The Meaning of American Pie by Don McClean (Part 1 of 2)

The song American Pie was released in 1971, but it’s still one of the most talked about songs in the history of popular music! Why? Because the song mystified so many. It’s original, extremely well written and a puzzle that hasn’t been solved to this day.

American Pie, which was written and performed by Don McClean, isn’t your regular sort of pop song. It shot to the top of the Billboard 100 in just a couple of weeks, but the most surprising thing is that it’s 8 and a half minutes long!

How did it manage to engage everyone for more than twice as much time as a normal pop song? Nobody really knows, but we’re going to try and dissect and solve this puzzle here once and for all!

Speaking to a Nation

One theory used to explain this song’s fantastic fame is that it clearly and boldly spoke to America in a revelatory way. There are stories from 1959-1970 within the lyrics, a time when the U.S. transformed completely.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, everyone was enjoying their piece of the American prosperity pie. They were out buying cars, kitchen appliances, having babies and getting married after the Great Depression and the Second World War. People were happy to conform!

1954 Chevy Belair


But the 60s was a time of rebellion, when people started to reject the ideology underpinning that conformity, joining political and social movements, and generally going wild.

This song seems to address the aftermath of all that excitement, when people were feeling disappointed after all the hope and utopian idealism didn’t seem to come to anything substantial. Nooooo. Is this true? Let’s look at the song and find out.

Verse 1

 “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
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.”

The first verse starts talking about the 50s, when times were good, and our songwriter was happy. But it quickly turns to the death of Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash in February, 1959.

Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly



This verse is the easiest to analyze. Buddy Holly’s death represents the moment when McClean realized things were changing.

The Chorus


Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.”

“So bye, bye Miss American Pie.”

Who is that, you might wonder? Is she related to Miss America or from Disney? Well, it’s thought that this lady represents the American dream, the 50s, the past.

“Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.”

The Chevrolet commercials in the 50s talked about driving along a levee, so the romantic journey here ends in disappointment, which builds on the theme of the first verse.

Verse 2

“Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.”

This verse starts talking about experiences the narrator had around 1957, when sock hops, pickup trucks and pink carnations were fashionable! The narrator talks about a girl, who surely betrayed him. He speaks of his disappointment in love, with a reference to the 1957 hit The Book of Love by The Monotones.


Verse 3

“Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But, that’s not how it used to be

When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me

Oh and while the king was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

And while Lennon read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died.”

In this verse the songwriter becomes a disillusioned observer.

“Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But, that’s not how it used to be.”

Here we’re looking back at ‘63 and ‘66 from 1970, and McClean describes how rejecting conventional values completely was normal by 1970. The mention of “rolling stone” relates to Bob Dylans song, which goes, “So how does it feel/To be without a home/Like a complete unknown/Like a rolling stone?”

In Part 2, we’ll look at the rest of these historically-themed, intriguing verses. Why was Bob Dylan important? Who was soon to replace him as the voice of his generation? Find out in Part 2! 🙂

The Meaning of American Pie by Don McClean (Part 2 of 2)

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