Monday, 20 October 2008

Lyrics & their meanings Part 18- American Pie

We tackle the big ones: What the hell is it all about?

American Pie (1971) Don McLean

Don McLean released the American Pie Album in 1971, the same year as Led Zeppelins Stairway to Heaven and everyone’s had an opinion on what the hell they were about ever since.
American Pie was released in 1971 as a single from the album of the same name and reached Top 5 on the US, UK and Oz charts. Almost straight away it became sport to decipher the cryptic lyrics.

The only explanation the tunes songwriter; Don Mclean offered, was that he dedicated the album as a whole to Buddy Holly. (The Rock ‘N’ Roll idol of his youth).
He also admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas.

In McLean’s own words “ I have never discussed the lyrics. You will find many ‘interpretations’ of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn’t this fun?”

You think this would be enough for most people, but for some it has become an obsession.
In the majority of cases it has been assumed that the song is a running commentary of the history of rock since the death of Buddy Holly through the eyes of its creator. This would be fine if it was in some kind of chronological order and wasn’t so obtuse.

The most popular method is to break up every line from each verse and translate it into what they believe it be, with lots of little explanatory notes attached.

A good examples of this can been seen at

Here’s a sample:

(Verse 5)
And there we were all in one place.

A generation lost in space
Some people think this is a reference to the US space program, which it might be; but that seems a bit literal. Perhaps this is a reference to hippies, who were sometime known as the ‘lost generation’, partially because of their particularly acute alienation from their parents, and partially because of their presumed preoccupation with drugs. It could also be a reference to the awful T.V show” Lost in Space….”

Either Don McLean is master of the ambiguous or these guys haven’t got a clue. I’ll go for the latter.

The most hotly disputed part of the song seems to be the Chorus. No one can come to terms why anyone would drive a Chevy to the Levy if it were dry? Who the good Ol’ Boys are and most importantly what’s an American Pie?

Two explanations commonly used have never been confirmed or proven. That McLean once dated a Miss American candidate (I believe McLean started this rumour himself) and the plane that carried Buddy Holly to his death was called ‘America Pie’.

Hopefully one day they’ll figure that out and the rest will follow, but don’t hold your breath.
Could it be McLean had a catchy tune some snappy lines thrown together to sound good? It’s an established fact McLean was a popular folk singer before the release of the album and the majority of his audience were hippie’s, maybe he was throwing them a bone?

A lot of the lines from the song are borrowed from the period it was written.
I.E; Lost in Space, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I met a girl who sang the blues, Do you believe in Rock ‘N’ Roll , ..a pink carnation and a pick up truck, Helter Skelter and so on. I wonder what Procol Harum lead loony Keith Reid thought when he heard …caught the last train to the coast. A line he found in his pyjamas one night when he wrote the words to A Whiter Shade of Pale but that’s another story.

Maybe the song was never meant to mean anything and we should just stop analysing it, Don McLean apologised years ago to Chicago newspaper columnist Cecil Adams in a letter stating that he was sorry to lead every one on, but realised he should make a statement and move on, maintaining a dignified silence. The trouble was everyone else couldn’t shut up about it.
As an endnote Don McLean even though he denies it probably does have the best explanation of the story. When ask what American Pie means he replied:

“ It means I never have to work again if I don’t want to”.

(c) 2002 shidot

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