University of Virginia Library


'American Pie': McLean's Musical Eulogy


(Mr. Dearborn, a disc jockey
for radio station WCFL in
Chicago, contributes this
open-ended analysis of the
lyrics to Don McLean's hit
recording. "American Pie". His
"translation" refers to the
longer album version.


In order to better
understand "American Pie," I
think it's important to
remember that we all go
through a period of
life usually, our teenage
youth that we thereafter
recall as being our "good old
days." Often, as one grows
older, he tries to recapture that
wonderful time of life, a time
he really understood and was
so meaningful to him because
of the various new and special
associated with it.

, with its first
real awareness of the outside
world, but without the
burdens, pressures and
responsibilities of the adult,
life that follows tends to
provide most of us with our
fondest memories.

Each generation produces
its own fads, its own language,
its own art, its own culture, its
own society. . Generally
speaking, each generation holds
high and even reverent regard
for its many contributions and
achievements. Unfortunately,
it's the tendency of some then
to close their minds, stop
learning, stop growing. They
spend their lives completely
engulfed in the life-style of
their generation, oblivious to
all the good that came before
and after.

For many, music serves as
an excellent reference point
and reminder of the past, that
"best time of life." If you are
now in your forties, you might
believe that music has been
dreadful since the passing of
Glenn Miller and Tommy
Dorsey. If you happen to be in
your early to mid-twenties,
you may think that the Beatles
and/or "acid rock," were the
greatest things since sliced
bread and that almost
everything that followed was a

I would suppose that Don
McLean, author and singer of
American Pie, is in his late
twenties. His good old days
were the latter 1950's.
Profoundly moved by the
music of that period with its
seemingly inherent fun and
excitement he aspired to be a
singer and musician. In
American Pie, he says he'd
"like to have the chance to
make people dance and be
happy for awhile."

Turned Off

Like many young men his
age who were turned off by
their girlfriends' screaming for
Elvis Presley, he embraced an
alternative musical idol named
Buddy Holly. While there was
no question as to Presley's
reign asking of rock and roll at
that time, Buddy Holly and his
music did make important
contributions to that era, and
influenced many
up-and-coming artists, ranging
from Bobby Vee to the Rolling

Holly was the lead-singer of
a group known as the Crickets,
but also recorded as a solo
performer. Some of his biggest
hits were, "Peggy Sue,"
"That'll Be The Day," "Early
In The Morning," "Oh Boy,"
"Everyday," and "Maybe

It's Don McLean's notion
that music died on February 3,
1959. For it was on that day
that Buddy Holly (along with
singers, Ritchie Valens and the
Big Bopper) was killed in a
plane crash just outside Mason
City, Iowa. McLean makes
reference to this sad event near
the beginning of American Pie.
He says he read the tragic news
while delivering
newspapers which is a key to
his age on a cold day in
February. The "widowed
bride," mentioned here is
Maria Elena Holly.

Song Titles Used

Employing song-titles and
lyrics of popular songs of the
day Book of Love, Lonely
Teenager, (White Sport Coat
and a) Pink Carnation McLean
conveys the idea that he was
typical of his generation. Their
idea of a wild "high," was
drinking whiskey and rye, and
dancing "real slow" at the
dance in the high school
gymnasium. "Miss American
Pie," is McLean's stereotype
expression for the young ladies
of his youth. They were
"girl-next door,"
"as-American-as -apple-pie"
types who, like the music and
fun of that era, seem to have
disappeared, according to the

There's a line in American
Pie which indicates that ten
years have passed (since the
music died). By this, I'm led to
believe that although this song
has become a hit recording just
recently, it may actually have
been written two to three years
ago. If that is the case, then the
song is really discussing the
period between 1959 and
1969. Other references in the
composition seem to bear that
out, as well.

McLean talks about the
"King and Queen." Logically,
one would assume and many
have that the King is Elvis
Presley. "he queen...well,
that's another matter. There is
only one female singer that I
can recall from the late 50's,
who, because of her
tremendous popularity and
success, could have qualified
for the title of "Pop Music
Queen." And that's Connie


American Pie then tells of
the "Jester" stealing the King's
crown. Most people that I've
talked to have concluded that
the Jester is Bob Dylan. When
Presley's popularity began to
fade in the early 1960's, the
only man who emerged with
anything close to a parallel
influence on music was Bob
Dylan. And, Dylan did wear a
black, leather jacket on a
couple of celebrated occasions:
on the album cover of,
"Highway 61," and on stage at
the 1965 Newport Folk
Festival. This would explain
Don McLean's line about the
Jester wearing a "coat he
borrowed from James Dean."
Dean, a youthful movie actor
who lost his life in 1955, was
synonymous with the black
leather, motorcycle jacket. The
public was the "court-room
that adjourned without
returning a verdict" on that
era's contemporary music
leader and direction.


Photo by John Bueacher