Don McLean was only 13 years old, delivering his hometown newspaper route when he found out that his idol Buddy Holly had died in a tragic plane accident. 12 years later, McLean took that poignant memory and created one of the most iconic and beloved ballads of all time, “American Pie.” The song takes listeners on a nostalgic journey through rock ‘n roll’s history, beginning with “the day the music died” and traveling across all of the major musical, cultural and political events of the sixties.
Donald McLean III was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1945, and grew up amid the anxious tranquility of the post-war decades. He struggled with poor health and asthma for much of his childhood and missed a great deal of school. He thus spent his time at home, indoors, listening to music. He was an omnivore, listening to rock and roll, folk and popular music, but it was the earliest rock ‘n rollers that inspired him to pick up a guitar. This included Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and the young, rising star, Buddy Holly.
By 1961, teenage McLean’s health had improved and he had begun to develop a strong interest in folk music. Inspired by The Weaver’s 1955 recording Live at Carnegie Hall, he spent the sixties integrating himself into the vibrant folk-revival scene. He performed at college campuses and venues across the United States including the Bitter End and Gaslight Cafe in New York, the Cellar Door in Washington D.C. the Troubadour and Ash Grove in Los Angeles, and the Newport Folk Festival. It was also during this time when he met Folk music icon Pete Seeger. Seeger would mentor young McLean, inviting him to tour with him as they promoted environmental awareness in addition to sharing their music.
McLean recorded his first album, Tapestry, in 1969 in Berkeley, CA and it was released in October of 1970. The album contained two singles – “Castles in the Air” and “And I Love You So,” the latter of which went on to greater success when it was picked up and covered by two artists a few years later. “And I Love You So” became a number one hit for Perry Como in 1973 and was also recorded by one of McLean’s earliest influences – Elvis Presley – in 1975. The song became a staple at Presley’s live shows until his death two years later. While Tapestry received some positive reviews, it’s presence was mostly limited to folk music circles. It wasn’t until McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie” and it’s accompanying album of the same name that the singer-songwriter was propelled into international stardom.
Because Tapestry did not bring very much financial success, McLean wrote much of his American Pie while working a day job playing music for the school system in Stockbridge, Massachusett. However, the song “American Pie” was composed after he had already finished most of the album; he felt the album was missing something and wanted to write a song about “America”, something which would capture the moment – the zeitgeist of the era. Because McLean was an active participant in the Folk music scene of the sixties, we can see how songs like “American Pie” reflect that tradition. The song is an introspective look into McLean’s thinking of the time and his philosophical ideas regarding politics and music. It is also a song very much of its time, reflecting the intense turmoil the post-war generation had experienced over the short course of their young lives.
McLean recently explained: “America was much more volatile than it is at the moment. We didn’t have a pandemic, but cities were burning. People in the street. We’d had enough of LBJ and Nixon. This was the kind of volatile world we were in then. The Vietnam War was breathing down everybody’s back.” To capture these tensions and dramatic changes, McLean employed layers of symbolism and cryptic references in the lyrics to tell the story of rock ‘n roll and American culture across the sixties. Despite the compelling mystery of the song’s meaning for decades of audiences, he has largely remained silent behind the specific references in the song. When asked what the song means, he has often answered: “It means I’ll never have to work again.”
The song begins by looking back to McLean’s childhood. While playing guitar one day, he was thinking about his childhood newspaper route and the day he delivered the announcement of Buddy Holly’s death. Almost fully formed, the first verse flowed from his mouth:
A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.
At the end of this opening, McLean coined the now-iconic phrase – “the day the music died”. This phrase has since become synonymous with the tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and P.J (“The Big Bopper “) Richardson. The irony of “the day the music died” is that, in 1959, rock ‘n roll had only just been born. Elvis had broken onto the scene a short five years earlier with his debut single “That’s Alright Mama”, the same year as Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” and Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around the Clock”. As the decade came to a close Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper represented the next wave of new, young rock ‘n rollers emerging onto the scene. After the 1957 release of his hit “That’ll Be the Day” Buddy Holly had become an inspiration to the pre-teen and teenage rock and roll fans of the late fifties, like McLean. But Holly’s light was tragically cut short only two years later.
In January of 1959, Buddy Holly and his band, the Crickets, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts had spent several weeks together on their Winter Dance Party tour across the mid-western United States. Tired of the freezing tour buses, Holly chartered a plan to take him, Valens and Richardson to their next destination. Tragically, poor weather caused the plane to crash in a cornfield near Clear Lake Iowa. When the trio of young stars passed, it represented a significant moment in this generation’s coming of age – a moment of rupture between the idealism of childhood and the emerging reality of adult life. For McLean and his generation, this tragedy had a profound impact. As “American Pie” producer Ed Freeman reflected, without the song, “…many of us would have been unable to grieve, achieve closure, and move on. Don saw that, and wrote the song that set us free. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that.”
The song finds its inspiration in Buddy Holly but many of the song’s lyrics are far from clear. For 50 years, audiences have tried to unearth their meaning and McLean has kept relatively tight-lipped about his intentions for specific referents. This is, in part, because he was attempting to create a mythical, rock dream. Thus, as much as we try to make sense of individual lines, they manage to resist consistent interpretation.
For instance, McLean employs the courtly figures of the Jester, King and Queen several places in the song. The Jester is most often understood to be Bob Dylan. The “coat he borrowed from James Deans” looks to the album cover on Dylan’s 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan which uses a photo of Dylan that resembles the look of the iconic 1950s film actor James Dean
Later in the song, McLean sings of “the jester on the sidelines, in a cast” which seems to reference Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident. An event which took him out of the musical spotlight for a time. Perhaps most meaningfully, McLean sings that the Jester sang “in a voice that came from you and me” – a likely reference to Dylan’s status as the mouthpiece for his generation. Dylan would refute this interpretation in a rare 2017 interview saying “A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ — some jester.” However, historically, the jester in literature and mythology does not necessarily imply absurdity. In fact, the jester is often one of the most important figures of the court, because he is the only one who can speak freely. Through wit and humor, the jester is the only individual capable of confronting power (i.e. the king and queen) with truth.
The identity of the King is less clear. Some interpret it to mean President Kennedy and his wife Jackie, whose White House was called Camelot after JFK’s assassintation. McLean himself has spoken about the profound mark that the president’s death had left on his generation. However, other’s take the terminology more literally – referencing Martin Luther King Jr. and Queen Elizabeth II of England. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that Dylan had, in fact, sang for both of them (although on different occasions). And finally, it could be a reference to the King of Rock ‘n Roll himself – Elvis Presley. The line “and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown” could be referring to Elvis’ reduced popularity in the sixties, a time in which Dylan assumed the role of the most important individual musical figure for the youth generation – the new “king of rock ‘n roll”.
Another symbolic thread that runs through the song is that of spirituality, in which rock ‘n roll is imagined as a quasi-deity. Early in the song McLean asks: “Now, do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll / Can music save your mortal soul.” For McLean, music was a very spiritual experience and rock ‘n roll was his first introduction into a musical spirituality as a child. In 1971, after writing “American Pie” he told Phonograph Record: “…music is a very sacred thing…to sell it, feint or abuse it isn’t just commercial, it’s sacrilege, Music touches the same universality that made Christ a saint to many people and that’s very important.”After several verses of musical and political references, McLean returns to this idea of music and faith towards the end of the song singing:
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
Throughout the song, McLean also employs a recurring satanic figure, which is often interpreted to be Mick Jagger. This reading is due to the specific Rolling Stone’s references that surround the devil’s imagery. “Jack Flash” in the lyrics is clearly a reference to the Stone’s song “Jumping Jack Flash” and the “angel born in Hell” is likely referring to the tragic death of Merideth Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels. Hunter was killed during the Rolling Stone’s set at a free concert at Altamont Speedway in Northern California in 1969.
McLean ends the last verse with yet another spiritual reference, cryptically singing:
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
Several interpretations exist for the Trinity figures. The first, lives in the realm of politics with the three major assassinations of the sixties: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. For McLean’s generation, these deaths were transformative – shifting their collective spirit away from the idealism of the previous era. However, MLK and the Kennedys are not musicians and the lyrics seem to indicate that the Trinity figures are, since they “caught the last train for the coast” on “the day the music died”
Perhaps the most likely theory, then, involves a return to the three early figures of rock ‘n roll whose death is referenced in the song’s beginning: Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens. Not only does it unify the song’s structure, the imagery of taking a “train to the coast” makes a possible euphemism for a tragic plane accident.
Finally, there’s the song’s iconic chorus which also leans heavily on Holly references. McLean has never stated the meaning or identity of “Miss American Pie” (is it even a person?). Perhaps more likely, it is an idea — the idea of American dream. A dream that in 1971 seemed to be lost. McLean reflected: “Basically in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction… It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.”
The rest of the chorus looks back to Buddy Holly, whose famous breakout song from 1957, “That’ll be the day,” contained the lyrics “that’ll be the the day that I die”. In “American Pie” Holly’s lyrics take a pessimistic turn to the present as the “good ‘old boys” since “This’ll be the day that I die”. Buddy Holly’s death thus represented the loss of idealism that McLean and his generation felt at the end of the sixties. The sense of nostalgic longing that we find in “American Pie” is so powerful because it uses images of musical and political history that everyone can understand, and in doing so, looks to rediscover the hope and idealism for the future that the post-war generation had felt in their youth – a hope they had felt when they first discovered rock ‘n roll.
“American Pie” was recorded on 26th May, 1971 at New York’s Record Plant. McLean asked Ed Freeman to produce the album after hearing Freeman’s work with Tom Rush.
Freeman chose to bring in professional musicians who weren’t experienced in the studio: “I wanted to capture the sound of a band that was really cooking, and for that I made a deliberate choice to not use a bunch of studio musicians who could act like a metronome and turn on like a faucet, without any feel. Instead, the people we used were good musicians but ones with not a whole lot of studio experience who, instead of doing a series of overdubs, would play together and provide us with an organic performance.” With Bob Rothstein on bass, Roy Markowitz on drums and McLean on acoustic guitar, the band rehearsed for two weeks before recording. At the last minute, they chose to bring in David Spinozza on electric guitar, and Paul Griffin on piano who were experienced studio musicians.
Tom Flye, engineered the album. While Freeman and McLean have since complimented each other’s work on the recording, and have created other albums together after “American Pie”, the initial relationship was tempestuous. Both were still learning how to take their own ideas and work with other people. Freeman thus credits Flye for the way he could manage their two big personalities. He reflected: “Tom is a total genius and also the most patient man I have ever met in my entire life…Nothing will fluster him. I wasn’t an easy person to work with, Don wasn’t an easy person to work with, so working with the two of us together must have been like watching two wasps go at each other. Yet he was totally unflappable. He was endlessly, endlessly patient, and his personality was so perfect for the position, sitting there between these two monster egos — the producer and the artist. He was like the glue that held the whole thing together.”
Recording in Studio A – a large room with a 25-foot ceiling that had been designed and acoustically treated by studio designer Tom Hidley. There wasn’t a way to hear the talkback from the booth, so the studio hung up a school bell which the producer could ring if he wanted the musicians to stop. In terms of equipment, Studio A housed a 32-input Spectra Sonics console, a 16-track Ampex MM1000 tape machine, Tannoy monitors, and one-inch Scullys with 12-track heads. Flye recalls having three tracks for drums in which he likely used an EV 666 and a Neumann KM84 on the snare. He also employed several U87s as overhead tom mics. The bass guitar was recorded using a DI, while U87s for Spinozza’s electric guitar, Griffin’s piano and McLean’s vocal. Flye had to created a plexiglass baffle to get separation between McLean’s vocal and the his acoustic guitar which is played in the booth while he sang.
According to Freeman, the iconic chorus of voices that join McLean in the final chorus was made of an overdubbed choir of Freeman and McLean’s friends and colleagues. He recalls: “I think a lot of people knew that this record was going to be a classic…So that background chorus included Pete Seeger and James Taylor and Livingston Taylor and Carly Simon. It was quite a star-studded cast, and one that I really should have photographed.
“American Pie” was released on October 24, 1971 and immediately climbed the charts, peaking at the number 1 spot in the US on January 14, 1972. It held that position for four weeks and still remains the longest running song (at 8 minutes and 42 seconds) to hold the top position. It also hit the number 1 spot internationally in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and peaked in the number 2 spot in the UK.
For the past 50 years, “American Pie” has maintained its iconic status. In 2000 Madonna covered the song, propelling it to the number one spot internationally, once again. It has been selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. The National Recording Industry named it a top 5 song of the 20th century. “American Pie” remains one of the most beloved and powerful songs in American popular music history, inspiring generations of listeners to reflect on the past and rediscover “rock ‘n roll” once again.
Watch the video below to learn more about Don McLean and his hit, American Pie!