University of Virginia Library

McLean's Religion Dies With His Music

McLean refers to "Lennon
reading a book on Marx." It
was well publicized that Beatle
John Lennon did read the Karl
Marx theories on Communism.
At the same time, he and the
other Beatles were practising
their music in the park, while
the rest of us "sang dirges in
the dark." The "dark," in this
case, is the musical "dark age"
of the early 1960's: that period
between the end of 50's-style
rock and roll and the
excitement of Beatlemania
(1964). A "dirge," is a funeral
chant, a lament. Perhaps it's
the author's contention that
the music of the early 60's,
because of its sad and lifeless
qualities, represented our
subconscious mourning of the
death of "50's rock."

As "American Pie's" story
of musical evolution moves
into the mid to late 60's
McLean calls attention to the
popularity of drug songs, like
the Byrds' "Eight Miles High."
Meantime, "the Jester was on
the side-lines in a cast." Bob
Dylan was hospitalized and in a
cast at that time as a result of a
near-fatal traffic accident.

Noting the Beatles'
continued musical dominance,
McLean refers to the
"sergeants playing a marching
tune,"-the Beatles' classic
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts
Club Band" album was very big
then-"and, although other
players tried to take the field,
the sergeants refused to yield."
At this point, McLean also
expresses one of his chief
complaints about music since
the death of Buddy Holly. The
line goes something like, "we
got up to dance but never got
the chance." McLean feels that
there's no fun to music
anymore because kids can't
even dance to it.


After a quick succession of
phrases about "the Devil,"
"Satan," and "Jack Flash
sitting on a candle-stick," we
can easily guess that the author
is talking about the Rolling
Stones. Two of the
Stones' biggest albums were
titled, "Sympathy For The
Devil," and "Their Satanic
Majesty's Request." "Jumpin'
Jack Flash," was one of their
big hit singles. Perhaps I'm
wrong, but during this section
of the song, I get the
overwhelming feeling that Don
McLean sees Mick Jagger as
sort of devil-figure that he
dislikes. It could be that he
resents Jagger's interpretation
of Buddy Holly material which
he performed in his early

McLean adds he met a girl
"who sang the blues." Could
this have been Janis Joplin? It
all fits, but nobody I've talked
to seems very sure about this

During the 50's, it was
possible to go into the local
record shop and hear a
recording that you might want
to purchase. The practice has
all but disappeared in recent
years. Could it be that, upon
returning to the record store
where he spent so much time
during his youth, an older Don
McLean discovered that (the
man said the music wouldn't
play) it was not longer possible
to listen to the records in the
store? Probably.

Toward the end of
American Pie, there's a section
of lyrics that's less obvious in
its meaning than most of the
rest of the song. Consequently,
there are many different
interpretations of it. McLean
says, "the three people he
admired most, the Father, Son
and Holy Ghost, all caught the
last train to the coast, the day
the music died."

Many people have suggested
that he's referring to Buddy
Holly, Ritchie Valens and the
Big Bopper. I don't buy that.
In a song where the major
influences on music in the last
decade and a half-Presley, the
Beatles and the Rolling
Stones-are being discussed, I
can't believe that McLean
could equate those talents with
Ritchie Valens and the Big

Another theory is that the
author is talking about his faith
in the Almighty being
shattered by what happened to
Buddy Holly and that musical
age. Maybe so. I choose to
think that in a song that has
spent more than eight minutes
talking about musical
evolution, McLean would not
suddenly decide to switch
subjects at the last moment.

Own Idea

I have my own idea:
Toward the beginning of
"American Pie", McLean asks,
"do you believe in rock and
roll? Can music save your
mortal soul?" I think that the
music of McLean's youth is
like a kind of religion to him.
It represents a life-style which
he understood, enjoyed, and
admired most. He says (it)
"caught the last train to the
coast." The west coast of the
United States-California, in
particular-is well known for
having been in the forefront
during the emergence of the
"drug scene," so-called "heavy
music," and a brand of
liberalized morality. That's
where McLean's religion-his
music-went the day Buddy
Holly died.

Don McLean, as a musician,
may understand and even
partially accept what has
happened to music since the
late 50's. But, in this song, I
believe that he-like most of
the rest of us at one time or
another-longs for the
happiness and security of those
sweet, simple days of his


'American Pie': What Has Happened To Music Since The 50's