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Don McLean - American Pie lyric meanings and song facts

All facts provided by Songfacts

This is about the death of Buddy Holly. "The Day The Music Died" is February 3, 1959, when Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash after a concert. McLean wrote the song from his memories of the event. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album was a huge influence, and McLean has said in numerous interviews that the song represented the turn from innocence of the '50s to the darker, more volatile times of the '60s - both in music and politics. (thanks, Kristine - Loveland, OH)
McLean was a paperboy when Holly died. He learned about the plane crash when he cut into his stack of papers and saw the lead story.
Contrary to rumors, the plane that crashed was not named the "American Pie." McLean made up the name.
"The Jester" is probably Bob Dylan. It refers to him wearing "A coat he borrowed from James Dean," and being "On the sidelines in a cast." Dylan wore a red jacket similar to James Dean's on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, and got in a motorcycle accident in 1966 which put him out of service for most of that year. Dylan also made frequent use of jokers, jesters or clowns in his lyrics. The line, "And a voice that came from you and me" could refer to the Folk style he sings, and the line, "And while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown" could be about how Dylan took Elvis Presley's place as the number one performer.
The line "Eight miles high and falling fast" is likely a reference to The Byrds' hit "Eight Miles High."
The section with the line "The flames climbed high into the night" is probably about the Altamont Speedway concert in 1969. While the Rolling Stones were playing, a fan was stabbed to death by a member of The Hell's Angels who was hired for security.
The line "Sergeants played a marching tune" is likely a reference to The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The line "I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away" is probably about Janis Joplin. She died of a drug overdose in 1970.
The lyric "And while Lenin/Lennon read a book on Marx" has been interpreted different ways. Some view it as a reference to Vladimir Lenin, the communist dictator who led the Russian Revolution in 1917 and who built the USSR, which was later ruled by Josef Stalin. The "Marx" referred to here would be the socialist philosopher Karl Marx. Others believe it is about John Lennon, whose songs often reflected a very communistic theology (particularly "Imagine"). Some have even suggested that in the latter case, "Marx" is actually Groucho Marx, another cynical entertainer who was suspected of being a socialist, and whose wordplay was often similar to Lennon's lyrics.
"Did you write the book of love" is probably a reference to the 1958 hit "Book of Love" by the Monotones. The chorus for that song is "Who wrote the book of love? Tell me, tell me... I wonder, wonder who" etc. One of the lines asks, "Was it someone from above?" Don McLean was a practicing Catholic, and believed in the depravity of '60s music, hence the closing lyric: "The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died." Some, have postulated that in this line, the Trinity represents Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. (thanks, Brett - Edmonton, Canada, for above 2)
McLean admits this is about Buddy Holly, but has never said what the lyrics are about, preferring to let listeners interpret them on their own.
Madonna covered this in 2000. She was supposed to perform it at the Super Bowl that year, but backed out, claiming she did not have enough time to prepare. No one was too upset.
This runs 8:38. The single was split in 2 parts because the 45 did not have enough room for the whole song on one side. You had to flip the record in the middle to hear all of it.
In 1971, a singer named Lori Lieberman saw McLean perform this at the Troubadour theater in Los Angeles. She was so moved that she wrote a poem that became the basis for her song "Killing Me Softly With His Song," which was a huge hit for Roberta Flack in 1973.
In 2002, this was featured in a Chevrolet ad. It showed a guy in his Chevy singing along to the end of this song. At the end, he gets out and it is clear that he was not going to leave the car until the song was over. The ad played up the heritage of Chevrolet, which has a history of being mentioned in famous songs (the line in this one is "Drove my Chevy to the levee"). Chevy used the same idea a year earlier when it ran billboards of a red Corvette that said, "They don't write songs about Volvos."
Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this song for his 1999 album Running With Scissors. It was called "The Saga Begins" and was about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Sample lyric: "Bye, bye this here Anakin guy, maybe Vader someday later but now just a small fry." (thanks, Nick - Paramus, NJ)
While being interviewed in the 1980s, McLean was asked for probably the 1000th time "What does the song American Pie mean to you?," to which he answered, "It means never having to work again for the rest of my life." (thanks, Dan - Auckland, New Zealand)
Regarding the line, "The birds (Byrds) flew off from a fallout shelter," a fallout shelter is a '60s term for a drug rehabilitation facility, which one of the band members of The Byrds checked into after being caught with drugs. (thanks, john - washington, DC)
The line "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candle stick" is taken from a nursery rhyme that goes "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick." Jumping over the candlestick comes from a game where people would jump over fires. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is a Rolling Stones song. Another possible reference to The Stones can be found in the line, "Fire is the devils only friend," which could be The Rolling Stones "Sympathy For The Devil," which is on the same Rolling Stones album. (thanks, Ben - Schelle, Belgium)
When the original was written at a whopping 8 minutes 38 seconds it was banned from many radio stations in the US due to a policy limiting airplay to 3:30. Some interpret this as a protest against this policy. When Madonna covered the song many years later she cut huge swathes of the song, ironically to make it more radio friendly, to 4:34 on the album and under 4 minutes for the radio edit. (thanks, Anton - Cambridge, England)
The words, "You know a rolling stone don't gather no moss" appear in the Buddy Holly song "Early in the Morning," which is about his ex missing him early in the morning when he's gone. (thanks, Cait - Athens, OH)

All facts provided by Songfacts


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