The Day The Music Died…
I remember back in my college days when the bars where closing, they would often take a request for one last song, I would always yell out “American Pie”. Not only was this a great sing-a-long, but it was also a strategic move on my part with the LP version of the hit song playing for over 8 minutes. In any regard, I was surprised to find out when I started talking about the song in the office the other day, just how little folks new about the lyrics and their meaning. Keep in mind it was on this week in 1972 that this famous song by Don McLean reached #1 on the Billboard charts. For those who didn’t know, the song is based around the death of Buddy Holly. It was on February 3,1959 that Holly had chartered a plane to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa, to Fargo, N.D. Joining him on the plane were Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “the Big Bopper.” Ironically​,​ future country star Waylon Jennings gave up his seat. The plane took off in bad weather with a pilot not certified to do so. As we all know now, the plane crashed, killing everyone aboard. Holly was just 22 and Valens just 17….Rock and roll would never be the same! Thirteen years later, folk music legend Don McLean wrote a song about this tragedy called “American Pie,” an eight-and-a-half minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” The lyrics of the song have been called an indescribable photograph of America that captures the state of society at the time and turns it into music. The song’s cast of characters — which include a jester, a king, a queen, good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye as well as “Miss American Pie” herself — were meant to represent real people. The song includes references to Karl Marx; Vladimir Ilyich Lenin; the Fab Four; the Byrds; James Dean; Charles Manson; the Rolling Stones; the “widowed bride,” Jackie Kennedy; and the Vietnam War. What does it all mean? Just what a song about the day the music died seems like it might be about: the end of the American Dream. In other words, things were heading in the wrong direction and McLean put it all in Lyrics. It was somewhat of a farewell tribute to the innocence of the 50’s, the radical changes of the 60’s and an uncertain welcome to the 70’s. It proved to be a huge hit with Americans and the mysterious lyrics helped it soar to #1 in 1972. I always thought it was funny when people asked Don McLean what “American Pie” really meant, he often responded: “It means I never have to work again.” Below are a few of the mysterious lyrics and what many believe to be their true meaning. I should also note, the original 16-page working manuscript of ‘American Pie’, sold at a Christie’s auction in 2015 for $1.2 million, placing it in the third spot for the highest paid price for American lyrics. I included a cool video that tries to put together some pics with the words Click HERE. (Source: American Pie WebsiteBBC News)

  • “The day the music died” – This refers to the Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper plane crash and untimely death on February 3, 1959.
  • “Bye, Bye, 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. It’s rumored that McLean was actually dating one of the Miss America contestants during one of the pageants. 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 McLean seems to be bidding her farewell.
  • “Drove my Chevy to the levee” – 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—most speculate that someone McLean once loved has betrayed him; something that once gave him sustenance has evaporated.
  • “Do you believe in rock and roll? Can music save your mortal soul?” –By verse two the swinging 60s have arrived and many speculate McLean is insinuating a faith in music has now replaced faith in God for many of our youth. The religious imagery that emerges in the second verse becomes a powerful and recurring symbol of loss throughout the entire song. From “the sacred store” to the broken church bells, from this point forward, “whatever is couched in religious terms can be seen as referring back… to the happier innocence and faith of the 1950s.
  • “When the jester sang for the King and Queen, In a coat he borrowed from James Dean” – Enter Bob Dylan, the court jester who becomes the revolutionary leader of the 60s generation, knocking Elvis, the king of the 50s, off his pedestal: “While the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.” The jacket Dylan “borrowed from James Dean” can be seen on the iconic cover sleeve of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
  • “Now the half-time air was sweet perfume, While sergeants played a marching tune” – As the 60s reach their turbulent climax in verse four, and nuclear tensions rising, the Beatles have become the “sergeants” leading the march of counter-culture, leaving Dylan behind as “the jester on the sidelines in a cast” after his near-fatal motorcycle accident.
  • “We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance” – Just at the peak of the sweetly marijuana-perfumed Summer of Love in 1967, the tension boils over into civil unrest, but the police come in an squash most major rallies just as they get started.
  • “Players try to take the field; But the marching band refused to yield” –One theory has the marching band as the police blocking civil rights protesters, another as the Beatles continuing to preach “non-violence” with their 1967 hit “All You Need Is Love”.
  • “And while Lennon read a book of Marx” – This is about the Beatles music becoming political. Songs like “Revolution” (1968) (which actually mentions Chairman Mao) were much different then “Love Me Do” (1963). Many American adults thought the Beatles were bad for the American youth, especially after Lennon’s remark in 1966 about Christianity. He said “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first: rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.” This started anti-Beatles burnings and such.
  • “The quartet practiced in the park” – The quartet was the Beatles (there were four, not including if Paul McCartney is really dead!) and the park thing is Candlestick Park, the place of their last concert. It was practicing ’cause their music would grow after they stopped touring (their first project after this was “Sgt. Pepper” which is considered the best album of all time).
  • “And we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.” – A dirge is a funeral song. These songs were for the Kennedy’s (John and Robert) and Martin Luther King, all who died in the mid 60’s.
  • “Helter Skelter in a summer swelter” – Charles Manson is one of the most dangerous cereal killers ever (his favorite was coco-puffs). In the summer of 1968, he massacred an entire family ’cause of the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which appeared on the white album. He thought that the Beatles were warning America about the racial conflict and it was “coming down fast.” He thought the Beatles were the four angels mentioned in the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Manson wrote the title of the song on the wall in blood after committing the murders. Also, he thought in “Revolution 9” that Lennon was saying “rise” instead of “right,” thought the line “They need a damn good wacking” from “Piggies” was telling him to kill people and the “Hollywood Song” in “Honey Pie” was about him ’cause he lived near Hollywood. He was dropping too much acid and thought the Beatles were talking directly to him and told him to kill those people.
  • “Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died?” – This could be the song’s most ambiguous line of all. Some suggest it refers to the 1968 riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where police brutally cracked down on demonstrators. What was revealed? “The dark underside of one of our most cherished political institutions.
  • “And there we were all in one place, A generation Lost in Space” – Most believe this was a reference to the giant gathering of people, all high on drugs at Woodstock, but those close to McLean say the lyrics more closely match the tragic concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969, where “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” as more than 300,000 kids gathered to hear the Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane. This then lead to the line “No angel born in hell could break that Satan’s spell” – Where the Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger really did appear on stage that night dressed in a flowing red cape, singing lyrics inciting fire and rebellion. Meanwhile at the stage perimeter members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang – hired as security – engaged in bloody clashes with the rioting audience. Jagger was later accused of failing to halt the performance, supposedly infuriating McLean and leading to the lyrics: “I saw Satan laughing with delight; The day the music died”. Just as Woodstock was heralded as the landmark of the counterculture movement, “Altamont was the event that signalled its demise.The tragedy served to finally “burst the bubble of youth culture’s illusions about itself.
  • “The man there said the music wouldn’t play” – In the final verse of McLean’s parable, when he “goes down to the sacred store, where I’d heard the music years before” he finds that sadly: “The man there said the music wouldn’t play” – And these words are not just symbolic. Literally, the music stores that had once provided listening booths for their customers were by this time no longer offering this service. But even more so, the cynicism of this generation had annihilated the innocent world McLean had grown up in. That kind of music simply wouldn’t play any more.
  • “But February made me shiver” – Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa. He was McLean’s hero.
  • “With every paper I’d deliver” – McLeans only other known job besides songwriting was a paper boy.
  • “Did you write the book of love?” – “The Book of Love” was a hit in 1968 by the Monotones.
  • “And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?” – In 1955, Don Cornell wrote “The Bible Tells Me So” and there is a Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me,” with the line “For the Bible tells me so.”
  • “Now for ten years we’ve been on our own” – The music died 1959, McLean more than likely started writing this song around 1969.
  • “I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.” – Janis Joplin is most the girl who sang the blues. Her big hits were “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” She died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. McLean is still trying to find happiness like in the beginning of the song “Maybe they’d be happy for a while,” “That music used to make me smile.” (Note the tone of the song is very similar in these to verses) But this time the smile isn’t for happiness but regret.
  • “But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.” – Again in “A Hard Rain…,” the line is “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken.” Simon and Garfunkel had a hit with “Sound of Silence.” The church bells all were broken shows that people have forgotten God. All things are are so sacred are gone, love, faith, happiness, peace. In Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” one verse goes: Disillusioned words like bullets bark . As human gods aim for their mark . Made everything from toy guns that spark . To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark . It’s easy to see without looking too far. That not much Is really sacred. McLean isn’t the only one that feels this way. He was obviously a religious man, and is very disappointed that they have abandoned God.
  • “And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” –The trinity of God, McLean was Catholic.
  • “They caught the last train for the coast.” – God has left. Time magazine even featured a cover story “Is God Dead?” The generation has failed, and “with no time left to start again.” It was now up to the next generation to put things right.