“American Pie” is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s. It was initially inspired by Don’s memories of being a paperboy in 1959 and learning of the death of Buddy Holly. “American Pie” presents an abstract story of McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time it represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s, but metaphorically the song continues to evolve to the present time. It is not a nostalgia song. “American Pie” changes as America, itself, is changing. For McLean, the transition from the light innocence of childhood to the dark realities of adulthood began with the deaths of his father and Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, which was the start of a more difficult time for America. During this four year period, Don moved from an idyllic childhood, through the shock and harsh realities of his father’s death in 1961, to his decision, in 1964, to leave Villanova University to pursue his dream of becoming a professional singer.
The 1950s were an era of happiness and affluence for the burgeoning American middle class. Americans had a feeling of optimism about their prospects for the future, and pride in their nation which had emerged victorious from World War II, setting the world free from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. Popular music mirrored society. Performers such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley and the Comets churned out feel-good records that matched the mood of the nation. Sinister forces such as communism were banished, and serious folk groups like the Weavers were being replaced by the beat poets who, as members of the intelligentsia, were excused their lack of optimism.
The 1960s were the antithesis of the previous decade. The exuberant simplicity of the 1950s was displaced by a much more volatile and politically charged atmosphere. People were asking questions. The cozy world of white middle class America was disturbed, as civil rights campaigners marched on Washington, D.C., and Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The following year saw the 1964 Civil Rights Act become law. On the world stage, America’s leading super-power status was being challenged by the Soviet Union, and its military might was being tested by the Vietnamese. Even in music, America soon found itself overrun by a British invasion. The 1960s was a turbulent time for McLean’s generation. By 1971, America was still deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control. The anti-war movement was gathering momentum and being listened to. On April 22, 1971, former naval officer, John Kerry, stated to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
“…In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart…”
Other events of the time, such as the successful launch of Apollo 14, did little to restore national pride. “American Pie,” in the opinion of the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, was the funeral oration for an era: “Without it, 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.”
“American Pie” was one of the last songs McLean wrote for the American Piealbum. He had started writing it in the gatehouse in Cold Spring, New York. Sitting in his office, aimlessly strumming the guitar, he started to think back to his childhood, the neighborhood where he grew up, and being a paper boy for the Standard Star. He remembered Buddy Holly. He remembered the day he cut open the bundle of papers that had been deposited on the doorstep for him to deliver, and there, on the front page, was the story of the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. It was a small column on the right hand side. He remembered being in shock while he delivered the papers on his route.
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.
McLean would later write:
“Of all the unique oddities of my career, I am perhaps proudest of the fact that I am forever linked with Buddy Holly. I bet if you ask any guitar player, he will tell you that he looked at record jackets and guitar catalogs more than anything else while growing up and dreaming. I have heard it said that children dream in a different way than grown-ups. To them, the dreams they have for themselves are as real as reality is for grown-ups. With this in mind, I can say that Buddy was a huge part of my childhood dream. Long before I decided how I would use music or what kind of artist I would be, Buddy was there. When I listened to his music, a mood overtook me which was both happy and sad, and I often looked at the record covers while the music played.
Buddy’s music is so musical. The number of great recordings he made in his very short life places him at or beyond the level of any musical artist in almost any category. Elvis never wrote songs, while Buddy composed a huge number. In my opinion, looking back, no rock act, not the Beatles, not the Stones, nor anyone else, can top records like “Peggy Sue” or “Rave On.” They are rock mountains that nobody has climbed. The diversity of Buddy’s music is also profound. “Moondreams” and “True Love Ways” are musically as advanced as anything by the great popular composers. Gershwin or Berlin would have marveled at these compositions.
His electric guitars were raw, but controlled like bullwhips. They jingle and jangle freely in “That’ll Be The Day” and “Oh Boy,” and they snake around in “Words of Love.” The Beatles and the Stones became the behemoths they are on the back of Buddy Holly and the records he made before anyone made records or wrote songs like his. Aside from his geek image and his sudden and cruel death, his music is a wonder which still contains the potency of its original magic. Buddy was a genuine original. He was a genius.
Buddy’s death, for me, an impressionable thirteen year old, delivering papers, was an enormous tragedy. The cover photo of the posthumously released Buddy Holly Story and the Buddy Holly Story, Vol. 2, coupled with liner notes written by his widow, Maria, created a sense of grief which lived inside of me, until I was able to exorcize it with the opening verse of “American Pie.” Through my relationship with Buddy, I was able to discover my peculiar writing talent and, much to my amazement, help bring Buddy and his music back from the dead. In a sense, “American Pie” contains the spiritual connection to Buddy Holly which was always in me. It’s as if we both gave each other new life.
Music is about many things which music critics and historians can discuss forever, but what I think interests an audience about any form of music is its excitement. Opera excites some people (not me). Rock is all about excitement on a sonic, as well a fashion and musical, level. Pop music carries a kind of emotional impact, and, in its day, folk music had a political and intellectual excitement. I have tried, without really knowing it, to practice my craft in all these areas at once. Buddy Holly did the same thing without the politics. Had he lived through the ‘60s, I’m sure he would have continued to grow and lead with music that was revelatory.”
Two months went by before any further progress was made. Then one day, again in his Cold Spring gatehouse, and “from God knows where in my head,” McLean came up with the catchy chorus:
So bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ this will be the day that I die,
This will be the day that I die.
In the thirty or so years since the chorus was written, the term “Miss American Pie” has come under close scrutiny. An urban legend grew up claiming that American Pie was the name of Buddy Holly’s plane that crashed, killing Buddy and his companions. In fact, there is no truth to the story. Buddy and his friends were in a chartered plane. Don McLean created the phrase “American Pie;” it did not exist before he wrote the song. Like much of the song, McLean says the chorus is about America.
“I saw the implication of America going bye-bye, since by 1971 we were a horribly divided country with tremendous anger being directed at the government over the Vietnam War, whether for or against it. Death was everywhere. Spin control had not been invented, and things had spun totally out of control. Was America dying? My country is always reconstituting itself and being reborn.”
The notion of America dying had already been featured in a song on the Tapestry album called “Orphans of Wealth:”
And the rain falls, and blows through their windows
And the snow falls in white drifts that fold
And the tides rise with floods in the nursery
And a child is crying, he’s hungry and cold
His life has been sold
His young face looks old
It’s the face of America dying
McLean grew up as part of the American middle class society of the 1950s, and it was no accident that the only trip he took with his father had been to Washington D.C. His father wanted him to feel the grandeur, power, and history of his country. In contrast, the country that America had become was deeply upsetting to Don.
“To many of my generation, brought up on Norman Rockwell and Christmas and Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, America must always occupy the high moral ground. We are heroes. As Roosevelt would say, ‘We face the future with confidence. We are Americans.’”
The image of America evolving from a savior of the free world during World War II, to a bullying military giant in Vietnam, meant to McLean, and to many of his generation, that his country was most definitely lost.
Extract from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard Copyright 2007 Starry Night Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction or translation of any part of this work without the permission of the copyright owner is unlawful. Used by permission.