On this Day:
In 1971, Don McLean’s 8+ minute version of “American Pie” is released.
“American Pie” is a song by American singer and songwriter Don McLean. Recorded and released on the American Pie album in 1971, the single was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972 starting January 15 after just eight weeks on the Billboard charts (where it entered at number 69). The song also topped the charts in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. In the UK, the single reached number 2, where it stayed for 3 weeks, on its original 1971 release and a reissue in 1991 reached No. 12. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century. A truncated version of the song was covered by Madonna in 2000 and reached No. 1 in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. At 8 minutes and 42 seconds, McLean’s combined version is the sixth longest song to enter the Billboard Hot 100 (at the time of release it was the longest). The song also held the record for almost 50 years for being the longest song to reach number one before Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” broke the record in 2021. Due to its exceptional length, it was initially released as a two-sided 7-inch single. “American Pie” has been described as “one of the most successful and debated songs of the 20th century”.
The repeatedly mentioned phrase “the day the music died” refers to the plane crash in 1959 that killed early rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, and ended the era of early rock and roll; this became the popular nickname for that crash. However the overall theme of the song goes beyond mourning McLean’s childhood music heroes, and reflects the deep cultural changes and profound disillusionment and loss of innocence of his entire generation – the early rock and roll generation – that took place between the 1959 plane crash and either late 1969 or late 1970. The meaning of the other lyrics, which cryptically allude to many of the jarring events and social changes experienced during that period, have been debated for decades. McLean repeatedly declined to explain the symbolism behind the many characters and events mentioned; he eventually released his songwriting notes to accompany the original manuscript when it was sold in 2015, explaining many of these.
In 2017, McLean’s original recording was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant”. To mark the 50th anniversary of the song, McLean is scheduled to perform a 35-date tour through Europe, starting in Wales and ending in Austria, in 2022.
The song has nostalgic themes, stretching from the late 1950s until late 1969 or 1970. Except to acknowledge that he first learned about Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, 1959 – McLean was age 13 – when he was folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 4, 1959 (hence the line “February made me shiver/with every paper I’d deliver”), McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song’s lyrics; he has said: “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” He also stated in an editorial published in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (who are alluded to in the final verse in a comparison with the Christian Holy Trinity), that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly’s death and that he considers the song to be “a big song … that summed up the world known as America”. McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Holly.
Some commentators have identified the song as outlining the darkening of cultural mood, as over time the cultural vanguard passed from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez (the “King and Queen” of folk music), then from Elvis Presley (known as “the King” of Rock and Roll), to Bob Dylan (“the Jester” – who wore a jacket similar to that worn by cultural icon James Dean, was known as “the voice of his generation” (“a voice that came from you and me”), and whose motorcycle accident (“in a cast”) left him in reclusion for many years, recording in studios rather than touring (“on the sidelines”), to The Beatles (John Lennon, punned with Lenin, and “the Quartet” – although McLean has stated the Quartet is a reference to other people), to The Byrds (who wrote one of the first psychedelic rock songs, “Eight Miles High”, and then “fell fast” – the song was banned, one of the group entered rehabilitation (known colloquially as a “fallout shelter”), and shortly after, the group declined as it lost members, changed genres, and alienated fans), to The Rolling Stones (who released Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Their Satanic Majesties Request (“Jack Flash”, “Satan”, “The Devil”), and used Hells Angels – “Angels born in Hell” – as event security, with fatal consequences, bringing the 1960s to a violent end), and to Janis Joplin (the “girl who sang the blues” but just “turned away” – she died of a heroin overdose the following year).
It has also been speculated that the song contains numerous references to post-World War II American political events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy (known casually as “Jack”) and subsequent killing of his assassin (whose courtroom trial obviously ended as a result (“adjourned”), the Cuban Missile Crisis (“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick”), the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, and elements of culture such as sock hops (“kicking off shoes” to dance, preventing damage to the varnished floor), cruising with a pickup truck, the rise of the political protest song (“a voice that came from you and me”), drugs and the Counterculture, the Manson Family’s and murders in the “summer swelter” of 1969 (the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter”) and much more.
Many additional and alternative interpretations have also been proposed.
For example, Bob Dylan’s first performance in Great Britain was also at a pub called “The King and Queen”, and he also appeared more literally “on the sidelines in a (the) cast” – as one of many stars at the back far right of the cover art of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (“the Sergeants played a marching tune”).
The song title itself is a reference to apple pie, an unofficial symbol of the United States and one of its signature comfort foods, as seen in the popular expression “As American as apple pie”. By the twentieth century, this had become a symbol of American prosperity and national pride.
When asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean jokingly replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” Later, he stated, “You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me … Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.” He also commented on the popularity of his music, “I didn’t write songs that were just catchy, but with a point of view, or songs about the environment.”
In February 2015, however, McLean announced he would reveal the meaning of the lyrics to the song when the original manuscript went for auction in New York City, in April 2015. The lyrics and notes were auctioned on April 7, and sold for $1.2 million. In the sale catalogue notes, McLean revealed the meaning in the song’s lyrics: “Basically in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction. … It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” The catalogue confirmed some of the better-known references in the song’s lyrics, including mentions of Elvis Presley (“the king”) and Bob Dylan (“the jester”), and confirmed that the song climaxes with a description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
Mike Mills of R.E.M. reflected: “‘American Pie’ just made perfect sense to me as a song and that’s what impressed me the most. I could say to people this is how to write songs. When you’ve written at least three songs that can be considered classic that is a very high batting average and if one of those songs happens to be something that a great many people think is one of the greatest songs ever written you’ve not only hit the top of the mountain but you’ve stayed high on the mountain for a long time.”
In 2017, Bob Dylan was asked about how he was referenced in the song. “A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War’, ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, ‘It’s Alright, Ma’ – some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.” (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
When the music died, life as we know it would B-Flat!
Second, a Song:
Here is Don McLean in a live version of “America Pie”. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of information on when or where this was captured. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“I developed this fantasy world. I found that that was much more fun and more interesting and exciting than real life was to me. Then, once I got the guitar going when I was a teenager, I set sail for the direction I’ve been in my whole life.” – Don McLean
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky