Simon, the protagonist of my debut novel Song of Simon, begins as little more than a shy kid with a guitar. I’ll admit that there’s a lot of Simon in myself, though we are certainly not the same.
Why did I mention this? American Pie is one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar. I imagine that it was one of Simon’s first too.
I first wrote the following article for http://www.suite101.com. I hope that you enjoy it.
Modified from Original at Suite101
The True Story of American Pie:
Historical References In Don McLean’s Song
There are few songs as iconic in the library of American music as the Don McLean hit “American Pie.” Besides the infectious melody, one of the reasons that it stays with the listener is that it is sonic memorabilia–the history of Rock and Roll lives inside of its lyrics. Although many of the lines are up for poetic analysis, there are several events alluded to in “American Pie” that actually happened.
Don McLean and the Day the Music Died
According to Don McLean’s website, the inspiration for American Pie comes from the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper, known as “The Day the Music Died.” On February 3, 1959, these three young stars were killed in a plane crash outside of Clear Lake, Iowa.
With Elvis Presley in the Army at the time, the staggering loss of these artists put an end to what can be considered the first wave of Rock and Roll. The void would be filled by Motown and the American Folk Revival until the British Invasion.
Don McLean has expressed in the past his admiration for Buddy Holly, and that “American Pie” was cathartic for him in getting over his grief for the rocker. “American Pie,” however, is more than just mourning for Holly. It is McLean mourning for the first wave of Rock and Roll, when life was innocent and the world optimistic.
The Historical Events in “American Pie”
McLean traces the history of Rock and Roll in “American Pie,” noting specific events in music history. Although he alludes to many songs, the first specific historical event mentioned in “American Pie” is in the third verse, with the line “When the jester sang for the king and queen . . .” This is a reference to the 1963 March On Washington, where Bob Dylan performed, the king and queen being the Kennedys.
According to Cecil Adams, James Dean’s windbreaker from Rebel Without a Cause is similar to the one wore by Dylan on the cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. This explains the “coat he borrowed from James Dean” line.
By the end of the third verse, McLean is already alluding to the future politicization of music in the 60’s, with “Lennon read[ing] a book of Marx.” This would continue with references to the Byrds’ song “8 Miles High” and the confrontation between the players and the marching band (assumed to be a reference to The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).
The political tension continues in the fourth verse, “with the jester on the sidelines in a cast.” Bob Dylan (the jester) was in a serious motorcycle accident in July of 1966, forcing him into temporary seclusion and removing him from the political game.
Don McLean Vs. The Rolling Stones
Although McLean is obviously disdainful of the 60’s turmoil, he saves his most potent venom for The Rolling Stones. Back in the third verse of “American Pie,” he gets in his first poke at The Stones, saying “moss grows fat on a Rolling Stone.” While some critics believe it is a generic reference to the song “Like a Rolling Stone,” more likely it is a reference to the 1969 death of Brian Jones, one of the Stones’ founding members.
McLean also seems to hold The Stones responsible for the tragic climax of “American Pie.” Verse five is an allegory of the Altamont Free Concert nightmare in December of 1969. In this case, McLean uses Satan as a replacement for Mick Jagger, and “angels born in Hell” as a literal translation for The Hell’s Angels. The infamous biker gang worked security at the concert, allegedly in exchange for $500 worth of beer. Concert-goer Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel during The Stones’ set after Hunter drew a gun.
“American Pie” is rare in that it has outlived the expiration date of a typical pop song. It has been covered many times over, most notably in 2000 by Madonna. Rarer still, “American Pie” produces countless arguments among fans who contest every interpretation of every lyric. Regardless of poetic analysis, the true story of “American Pie” lies in the history that it longs for.