American Pie is the kind of song that everyone knows. Just start singing the chorus, and whoever is nearby will start singing.
It’s everything Americana, but what is the real meaning behind the lyrics? What inspired Don McLean to write it? And, does it work 50 years later?
Keep reading to find out.
American Pie Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary
American pie was the first track off the 1971 album of the same name. The tune has become one of the most recognized of all time. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified that album gold six months after release.
Don McLean recorded the title track on May 26, 1971, and released the album on October 24. Producers had to split the eight-minute 32-second long single because it couldn’t fit on one side of a 45 record.
On October 1, 1971, Don McLean played the song for the first time at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, WV. In the 50 years since its release, more than 50 artists have played the track over 400 times.
In 1973, American Pie lost both Song of the Year and Record of the Year. But clearly, the song had a much greater reach and impact than anyone could ever know.
About American Pie and Don McLean
On October 2, 1945, Don McLean was born in New Rochelle, New York. He became interested in folk music and purchased his guitar when he was 16.
McLean had already experienced tragedy and heartache that would later shape him and his music. As a boy, he delivered newspapers, and he learned of Buddy Holly’s death during one of his paper route mornings. When he was 15, his father died.
The success of American Pie thrust him into the spotlight, and he wasn’t exactly prepared for it. Most people probably aren’t prepared for it, but he just didn’t expect it to become such a phenomenon. McLean had a specific plan for his life and his path to success. Suddenly, that was all disrupted. He was depressed, and it was hard for him to wake up each day.
Despite McLean’s reaction to fame, the anthem took on a life of its one and the world completely embraced it. The pieced peaked at #1 on US Billboard Hot 100, US Billboard Adult Contemporary, Australian Kent Music Report, Canadian charts, and the New Zealand Listener.
You’ll find that many groups covered the famous number over the years since its release. In 1972, The Brady Bunch recorded a version for the Meet The Brady Bunch album. And Madonna’s cover for the 2000 movie The Next Best Thing is infamous. Music fans and critics often refer to her version as one of the worst covers of all time.
Tori Amos has performed the tune more than 70 times, most notably in 1994. It was the year Kurt Cobain died, and to Amos and many others, the music had died once again.
What Is the Meaning Behind American Pie?
We are pretty sure that novels could be written about the meaning behind the lyrics of this folk anthem. Ever since it hit the airwaves, everyone has interpreted the words differently. McLean himself has never really come out and talked about the meaning of the verses.
So, is there a theme or specific meaning for each line? Let’s dig in!
The Overall Meaning
It’s very personal for Don McLean. The death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper (AKA Jiles Perry Richardson, Jr.) in a plane crash in 1959 affected him greatly. He held onto the grief, and it gave birth to the words we know today. For McLean, Holly’s death was the day the music died.
In the song, McLean discusses the end of innocence in the 50s and the start of civil unrest in the 60s. He has described it as a dream; it makes sense while in it. When you wake up, though, it’s a little less clear what actually happened.
“While the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.” describes how Bob Dylan took the limelight from Elvis Presley. McLean references Dylan several more times in American Pie.
“With the jester on the sidelines in a cast” refers to Dylan after his near-fatal motorcycle accident.
“Do you recall what was revealed The day the music died?” might have several different meanings.
Is it about a John Lennon and Yoko Ono album cover? The bra-burning feminists during the 1968 Miss American competition? Or maybe it’s about the police brutality against protesters, reporters, photographers, and bystanders at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago? We may never know.
“And while Lenin read a book on Marx” has several interpretations as well. Lenin is probably Vladimir Lenin, the communist dictator that led the 1917 Russian revolution and built the USSR. Most think Marx refers to the socialist philosopher Karl Marx. However, some theories point to Groucho Marx, an entertainer suspected of being a socialist.
“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter” spotlights the horrors of The Manson Family’s 1969 murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and others in California.
Of course, we only highlighted a few of the lyrics here. There’s so much more to the words. Maybe McLean will open up more about the meaning one day, but we won’t hold our breath.
Is There a Movie About the Song, American Pie?
Spoiler alert, if you search for “American Pie Movie,” your results may point to a 1999 R-rated sex comedy. While it has absolutely nothing to do with McLean’s masterpiece, they did have to pay for the rights to use “American Pie.”
There are two older movies about “The Day The Music Died,” the first is from 1999 and the second from 2010. Both cover the career and death of singer Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash. The 1999 documentary also includes musicians Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the song, a documentary and Broadway show are slated for 2022.
Spencer Proffer, the John Coltraine documentary “Chasing Trane” producer, will be working on the McLean documentary. The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ will feature interviews with artists and celebrities about what the song means to them. What it meant to them in the past, now, and what they think it’ll mean for future generations.
McLean said he’ll talk about how he came up with the song and the events in his own life reflected in the piece.
Corey Brunish and Russel Miller will produce the Broadway musical. The show will be a fictionalized version of McLean’s life with songs. If you’re a fan, you’ll recognize some of the pieces chosen for the show: Vincent, Castles in the Air, and Wonderful Baby. McLean hopes the show will be like Jersey Boys or The Temptations, but with a little more mystery.
American Pie Might Even Be Sweeter Today
What do you think? Does American Pie still hold up 50 years later? For us, it’s still relatable. It has a unique style and allows individuals to connect with the music and lyrics. We’re certainly looking forward to the documentary!