American Pie

Link to column: What is Don McLean’s song “American Pie” all about?

I agree with just about all that has been said about this 1971 song’s imagery and its meaning: the loss of simple innocence in popular music during the 1960’s. However, I may have missed it in the numerous long annotations (I have only so much time to piss away on this amusing diversion), but no one has expressly mentioned that the most obvious and telling reference in the song is contained in the title: “American Pie” (NB not “Miss American Pie”, as I have seen). The title means American rock and roll, as in “what is more American than…, and I contend it suggests that the song itself is more critical than popularly thought of the pernicious influences foreign bands had had on the nation’s pop music since Buddy Holly died…

“American Pie” takes the form of an elegiac lament, one that bemoans the fact that British Bands – especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones – had taken over and corrupted this essentially American music form since Holly’s death in February of 1959 by making it much less danceable and far less innocent. In the process, the British Invasion, as it was called, caused this country’s listening public to forget Rock’s roots in rockabilly and R&B, quintessentially American genres, and paradoxically shifted our nation’s musical axis, both literally and figuratively, from the Middle America where McLean grew up delivering newspapers to amoral, post-modern, southern California (when people talked at that time about going to “the coast”, they sure didn’t mean the East Coast). As a folk artist in NYC little known to the general public when he released this song, McLean almost certainly disdained the way non-acoustical Rock and Roll was then being marketed to the American public by record company executives and radio station programmers who had little genuine love for this music outside of its profitability and no sense of its history or authenticity.

The British Invasion started out paying homage to Buddy Holly and his cohort (John Lennon claimed him as a primary influence before he read a book on Karl Marx), but quickly left off playing simple, rhythmic music to record more atonal and psychedelic and demanding types of songs in the second half of the decade. In the 50’s, the teenage music audience in this country had fun listening to rock and roll at small venues where dancing was the whole reason for getting together, or they bopped to the beat of singles on a portable record player and over the radio. Dealing with teenage heartache and budding sexuality was the apex of that decade’s musical moral inquiry, even though this inquiry was coyly disguised by symbolic language — “pink carnation”, indeed. Tellingly, “American Pie’s” lyrics only ask if that kind of music can save your “mortal” soul, not the immortal one.

Moreover, the entire style of music making had changed between 1959 and 1971. Electric instruments were a part of the 50’s music scene, but undanceable and unrestrained twenty minute guitar, bass, and synthesizer solos, a la Led Zeppelin, were decidedly not. Towards the end of the 60’s, rock and roll’s signal features were loudness, ponderousness, and immense self-indulgence. Whether on records or at gigs, the early days of rock were played by entertainers performing for general teenage audiences; elitist audiences weren’t there for the benefit of ever more esoteric rock and roller artistes. .

By the late 60’s, rock and roll was increasingly heard in huge stadiums or on expensive LP albums, and the music was inexorably intertwined with explicit sexuality and drug use (as opposed to whiskey and rye—does anyone remember how differently drugs were viewed in this country as opposed to alcohol back then?). Insofar as they were sincerely concerned with social activism, the Beatles’s “revolutions” were becoming more and more narcissistically dilettante and ineffective — even by the first days of the 70’s it was clear that the British Invasion’s only lasting effect on the political culture of this country would be the over promotion of drugs, sexual profligacy, and stubborn nonconformity, i.e., rebelling without a cause, to a far greater extent than anyone could have originally predicted.

As a folk artist himself, McLean seems to be bewailing the dishonorable manner in which the stars of his genre retried from the field of battle before the invaders from England. While tentatively approving Dylan’s ascendancy over Elvis in the first part of the decade, ”American Pie” suggests that there was no clear verdict in this contest because of the advent of the British Invasion. One must remember that until the Beatles arrived here in 1964, American Folk music – as then being performed by Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, etc., was deemed to be the next big thing in American popular music. I surmise that McLean’s song intends to impugn Dylan’s capitulation to the Beatles mammoth popularity and overwhelming influence by forsaking his acoustical guitar, refusing to tour in the mid 60’s around the time his leg was broken in a motorcycle accident, and creating less and less accessible music throughout the remainder of the decade. Moreover, the Byrds, and other California folk music bands, similarly let the artists of their genre down, partly because of their geography, I suspect, but also through indulging in the electric guitars and drug abuse the Fab 4 had made fashionable

According to the theme of McLean’s song, the Rolling Stones and Altamont – and Charlie Manson’s interpretation of the Beatles’s Helter Skelter for that matter – represented an highly regrettable but direct and inescapable progression of popular music in this country that was turning more and more immoral, violent, and even satanic. In fact, I believe that Heavy Metal music (I am not sure that this term was used at that point) was just coming into vogue when this song was written, but someone with more informed music tastes will have to take up this thread, if it is indeed worth taking up. I further think that McLean, as a good folky, condemned the political tragedies of the 60’s – some of which, like the three assassinations, are alluded to on multiple levels in the song – and likely thought that the decade’s raw and powerfully disturbing music forms may have helped shape the decade’s deepening brutal sensibilities. If this is true, “American Pie” is more than just a lament, it is a deeply felt assessment of the origins of (and exculpation for?) the excesses of the 60’s on both sides of the cultural divide, thus thematically paralleling Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” published in the same year.

I further believe that McLean may also have harbored at one point the hope that American folk-singers like he and Joplin would take back this country’s rock and roll legacy. So he wrote this song with the quaint rock and roll riffs (before “sampling” was acceptable), damnably catchy melody, and poignantly cryptic lyrics to remind people how good ol’ American rock music used to be. McLean is also saying in effect that folk music is this country’s link – sans electric instruments – to its storied rock and roll past, but that Folk had ultimately failed to live up to the promise of its legacy.

Perhaps the song’s symbolism is so opaque because the idea of directly criticizing the Beatles and other like groups intimidated McLean: Lennon and McCartney had a great deal of influence and favor in those days (how many groups in 1971 had their own record label), and it wasn’t cool at that time in our country’s’ history to be either anti-drug or jingoistic, except in an ironic sense, which is exactly how I believe this song’s title was pitched to the record buying public. Too bad he didn’t know that the Beatles would break-up shortly after the song was published. (Won’t the Stones ever stop touring?) Maybe he realized that it wasn’t fair to lay all of the ills of rock and roll at the doorsteps of the Beatles and the other British bands of the time. But his continuing protests to the contrary, I think McLean knew precisely whom he was blaming in this song for the death of rock and roll.

Consequently, my thesis is that in his song American Pie, McLean was either consciously or unconsciously rejecting the influence England’s young musicians had on popular music in this country during the 1960’s (“ten years on our own” is therefore sardonic) and expressing a longing for a return to the simpler native music that Buddy Holly popularized during his own youth. I am confirmed in this supposition by the harsh manner McLean references British Bands throughout the song, but I am not insensible to an alternative construction that holds that McLean was merely decrying the state of popular music at the end of the British Invasion. Undeniably, however, the song’s imagery evokes the most military of sports in drawing up lines of conflict between British 60’s music and vintage American rock and roll.

In one of the few edifying comments he made on this piece, McLean admitted that he wrote the song in order to foster renewed interest in Buddy Holly’s work. It is interesting to note in this regard that the band Sha Na Na had gotten started in 1969 in New York City where McLean played, and also had a small set at Woodstock a year and a half before “American Pie” was released. (It has been noted elsewhere that that festival was most remarkable for showcasing the two kinds of music popular at the time before they became irretrievably irreconcilable in one bill) Grease would appear on very slightly off Broadway in February of the following year. McLean’s song therefore presaged the approaching 50’s Rock and Roll revival in this country. .

To my mind, the real irony of this song, which is so laced with ironic symbolism, is that the Sha Na Na type of nostalgia, and British performers like Elton John (and, shudder, disco “artistes”), would soon appear making much more melodic, simple, and danceable music within the reach of general audiences. But just like this new-rock wasn’t going to be served up by Led Zeppelin, it also wasn’t going to be played by folk musicians. After the 60’s, rock and roll was no longer the same, or no longer had was the same type of simple entertainment value, because the listeners of popular music had themselves lost their innocence since “the day the music died.” In that sense, as it has been remarked, the song “American Pie” does not lament the lost innocence in popular music after 1959, but this county’s

Then why is the “day the music died” in 1959, and not 1964 when the Beatles became big in the US?

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Board, Burkey, we’re glad to have you with us.

When you start a thread, it’s helpful to others if you provide a link to the column you’re discussing. It saves search time, and helps keep us all on the same page. I’ve edited the link in for you. No big deal, you’ll know for next time. And, as I say, welcome!

Somewhat to the side of your post, you didn’t happen to participate in any CTY summer camps as a youngster, did you? I just got back from working at one, and this song is considered “canon” for the dances at all the CTY sites. Your analysis seems either rather liberally cribbed[1] from one of the many analyses on websites run by current and former CTY students or directly inspired by a common source.

[1] not to be construed as an accusation of plagiarism

[li]CTY?[/li][li]I suspect that “Burkey” wasn’t around during the 60’s; the perspective is not a contemporary one, and there is one crucial error in the chronology.[list=a][/li][li]The Beatles broke up in 1970, well before American Pie.[/li][li]The British Invasion saved Rock and Roll from the smothering it had received under the ministrations of Col. Parker and Dick Clark.[/li][li]The quasi-Joycean style of American Pie itself owes a tremendous debt to John Lennon.[/li][li]The association between popular music and illegal drugs is a lot older than the Beatles’ discovery of LSD.[/li][/ol]

I’d decided not to go into this before since if Burkey didn’t understand it the answer would obviously be “no”.


Also has a Wikipedia page.

There is also the point that Buddy Holly himself was moving pop music away from the stereotypical boy/girl love lost/found lyrical ideas, and was recording with unique instrumentation and techniques…things that Beatles wouldn’t try until about 1965.

It may have been that had Holly not died we would not have needed the Beatles, but Holly was already leading rock-n-roll down that path.

Hmmph. Back in the '50s when I was a wippersnapper “American Pie” meant a certain part of a woman’s anatomy. So there.

huh… I’ve heard some variations on “pie” (mostly “honey” and “hair”). Do you have a cite on this?