Monday, February 1, 2021

The song heard 'round the world


Don McLean’s “American Pie,” an eight-minute paean to the cultural and musical history of America in the 1950s and ‘60s, has intersected with my life twice, first as a teenager and later as an adult half a world away from my Southeast Missouri home town.

The song is part of the music that makes up the interactive, spiritual road map of my life, chronicling where I have been, what I did and felt at that particular moment and the incredible people who interacted with me on the journey.

It is June 1993, and I’m one of five people in a car traveling across the city at night, spontaneously singing along: “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, singin’, ‘This’ll be the day that I die.’”

The city is Singapore and the other occupants of the car are Chinese residents of that island city-state. It is one of the more surreal moments of my life as I realize that my Asian friends know all the lyrics to the then-22-year-old song. As the song ends, a discussion breaks out about the meaning of the lyrics.

Is the “jester” Bob Dylan?

The “king” has to be Elvis Presley.

Buddy Holly. Obviously, he’s the day the music died.

“Jack Flash” is The Rolling Stones.

“Father, son and the Holy Ghost”: John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.?

My first exposure to “American Pie” also came in a car. And I recall it with vivid intensity, as if it were yesterday rather than nearly five decades ago. The song came on the radio just as I was navigating a sharp curve on Old Orchard Road in my hometown of Poplar Bluff a block away from the left turn onto Leonard Drive where I lived. I sat in the driveway for the remaining six or so minutes of the song.

There is a lot to unpack in the 800 words that make up this song. Sitting in my driveway that day, 14 of them unleashed a musical epiphany, a spiritual awakening, a restoration of my inner self: “Now, do you believe in rock 'n' roll, can music save your mortal soul?” Yes, yes it can. I have seen the light. And the “light” is a spotlight zeroed in on a long-haired, sweating guitar god reaching for the perfect note far down the fretboard.

“I listened and I heard music in a word,
And words when you played your guitar,
The noise that I was hearing was a million people cheering,
And a child flew past me riding in a star

There once was a note, listen” ("Pure And Easy," by The Who)

Like millions and millions of others that year, the American Pie album came home with me. It remains in my collection.

That my Asian friends halfway around the world knew the song by heart is testament to the enduring popularity of McLean’s magnum opus. This one song ensured the singer/songwriter a hallowed shrine in rock and pop history.

“American Pie” was a huge hit in the US in 1972, spending four weeks as the No. 1 song across the country. It also topped the charts in several other nations. At eight minutes and 33 seconds, it is the longest song to ever reach No, 1. It begins with references to the deaths of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in a plane crash in a wintry Iowa field in 1959. It goes on to chronicle in cryptic terms the pop history of 1960s America, a history that culminated with the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in December 1969. Occurring just four months after the peace and love of Woodstock, the carnage at Altamont was a sad epitaph to the 1960s.

A cottage industry sprang up over the decades as people argued over the meanings of the lyrics. For decades, McLean declined to directly answer any questions about the song’s lyrics. “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry,” he said. When asked what “American Pie” meant, he jokingly replied: “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

In 2015, McLean announced that he would reveal events and people the lyrics reference when the original manuscript went up for auction later that year. In April 2015, the lyrics and notes were auctioned in New York for $1.2 million to a private collector. In the sale’s catalogue notes, McLean wrote: "Basically in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction. ... It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don't know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense."

A second auction occurred in 2017. This sale auctioned off handwritten lyrics by the musician, covering eight separate sheets of his personal stationery. Bidding started at $100,000 You can read the sale description and see copies of the pages here.

Two other copies are owned by the Harvard University library and a close friend of the musician.

Fifth-greatest song: “American Pie” was named the fifth-greatest song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry of America in 2001.

'I’m not a jester': In 2017, Dylan was asked about the reference to him in the song. "A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters Of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,' ‘It’s Alright Ma’ – some jester. I have to think he's talking about somebody else. Ask him."

Reworked as a Trump protest song: In February 2020, a parody of “American Pie” spoke out against Donald Trump. Titled “The Day Democracy Died,” the lyrics “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” became “Oh no, don’t let democracy die.” Listen to the song here.

A second hit, too: The American Pie album yielded a second hit for McLean, “Vincent,” a tribute to artist Vincent Van Gogh. It went to No. 12 in the United States and No. 1 in the United Kingdom. McLean performs the song live here.


  1. Nice piece. Like many my age, I have my own 'American Pie' stories. My favorite is listening to it on a jukebox in Rota, Spain and instead of hearing "father, son, and holy ghost," I heard a long BEEEEEEP. Apparently, mentioning the "father, son, holy ghost' together in a 'rock n roll' song got you censored in 1972 Spain. Thanks. Enjoyed the piece.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. That is an interesting story about the jukebox censorship.


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