among American youth, so not only is the sacristy of rock ‘n’ roll dead, but religion itself is starting to decline. 2. The three men are the three remaining survivors of Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets. Technically they left by bus and not train on the night of the plane crash, but all three were headed to the same coast together. It’s an interesting interpretation to consider, particularly because the final chorus starts out, “And THEY were singin’…” and “This’ll Be the Day” is a song by Buddy Holly and The Crickets.

Chorus

Chorus

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  1. Michael says:

    Like a lot of people, I knew the song’s connection to the plane crash and Buddy Holly but I didn’t realize it had so many allusions to other events.

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