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[2019-06-12] American Pie - Don McLean THUMB

What Happened: The secret meanings of 'American Pie'

06/12/2019 12:00 PM

One of the perks that come with being a songwriter is that you can be as cryptic as you choose; you can come out and say what's on your mind in a direct fashion, or you can dance about literal meanings and dive heavily into symbolism and allegory. One of rock's most famous cryptic songs is Don McLean's 1971 classic "American Pie," an eight-minute folk-rock ode to…well, something. The song is stuffed with tantalizing phrases that seem to represent something more than they are: Do the King, Queen, and Jester represent real people? Is this about the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Who are the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in this tale? What was the exact day the music died? Fans debated the meanings and symbolism offered in the song for decades, but McLean chose not to shed any light on the subject; when asked what the song meant, he would often simply joke that "It means I never have to work again." The closest he came to confirming any symbolism was in a letter to the newspaper column The Straight Dope, but even then, he said, "Long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence."

But humans crave answers, and when given only silence, they will create detailed educated guesses, even if they are not official. So it was with some relief that McLean himself finally did offer some insight – but not complete answers – when he put his original lyrics up for auction in 2015. "I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015; there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of American Pie,” he said at the time. That's kind of a bummer, but hey, so is the song. Listen to a live version performed in 1972:

McLean confirmed that the song is a lament for the country in which he grew up. "Basically in 'American Pie' things are heading in the wrong direction,” he said in the auction catalog. "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."

In the mid-1990s, he confirmed that he was referencing Buddy Holly, who perished in a plane crash – "the day the music died" being February 3, 1959; many other details have been assumed to be true for years, which McLean has not refuted. The King alludes to Elvis Presley; the Queen is…still up for debate, having been suggested as Connie Francis, Aretha Franklin, or simply a symbol. McLean has yet to clarify and likely never will. And thanks to multiple lines that seem to reference specific details of his life, The Jester is largely believed to be Bob Dylan -- though Dylan himself has shrugged that off, suggested his own music hardly makes him a comic figure.

Other lines reference specific cultural or historical events. "Helter skelter, in a summer swelter" is almost certainly about the Charles Manson murders (invoking the Beatles song of the same name, which Manson cited as the name for the coming Armageddon). And while The Beatles themselves are referred to variously as "the sergeants," "the quartet," and "the marching band," their eternal rival the Rolling Stones are acknowledged with "Jack Flash sat on a candlestick"; even more specifically, "no angel born in Hell" alludes to the Hell's Angels' presence at the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969.

Musicologists will likely continue to debate the finer points and share lyric interpretations for years to come, but in a nutshell, "American Pie" is about the death of innocence on a national scale – a disillusioning loss of the simpler, happier times of the 1950s as that decade's heroes passed on, then gave way to the politically and culturally turbulent 1960s before plowing head-first into the cynical culture of the 1970s.

Whether you see "American Pie" as a biased history lesson or just a disillusioned folk singer being grumpy, it remains a creative statement worthy of interpretation and debate decades after its release. In other words, it's art in song form.

Dan Amrich started his music journalism career at Guitar World and Country Guitar magazines and is the co-creator of Princess Leia's Stolen Death Star Plans. He joined the Rocksmith team in 2014.

"Don McLean" by Solar Scott is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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