American Pie

But what does it mean?

January 25, 2022

Perhaps no song from the 1970’s has garnered more speculation as to its meaning than Don McLean’s 1972 smash hit American Pie. It was 50 years ago, in January and February 1972, when it sat atop the Billboard charts for four weeks.

From the moment it was released and to this day, no one is entirely certain what the songwriter meant. McLean himself has said this about the song’s lyrics: “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.”

But that declaration has not stopped people from wondering. The memorable tune combined with compelling lyrics imbued the song with staying power. So much so, that the Infallible Wikipedia shares:

“The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century. A truncated version of the song was covered by Madonna in 2000 and reached No. 1 in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. At 8 minutes and 42 seconds, McLean’s combined version is the sixth longest song to enter the Billboard Hot 100 (at the time of release it was the longest). The song also held the record for almost 50 years for being the longest song to reach number one before Taylor Swift’s ‘All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)’ broke the record in 2021. Due to its exceptional length, it was initially released as a two-sided 7-inch single. ‘American Pie’ has been described as ‘one of the most successful and debated songs of the 20th century.’”

The song has made seventy six year old McLean wealthy. His net worth estimated at $50 million. If you’re looking to find out what the song means, McLean himself has quipped: “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” Later, he stated, “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me … Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

When the song became a hit I was 14 years old and – as I’ve written about in other blog posts – a hopelessly romantic, angsty teen. American Pie’s lyrics seemed to speak to my generation on a very personal level. We learned about Buddy Holly, Richie Valance, and The Big Bopper, from the song. There was nothing more tragic than the thought of Holly’s young widow on that fateful February 3, 1959.

But more than that, it was these particular lyrics which seemed to sum up the experience of that time:

Well, I know that you’re in love with him,

 ‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym,

You both kicked off your shoes,

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

Illustrative of this idea is my diary post of February 11, 1972. The names HAVE been changed to protect the innocent… I think.

“This week went by fast but tonight was awful. I’ve decided that ‘B’ doesn’t like me. We got Yakima’s officers installed. (A reference to a youth group) After, they had a really crudy* dance. We were telling jokes and I was upset. After a while, and ‘B’ was playing the piano, I think he plays it when something is bugging him. But I’ve decided to forget him, for good! Another boy made my day. I think his name is ‘A.’ He said Hi to me but I was crying.”

My 1972 diary entry

Ah, the drama of youth. Eventually, “B” was my boyfriend for a couple of months but, as is true of most such relationships, it was consigned to the dustbin of youthful history. And who knows what caused the tears! Those seemed to be a constant back in the day.

The most ironic thing about American Pie, I think, is the repeated line ‘the day the music died.’ Many have speculated that he was referring to the loss of innocence as well as the death of the three musicians. Perhaps. But ‘the music’ came to life for me in the early 1970’s. I would venture millions of other baby boomers had similar epiphanies in the 60’s and 70’s, thanks to artists like Don McLean and songs like American Pie.

*crudy – derivation of the word ‘crud’ the definition of which, at least how I used it,is: Noun. Slang. ‘something that is worthless, objectionable, or contemptible.’

The links:

The lyrics are sooooo long, that instead of sharing them in the article, you can read them here

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