Decoding the Ambiguous Lyrics of Don McLean’s American Pie

The eight-and-a-half-minute song American Pie took the world by storm in 1971. Don McLean wrote one of the most successful and debated songs of the 20th century. It became a staple of American music, and, with the passing decades, the song is still heard, adored, and even interpreted in multiple ways. Five decades later, American Pie remains one of the most dissected songs in the history of popular music.

Don McLean in concert at Hard Rock Live, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Hollywood, Florida
Don McLean in concert at Hard Rock Live, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel, and Casino, Hollywood, Florida. Photo By Mediapunch/Shutterstock

American Pie quickly became a cultural event and, although many people weren’t even sure what it was about, it still reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart within weeks. Interestingly, the now-74-year-old McLean refused to discuss the meaning of the lyrics for decades. But he finally allowed us to crack the code, thanks to a 2015 interview he gave when the original manuscript of the song went up for auction (and was sold for $1.2 million, by the way).

So let’s break it down…

A Defining Moment

No matter how you interpret the song, the emotional resonance of the song contributed to the birth of an American classic. It seemed clear from the beginning that McLean was referring to a defining moment in music, with the lyrics pointing to something that has been lost and can’t be retrieved.

Buddy Holly and The Crickets
Buddy Holly and The Crickets. Photo By Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock

Opening with the death of singer Buddy Holly and ending with the catastrophic concert at the Altamont Motor Speedway, the lyrics cover the period between 1959 and 1970. The third verse defines the period as the “10 years we’ve been on our own.” The sense of disillusion and loss that the song transmits isn’t just about deaths in the world of music, but also about a generation that could no longer believe in the utopian dreams of the 1950s.

An American Icon

Donald McLean III was born on October 2, 1945, to a family of Scottish heritage. Both his father and grandfather were named Donald McLean. His early musical influences included Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra but, as a teenager, McLean became interested in folk music.

Don McLean, 1973
Don McLean, 1973. Photo By Ian Dickson/Shutterstock

And it was during his high school years that his love of music flourished. He bought his first guitar at the age of 16 and started making contacts in the music business, with Fred Hellerman of The Weavers and singer Erik Darling. After his father died when he was 15, he went to Villanova University but dropped out after four months to focus on his musical career. He then met Herb Gart, who became his manager for nearly two decades.

The Start of a Promising Career

Under Gart’s wing, McLean started to perform at various events and venues across the country. He recorded his first album, Tapestry, in 1969, but it was rejected 72 times before Mediarts, a new label, agreed to release it. While the album received good reviews, it wasn’t much of commercial success.

Don McLean, 1972
Don McLean. Photo By Alan Messer/Shutterstock

McLean got his big break with the release of his second album, American Pie, which made him an international star. The album remained in the charts for over two years after its release. But the gem of the album was clearly the song that we’re looking into now: the one and only American Pie.

The Early History of American Pie

Recorded on May 26, 1971, and airing on the radio a month later, the track American Pie reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on January 15, 1972. Due to its length (8:33 minutes long), the song was distributed on both sides of the disc. To this day, it is McLean’s most successful single release.

'Loose Women' TV Programme, London, Britain
‘Loose Women’ TV Programme, London, Britain, 2015. Photo By Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

The song’s meaning itself is a can of worms, so to speak. It started when WCFL DJ Bob Dearborn published the first interpretation of the lyrics on January 7, 1972. Most of the subsequent interpretations stem from his initial analysis. It wasn’t until 1978 that McLean himself stated that the lyrics were autobiographical. He said the lyrics present a shortened version of his life between the mid-‘50s and the late ‘60s. But that’s all he said.

A Matter of Dispute

Before we get to the song’s meaning, you might want to know that in the years following its release, many people debated where McLean wrote the song, saying he penned it at Caffe Lena in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York. But McLean disputed that in an interview in the New York Times in 2011. Although some employees of Caffe Lena claimed that he started to write the song there, McLean said that he wrote it in Cold Spring and Philadelphia.

A plaque next to a booth at the Tin & Lint
A plaque next to a booth at the Tin & Lint where Don McLean is said to have begun writing the song “American Pie” in the summer of 1970. Source:

In fact, the Tin & Lint bar on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs displays a plaque that states that Don McLean wrote the classic there. Another dispute revolved around where McLean first performed the song. Some claim that it was at Saint Joseph’s University, but, according to McLean, he debuted the song at Temple University in Philadelphia on March 14, 1971 (he opened for Laura Nyro).

So What Is It About?

Considering how ambiguous many of the lyrics were, and the fact that McLean himself refrained from giving any specifics, people started providing their own interpretations. But thanks to McLean’s eventual expose, we finally learned from the man himself a little bit about the highly-debated song.

30A Songwriters Festival, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
30A Songwriters Festival, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Photo By Rick Diamond/Shutterstock

Some of the events mentioned in the song are easy to decipher, like Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, 1959. But most of the lyrics have been the subject of speculation for years. According to McLean, the song represents a shift from the naïve and innocent ‘50s to the darker decade of the ‘60s. For decades, McLean held that the lyrics are poetry, meaning they shouldn’t be analyzed.

It Would Make Him Smile

Replying to a question on the show Songbook about how he composed the song, McLean said, “For some reason, I wanted to write a big song about America and politics, but I wanted to do it differently. As I was fiddling around, I started singing this thing about the Buddy Holly crash, the thing that came out (singing), ‘Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.’”

'Loose Women' TV Programme, London, Britain
‘Loose Women’ TV Programme, London, Britain. Photo By Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

Many believe that American Pie contains references to multiple postwar events, such as the civil rights movement, and pop culture elements. Let’s go through the lyrics and see what kind of nostalgia the music of his youth made him feel at the time. McLean opens the song with the first verse…

A Long, Long Time Ago

“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.”

Buddy Holly and The Crickets with Denis (r) and Lesley (l) Compton
Buddy Holly and The Crickets with Denis (r) and Lesley (l) Compton. Photo By Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock

He reflects back on the days of innocence. During a BBC Radio 2 interview in 1993, he spoke about how he still remembers a light going off in his head as he was sitting up in his “little room writing my songs and thinking about Buddy Holly and just how sad that was and how much I loved that guy.” He loved Holly’s music and really felt for him. The lyrics “A long, long time ago” came out of him, reflecting on the days when he was a paperboy, and he “opened up these papers… and this whole fantasy came out and the song was written.”

But February Made Me Shiver

“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

Something touched me deep inside

The day the music died.”

Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens Aircrash, Near Clear Lake, Iowa, America
Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens Aircrash, Near Clear Lake, Iowa, America. Source: Shutterstock

McLean turns his attention to a formative event that basically took the joy out of him: the death of Buddy Holly in a plane crash in 1959. McLean, a paperboy at the time, read about the death of the pop star on the front page of the newspapers he delivered.

On February 3, 1959, a plane crash took the lives of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens (and their pilot Roger Peterson). It was an objectively tragic day in the music world.

The Day the Music Died

Identifying Buddy Holly by the year he died, as well as the widow he left behind, the first verse is the easiest to decipher. It becomes more evident in the following verses that Holly’s death had a profound impact on McLean.

86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York, America
86th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, New York, America. Photo By Broadimage/Shutterstock

That said, “the day the music died” doesn’t only refer to Holly’s death, but to the death of the “good old days” and the optimism and innocence that came with them. McLean essentially coined the phrase “the day the music died,” which became an expression that would later be used as a reference to that fatal plane crash in Iowa. (Holly’s band members, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup, were supposed to be on board, but they exchanged places with Jennings and Valens at the last minute and took the tour bus instead).

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie

“Bye, bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die

This’ll be the day that I die.”

American Pie

The key to understanding the song’s overall meaning is the chorus. This is where McLean states the theme of the country’s lost innocence quite clearly. McLean uses “American Pie” as a metaphor for the country itself, and the chorus is basically a farewell to the all-American way.

The chorus’ lyrics have a double meaning. For those unfamiliar with the term, a levee is a dam built to prevent floods, but it can also refer to the steep bank of a river.

Drove My Chevy to the Levee

“The levee is dry” is also compared to the evaporating American dream. McLean grew up in New York and would listen to music and party at a bar called “The Levee” in New Rochelle. Sometimes, when The Levee would close (“when the levee was dry”), McLean and his friends would drive across the river to drink and have fun in the town of Rye.

McLean and his friends would raise their glasses to “the good ole boys,” mourning the death of Buddy Holly and his band. The lyrics “Drove my Chevy to the levee” also refers to a well-known series of popular ‘50s American Chevrolet commercials that had the following lyrics:

Old Chevy, like this 1957 model belonging to Bruce Springsteen
It was an old Chevy, like this 1957 model belonging to Bruce Springsteen, that ‘American Pie’s’ narrator drove to the levee — or should that be the Levee, a bar in New Rochelle, N.Y. Source:

“Drive your Chevrolet through the USA,

America’s the greatest land of all

On a highway or a road along a levee… is completer in a Chevy

So make a date today to see the USA

And see it in your Chevrolet.”

This’ll Be the Day That I Die

McLean alluded to that commercial because the Chevy was the symbol of the typical American family of the period. The last line of the chorus, “This’ll be the day that I die,” is actually a reworded line from Buddy Holly’s hit “That’ll Be the Day.” The line goes: “Cause that’ll be the day when I die.”

Street Art for Mankind co-founders Audrey and Thibault Decker with singer/songwriter Don McLean
Street Art for Mankind co-founders Audrey and Thibault Decker with singer/songwriter Don McLean in front of the mural that includes his image. Source:

In that song, Holly fears that his love will leave him, which would mean the end of the world for him. Using the line with a double meaning, McLean points to Holly as a symbol of the song, mourning the death of music as he knows it and a whole world with it.

The Book of Love

“Did you write the Book of Love?

And 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?

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

The Monotones, Who Wrote The Book Of Love?
The Monotones, Who Wrote The Book Of Love? Source:

Man, I dig those rhythm & 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”

McLean is still reveling in the good ole days with references to the song The Book of Love by The Monotones. It’s also believed that he references a Don Cornell hit, The Bible Tells Me So.

The Golden Age of American History

McLean is remembering a golden age in American history – a time of pickup trucks, sock hops, and pink carnations, which is likely a reference to the Marty Robbins song A White Sport Coat (with a Pink Carnation). The sock hop is another reference to the ‘50s when school dances mainly took place in high school gyms.

Marty Robbins song A White Sport Coat (with a Pink Carnation)
Source: Pinterest

Students would dance in their socks so that they wouldn’t damage the polished wood floors.

With the line, “And can you teach me how to dance real slow?” McLean is essentially courting Miss American Pie. That girl whom he saw “dancing in the gym” no longer cares about his “pink carnation and pickup truck,” leaving him “out of luck.”

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie

As he’s left stranded, he can’t think about anything except “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie.” He is personifying America being left by a woman, and it becomes more evident throughout the song that it’s basically a farewell to the country he once knew. The big picture here is: We were young, we were pure, and then the music died, and with it our innocence.

1950's: High school gym hosts a classic 50's dance party
Source: Pinterest

Most people back then believed that the ‘50s was a charmed moment in time, a period of economic prosperity after World War II. It was a time when most Americans found themselves free from uncertainties and finally able to enjoy themselves. But once the ‘60s began, the “American dream” began to fade as radical changes took the country by storm.

The Sacredness of the Music

The religious references in the second verse are likely related to a belief that many Americans held in the ‘50s – that they lived in a country blessed by God. But with the line “Do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll/ Can music save your mortal soul,” faith in music now replaces faith in God.

Don McLean talks to John Wilson
Don McLean talks to John Wilson Source: BBC

The religious imagery in the second verse becomes a recurring symbol of loss throughout the song. Music itself becomes an object of faith, and McLean suggests that the music of the postwar period symbolized the unquestioning innocence of the era. Now a staple of the song, the theme of the sacredness of the music, makes its mark. Everything relating to religious metaphors in the following verses refers back to music, which is a metaphor in itself – of the faith and innocence of the ‘50s.

Like a Rollin’ Stone

“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”

McLean’s starts descending into hidden meanings, making the next verse one of the most debated lyrics of the song. The “rollin’ stone” bit can easily refer to Buddy Holly’s lyrics, “Well you know, a rolling stone, don’t gather no moss,” from his hit Early in the Morning.

Early Pic (undated) Of The Rolling Stones From L/r Charlie Watts Bill Wyman Brian Jones(died July 1969 ) Keith Richard & Mick Jagger.
Early Pic (undated) Of The Rolling Stones From L/r Charlie Watts Bill Wyman Brian Jones(died July1969 ) Keith Richard & Mick Jagger. Photo By Associated Newspapers/Shutterstock

But it can also be a reference to The Rolling Stones themselves. The bookends of the song are Holly and The Stones since the “ten years” McLean describes are the day the music died (February 1959) and Altamont (December 1969).

An Old Proverb

The image of a rolling stone refers to an old proverb describing a person who never settles down. In the song’s context, it might be foreshadowing the anarchy that Mick Jagger and his band brought during their tour of America during the early ‘70s. But there’s also a third interpretation of the “rollin’ stone” lyric.

Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan
Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. Aug. 28, 1963. Photo By Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Bob Dylan, who sang the popular single Like a Rolling Stone, created a major break from folk music in 1965 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident and laid low for about a year (hence the lyric “moss grows fat”). It marked a turning point in his career, and many said Dylan lost his muse.

Enter the Jester

“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

And while the King was looking down

The Jester stole his thorny crown.”

Tupelo Mississippi 1957 Homecoming\ Concert by Elvis Presley
Tupelo Mississippi 1957 Homecoming\ Concert by Elvis Presley at State Fair Grounds. Photo By Mediapunch/Shutterstock

There is virtually no debate on this part: Bob Dylan is the Jester in this song. But, in a 2017 interview, Dylan expressed his distaste for the label.

Dylan said: “A jester? Sure, the Jester writes songs like Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, It’s Alright, Ma – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.” Whether Dylan likes it or not, he became the revolutionary leader of the ‘60s generation, pretty much knocking Elvis, the King of the ‘50s, off his pedestal.

Stealing His Thorny Crown

The line “While the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown” attests to that.

And then there’s the jacket Dylan “borrowed from James Dean,” which can be seen on the iconic cover of his 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. By the end of the decade, the counterculture has arrived, and Dylan’s “rollin’ stone” is gathering moss.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Source:

“A voice that came from you and me” only further identifies Dylan, who was known for his distinctive voice as well as his introspective approach to music. The Jester is a mythological figure in folklore who plays the role of a trickster, advising royals while undermining them. That’s something Dylan also seemed to do by signaling a new order in popular music.

Why the James Dean Jacket?

Best remembered as a rebel without a cause, James Dean is the epitome of rebellion and alienated youth – something that fits well with Dylan’s impact on American music. Dean became the symbol of youth in chaos and shot to stardom. But sadly, he died much too soon in a car accident.

Rebel Without A Cause, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, James Dean
Rebel Without A Cause, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, James Dean. Photo By Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock

He died at the very beginning of his success, which contributed to the creation of the “Dean myth” and his entry into American cinema. Dean was the first actor to receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination posthumously. He is also one of the very few actors to be nominated in this category for their first film role. Dean was also a fashion icon, and his leather jacket made him the iconic “bad boy.”

The King and Queen

Because of the association with the jacket and Dylan’s album cover, we get a date for the beginning of verse three, which is around 1964. It was one of the most critical years in the history of America because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Pete Seeger
Joan Baez, Dave Matthews, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Pete Seeger. Photo By Amanda Schwab/Starpix/Shutterstock

The king and queen reference can also allude to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, folk music’s royal couple who took center stage, long before Dylan. Perhaps it was their crown that Dylan stole. Another theory casts the royal couple as President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy. In this case, Lee Harvey Oswald would be the “jester who stole his thorny crown.”

A Verse Fit for a King

“The courtroom was adjourned

No verdict was returned.”

McLean might be referring to the suspicious circumstances surrounding JFK’s death, which paralyzed the country. Once again, the world McLean once knew was suddenly changing. While the “verdict” mentioned can easily refer to the Kennedy assassination, it can also be referring to Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll.

President John Kennedy looks through the periscope of the nuclear submarine USS Thomas A. Edison. At right is his Naval Aide, Capt. Tazewell Shepard.
President John Kennedy looks through the periscope of the nuclear submarine USS Thomas A. Edison. At right is his Naval Aide, Capt. Tazewell Shepard. Photo By Everett Collection/Shutterstock

McLean is suggesting that Dylan went before the court of rock and roll to challenge Presley’s domination. It’s also a metaphor for the challenge that the country was confronted with – as the younger generation started to defy the assumptions of the older one. Presley, the 1950s symbol of a youthful rebellion, had become obsolete when the new generation chose Dylan to be their spokesman. The “thorny crown” can be seen as a symbol of the price of fame.

Enter The Beatles

“And while Lenin read a book on Marx

The quartet practiced in the park

And we sang dirges in the dark

The day the music died”

The Beatles and Gerry Marsden - 1962
The Beatles and Gerry Marsden – 1962. Photo By Haydn Jones/Shutterstock

The Beatles arrive on the scene as the quartet who “practiced in the park.” It seems as though Lenin is a play on John Lennon, but it’s the reference to Marx that’s under debate. Marx, associated with the Communist Revolution, can be linked to Lennon via the song Revolution. Lenin reading a book on Marx can also refer to the rise of Communism in Eastern Europe. If that is the case, Lenin isn’t a play on Lennon, but rather a reference to the Russian political figure himself who based most of his ideas on the writings of Marx.

Dirges in the Park

The idea of a cultural revolution is clear at this point, and, as The Beatles grew more experimental, they changed the shape of rock and roll – just as Dylan had done before them. The “park” is most likely related to the famous 1966 concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park when The Beatles began to create more “straightforward” music.

The Beatles Pictured At A Press Conference
The Beatles Pictured At A Press Conference. Photo By Associated Newspapers /Shutterstock

The dirges (which are funeral songs) possibly reference the death of JFK, but may also be mourning for the good old days. It now comes to a point in the song that marks the move to the most explosive period of the ‘60s, which took place between 1966 and 1969. The fourth verse mirrors the changes in culture and society…

A Summer of Chaos

“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.”

The Byrds American Pop Group Pic Shows Mike Clarke (died 12/93) Gene Clark (died 5/91) Jim Mcguinn Chris Hillman And David Crosby.
The Byrds American Pop Group Pic Shows Mike Clarke (died 12/93) Gene Clark (died 5/91) Jim Mcguinn Chris Hillman And David Crosby. Photo By Daily Mail /Shutterstock

McLean brings attention to the Manson murders (continuing the Beatles’ theme with Helter Skelter) as well as The Byrds’ song Eight Miles High and marijuana (aka “grass”). Both songs cater to the idea of falling fast, which is a metaphor for the falling of the old world and the advent of a new one. The summer of 1967, the “summer of love” saw hippies from all over the country head to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, where they lived out their flower power existence.

Half-Time Air

Youth culture made a “forward pass” against the government while trying to change and transform the country. The political and civil authorities didn’t take kindly to the challenges, which have forever changed the American cultural dialogue. McLean then refers again to Dylan, who is on the sidelines after his motorcycle accident in 1966.

Bob Dylan, riding his motorcycle, 1964
Bob Dylan, riding his motorcycle, 1964. Source:

“Now the half-time air was a sweet perfume

While 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?”

The summer of love also marked the midpoint of the ‘60s counterculture movement (“the half-time air”).

The Marching Band

As the ‘60s reached their turbulent climax and nuclear tensions rose, The Beatles became the “sergeants,” leading the march of the counterculture, thus leaving Dylan, aka the Jester, behind.

But, at the peak of the sweetly perfumed summer of ‘67, the tensions boiled over into civil unrest. “We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance,” sang McLean.

The Beatles - Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison
The Beatles – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. Photo By David Magnus/Shutterstock

He looked on as the “players try to take the field, But the marching band refused to yield.” This line alone is hotly debated. Many say the marching band is the police blocking civil rights protesters. Others say it’s The Beatles preaching non-violence with their 1967 hit All You Need Is Love.

Do You Recall?

“Do you recall what was revealed?” This is probably the song’s most ambiguous line of all.

Some say it refers to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album cover Unfinished Music No. 1 – Two Virgins. Another theory centers on the Miss America contest of 1968, where feminists burned their bras. But the most plausible reference is the 1968 riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono celebrating the opening of Apple Tailoring at Club Dell’Aretusa, 107 King’s Road
John Lennon and Yoko Ono celebrating the opening of Apple Tailoring at Club Dell’Aretusa, 107 King’s Road. Photo By Bill Zygmant/Shutterstock

There, police brutally cracked down on demonstrators. What was revealed? Well, for one, the dark foundation of one of our most cherished institutions. But maybe “what was revealed” has nothing to do with any of these events, and is only a precursor for the tragedy in the fifth verse…

Things Get Ugly

“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.”

Reaching its climax in the fifth verse, the song touches upon the Rolling Stones’ bloody concert held in 1969 at the Altamont Motor Speedway, where “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick.”

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs at the Altamont Rock Festival in Livermore, CA.
Source: / Photo by ITV, Shutterstock

Approximately 300,000 people gathered at Altamont. Excessive alcohol and drug use led to violence. The flower children couldn’t recreate the magic of Woodstock. Instead, they found themselves “lost in space,” with no place left to go. In their song Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Rolling Stones are essentially playing with fire and boasting about their freedom; hence the line “So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.”

Enter the Fire

“’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”

Hells Angels - The Rolling Stones play their 1969 Hyde Park Concert in memory of recently deceased band founder, Brian Jones.
Hells Angels – The Rolling Stones play their 1969 Hyde Park Concert in memory of recently deceased band founder, Brian Jones. Photo By Mike Randolph/Shutterstock

The hired the Hells Angels as security for the night, but they started to defend the stage violently. Mclean not only references the events of that night but also uses Jagger as the motive for the unfolding anarchy. “And as the flames climbed high into the night/ To light the sacrificial rite” refers to the stabbing of a black teenager by a member of the Hells Angels at the concert.

Many have said that the lyrics of American Pie find Jagger responsible for provoking, the events of that night. “I saw Satan laughing with delight” represents the climax of the moment, showing just how ugly things have become.

The 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

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”

Janis Joplin - 1974
Janis Joplin – 1974. Photo By Crawley/Kobal/Shutterstock

McLean mourns the loss of his generation, looking for relics of the old world. A return to the age of innocence comes when he sees “a girl who sang the blues.”

The girl McLean turns to is Janis Joplin. He looked to her for hope, but she died of an overdose on October 4th, 1970. He hoped that her music would be the “happy news,” but the girl “just smiled and turned away.” Then came the early deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison within the same year.

The Sacred Store

After Joplin’s death, McLean turns to “the sacred store,” a euphemism for a record store, which lines up with the theme of music as a religious experience. But the rhythm and blues are gone, and it seems everyone has forgotten about the great music released in the ‘50s. In the ‘50s, music stores were listening booths for customers. But, by the

The ‘70s, most stores stopped this service – “the music wouldn’t play” line can thus be taken literally.

Teenagers Shopping at Record Store, photograph by Warren K. Leffler, October 1964
Teenagers Shopping at Record Store, photograph by Warren K. Leffler, October 1964. Photo By Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

“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.”

Back on the streets, McLean learns again that the world around him has become unrecognizable. Nothing is the same anymore – a once vibrant culture is now dead, hence the image of the broken church bells.

The Three Men

“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.”

Don McLean's 17-page manuscript for 'American Pie' goes up for auction at Christie's in New York
Don McLean’s 17-page manuscript for ‘American Pie’ goes up for auction at Christie’s in New York. Source:

The last lines of the song are very mysterious. McLean focuses again on the plane crash from the beginning of the song. The spiritual trio may refer to the three musicians who died in the plane crash, but they could also be a symbol of the three political assassinations of the ‘60s: John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

In 2015, McLean decided to lift the veil on the meaning of the song when the manuscript was put up for auction. Attached to the manuscript, he left a note describing American Pie as “a morality song” that showcases the decline of America together with its loss of innocence.

Lifting the Veil

In an interview, McLean revealed: “Basically in American Pie, things are heading in the wrong direction … It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense.” Before the auction, if anyone asked what the song meant, he would joke around, saying, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

'This Morning' TV show, London, UK - 22 May 2020
‘This Morning’ TV show, London, UK – 22 May 2020. Photo By ITV/Shutterstock

He mentioned that American Pie is as relevant now as ever. Why? Because the world went downhill since he wrote the song. “I was around in 1970, and now I am around in 2015. There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of American Pie.”

Aside from that short explanation, McLean refused to offer any further revelations about the song. “Over the years, I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ … These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral, and I did, but it took a long time.”

The Making of American Pie

Producer Ed Freeman stated that American Pie is a combination of 24 different takes of McLean’s voice. This happened because the singer wasn’t the easiest person to work with and, consequently, the session on May 26, 1971, with a live and unedited backing band track required multiple takes.

Ruth Langsford, Coleen Nolan, Don McLean, Linda Lusardi, and Jane Moore
Ruth Langsford, Coleen Nolan, Don McLean, Linda Lusardi, and Jane Moore. Photo By Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

The producer also stated that even though McLean was a very talented singer, he was sometimes criticized for singing with the same vocal inflections, so he decided to be more improvisational. “In my head, I knew what it was supposed to sound like – I don’t now remember how I arrived at that, but when I kept asking him to sing it in a certain way, he wouldn’t do it. He wanted to play with it every time, inserting slides, melismas, and other things that, to my mind, didn’t fit. So we ended up recording him 24 times on 16-track tape and took different parts from different takes until I got every word the way I wanted it, without all the play, and I don’t think Don appreciated that very much… In Don’s case, I think he was happy with the finished vocal, but he was not happy with somebody else having that much influence,” said Freeman.

How Was the Song Recorded?

Recorded inside Studio A at New York’s Record Plant on May 26th, 1971, the equipment used was a 32-input Spectra Sonics console coordinated by engineer Tom Flye. Originally a musician who performed on keyboards and drums in a variety of bands, Flye was born in Chicago but relocated to New York in 1964. He started working at Record Plant as a recording engineer and worked on records by The Impressions and Curtis Mayfield before producer Ed Freeman took him on for the American Pie project.

Mike Batt and Don McLean in 'Music Studio' - 1990
Mike Batt and Don McLean in ‘Music Studio’ – 1990. Photo By ITV/Shutterstock

The Spectra Sonics board used for the recording had a separate monitor system that allowed engineers to record on one side while playing back on the other. The producers were mixing live, as Flye recalls, and even though producer Ed Freeman originally wanted American Pie to go to stereo after starting in mono, the board wasn’t suitable for this, so the song ended up being recorded as a stereo mix. A U87 was used for the electric guitar, and the bass guitar was recorded with a DI.

A (Not So) Star-Studded Choir

Using a background chorus credited as the West Forty-Fourth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir on the sleeve of the album, McLean ends American Pie with a campfire-type chorus, with the ensemble including some of McLean’s friends, a mix of professional musicians and people with no musical background. Some of the members of the ad-hoc chorus included Carly Simon, Pete Seeger, and James Taylor and Livingston Taylor.

Carly Simon
Carly Simon. Photo By Carolyn Contino/BEI/Shutterstock

As for the challenges the length of the song brought to the producing team, Ed Freeman remembers that “it was a complete nightmare to fit an eight-and-a-half-minute track onto one seven-inch single.” He cut the song in half very carefully and added it to both sides of the record. The final running times were 4:11 minutes for Part One and 4:31 minutes for Part Two.

Don McLean after American Pie

American Pie brought him fame, but McLean continued to record songs in the years to come. He released his third album, Don McLean, in 1972, which peaked at number 23 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart. One of the songs on the album, The Pride Parade, is about the overwhelming feelings the singer had to deal with as a result of his meteoric success. He released his fourth album, Playin’ Favorites, in 1973, which included McLean’s cover of Buddy Holly’s Every day.

Don & Jay at a private event in Newport Beach, CA.
Don & Jay at a private event in Newport Beach, CA. Source: Instagram

McLean’s final studio recording for United Artists was the 1974 album Homeless Brother, the title of which was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s book Lonesome Traveler. Moving briefly to Arista Records, McLean released his Prime Time album in 1978. After a disagreement with Clive Davis, the Arista chief, McLean no longer had a record contract in the United States, but he released his single Chain Lightning with Festival Records in Australia and EMI in Europe. Gaining international success, the singer consequently signed a new deal in the United States with Millennium Records in 1981.

Further chart success followed in the 1980s with the singles Since I Don’t Have You and It’s Just the Sun. Released in 1992, the Don McLean Classics album featured new studio recordings of Vincent and American Pie. The singer continued to record and released his latest album, Addicted to Black, in 2009.

Why Was the American Pie Manuscript Sold at Auction?

Auctioned at Christie’s on April 7, 2015, the original American Pie lyrics sold for US $1.2 million. The handwritten lyrics consisted of a never-before-seen, 16-page document that included 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text. When asked why he decided to part with the lyrics at that specific moment, McLean stated: “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.”

 Don McLean autographed copy of the lyrics for the song
Don McLean autographed copy of the lyrics for the song “American Pie” are seen on a wall in the green room at the Surf Ballroom, in 2009, in Clear Lake, Iowa. Source:

He added that, for years, he hadn’t been sure he still had the manuscript, but after former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres asked him about his thoughts on giving his papers to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he started to look for it. When he found the manuscript, McLean said that it was the first time in decades that he had seen it.

Consisting of multiple pages of colored paper and several pages taken out from a spiral notebook, the manuscript includes several lines that didn’t make the cut for the final version of the song, such as “And there I stood alone and afraid/I knelt to my knees and there I prayed/and I prepared to give all I had to give/If only he would make it live again.”

Madonna Covers American Pie

On March 3, 2000, Madonna released her version of American Pie and included it in the soundtrack of her movie The Next Best Thing. Even though the movie was not a huge success, the song itself reached number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as well as number one on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. A video accompanied the musical release, showing Madonna dancing in front of an American flag with a tiara on her head. Her video also included working-class citizens, same-sex couples, teenagers, and cheerleaders.

'Loose Women' TV Programme, London, Britain
Photo By Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

Becoming a worldwide hit, Madonna’s version reached number one in several countries, such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Finland, Switzerland, and Austria. Much shorter than the original, the cover only includes the beginning of the first verse as well as the second and sixth verses. It was recorded as a dance-pop song and was co-produced by William Orbit.

Madonna’s Video and Critical Reception

Directed by Philipp Stölzl on January 10, 2000, in London, Madonna’s American Pie video pays homage to the 1970s, the period when the song was first performed. Madonna dances in front of a giant American flag and some shots show ordinary people, children, a woman in a shop, interracial families posing for a photo, a gay and lesbian couple kissing each other. Two versions of the video exist, the second one featuring a remix that is a more upbeat and dancer-friendly version of the song.

Madonna's American Pie
Source: Pinterest

Although critics weren’t particularly excited by Madonna’s cover, Don McLean himself praised it, stating that it was “mystical and sensual” and “a gift from a goddess.” As of 2018, the American Pie cover is Madonna’s 16th best-selling single.

However, Rolling Stone included Madonna’s cover on the list of Worst Covers of All Time. The song came in third on the list after Behind Blue Eyes by Limp Bizkit and Smells like Teen Spirit by Miley Cyrus. The under-five-minute version of American Pie may have hit number one on the dance charts, but critics were so harsh that Madonna ultimately said: “It was something a certain record company executive twisted my arm into doing.”

Other Versions and Parodies

Besides Madonna’s cover, multiple versions and parodies of American Pie also exist. In 1999, a song titled The Saga Begins, written and performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic recounted the plot of Star Wars Episode One as a parody of American Pie. McLean permitted the parody and praised it after its release.

Weird Al Yankovic performance, Florida, USA
Weird Al Yankovic performance, Florida, USA. Photo By Larry Marano/Shutterstock

The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan, used a live video of American Pie as a counter-reaction to a Newsweek article that claimed the city was dying. Many critics hailed the video as an extraordinary performance, with film critic Roger Ebert even stating that it was “the greatest music video ever made.” The song was also used as a track for the music video games Rock Band.

In 2002, Chevrolet revived the song in an advertisement, using the “Drove my Chevy to the levee” line.

Fun Facts about “American Pie”

As McLean owns the phrase “American Pie” as a registered trademark, he received money for licensing the title for the American Pie movies. This comes as a surprise for many since the serious song has nothing to do with the comedy series.

Additionally, from Pinkie Pie to The Day Guitar Hero Died, the song has been parodied by many YouTubers in recent years.

Don McLean in 'Music Studio' - 1990
Don McLean in ‘Music Studio’ – 1990. Photo By ITV/Shutterstock

Although it was snubbed at the Grammys and other awards despite being a success, the song was enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame 29 years after its release.

At the time of the song’s release, many radio stations in the US had a policy that limited airplay to 3:30 minutes. As such, those stations banned the song simply because of its length. Many suggested McLean wrote such a long song as a protest against the policy.

American Pie was responsible for the revival of interest in Buddy Holly, who wasn’t much remembered in the 1960s. McLean himself said in an interview: “By 1964, you didn’t hear anything about Buddy Holly. He was completely forgotten. However, I didn’t forget him, and I think this song helped make people aware that Buddy’s legitimate musical contribution had been overlooked. When I first heard American Pie on the radio, I was playing a gig somewhere, and it was immediately followed by Peggy Sue. They caught right on to the Holly connection, and that made me very happy. I realized that it was gonna perform some good works.”

The American Pie Legacy

Still a symbol of the musical revolution of the 1970s after all these years, American Pie remains one of the most significant song allegories of the century. Bringing joy to listeners, it serves as a nostalgic reminder of a world that is no more. Reminding listeners of fate and how the world around us is ever-changing, the meaningful lyrics of American Pie bring back memories of the 1950s and 1960s.

Dolly Parton and Don Mclean
Dolly Parton and Don Mclean. Source: Instagram

Considered by many as one of the greatest songs ever written, American Pie is here to remind us all of a more peaceful time when music was intertwined with political events and cultural changes and managed to capture the true spirit of the country. No other song includes so many references and nuances about the cultural background of a nation at a specific point in time. For this reason, American Pie remains a memorable creation that encapsulates the true American spirit beautifully.