American Pie Is Timeless, Its Author Is 75

by Kevin Burton

    “American Pie,” is arguably the best pop song of the 70s. Don McLean wrote and performed that song. Today is his birthday.

   One of the great worldwide parlor games is to try to figure out exactly what McLean meant by his lyrics.  Spoiler alert: you won’t learn his meanings here.

   McLean himself has been coy on the subject. Surely that is because he knows it’s better for people to plug in their own meanings.  It’s also better that some mystery remains to the song, nearly 50 years after it was released in 1971. 

   “I can’t necessarily interpret American Pie any better than you can,” he told Life Magazine.

   Oh what-ever.

   At minimum we know the song was a tribute to Buddy Holly, who was “the first and last person I ever really idolized as a kid,” according to McLean. Holly was “a symbol of something deeper than the music he made,” he said.

   “The day the music died” referred to in the song of course, was Feb. 3, 1959, the day the small plane carrying Holly, Richie Valens and J. P Richardson (The Big Bopper) crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all aboard. The song refers to “his widowed bride,” referring to Holly.

   The song hit number one on Jan. 15, 1972 and stayed there for four weeks. It then slid off the charts as all songs do, but it has never left our consciousness. That McLean never returned to such musical heights is no surprise or blot against him.

   Once, the school district in Iowa is was covering as a reporter cut funding for some music programs.  In the paper I called it “the day the music died.”

   Nobody, but nobody was left scratching their heads thinking, “what’s he talking about.”  That’s how much American Pie has permeated the American culture.

   American Pie represents the greatest possible marriage of folk and rock music.  No, it’s not a screaming, guitar-solo rocker, but it does pay homage to Holly, one of the pioneers of rock.

   The chorus is exactly the sort of thing folkies sing while sitting around a campfire. The chorus itself doesn’t have definitive meaning on Buddy Holly or anything else in particular, unless maybe “Bye Bye Miss American Pie,” refers to a goodbye to innocence.

   The song is not only longer (eight minutes, 27 seconds) it is bigger than anything around it. Nothing is similar to American Pie.

   Consider the two songs that reached number one just before it (“Family Affair” by Sly and the Family Stone, “Brand New Key” by Melanie) and the two right after (“Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green and “Without You” by Harry Nillson).

   Not a bad tune in the bunch. But which of them leaps into the forefront?

   The song is unbelievably catchy musically. The chorus is the very definition of a “hook.” The tempo changes give it heft.

   For me, when the piano bits just before the chorus come in, the song achieves liftoff.  It is a celebration, completely irresistible. 

   If I didn’t mention it earlier, I like the song a lot. Here’s a note of caution however.

   The song makes more than a passing reference to God. From “Did you write the book of love and do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so,” the first lyric after the tempo picks up, to the Father Son and Holy Ghost who “took the last train for the coast” near the end of the song, McLean’s remembrances of Holly are worshipful, of God, not so much.

   In the absence of definitive word from the author, I boil it down to McLean believing that God was asleep at the wheel when the three young musicians died, that God got it wrong in not preventing that plane crash.

   It’s fine for him to be vague about the song’s meaning, but he better be figuring out his theology, if he hasn’t already.  McLean turns 75 today.

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