The true meaning of the song ‘American Pie’

“American Pie” by Don McLean is widely considered to be one of the greatest songs ever written. Its two dozen verses blend American history and mythology, and its chorus can be heard from every highway diner radio from New York to San Francisco. But what of the deeper meaning? For years, music historians have poured over the lyrics in a futile attempt to discover just what Mr. McLean was alluding to. Well, for the first time ever, I have unlocked the code of this immortal tune. Join me on this ride into music history.

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

McLean begins by referencing the first job he had as a child: an overseer in an old London shoe factory. It was dreadful work, and he dreamed of throwing coins at their feet and making them dance, even if for a moment.

But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step

During his tenure at Brockman’s and Barnebee’s Shoe Factory, McLean would have to bring the owner, a Mr. Whitmore, all the scraps of paper containing the news of the day. It was often bad, so Mr. Whitmore would lock his jaws on McLean’s ankles and refuse to let go, not letting him take another 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
So

Truly heartbreaking. Mr. Whitmore was actually a porcelain figurine powered by an old phonograph, so when the power went out and the music died, Mr. Whitmore was killed, leaving behind his young Ukrainian bride, Yunkel.

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

At this point Mr. McLean was very much suicidal, so he said goodbye to Yunkel, who he often referred to as Miss American Pie because she only consumed Hostess Sweet Sugar Cherry Pies © by the bag. He planned on drowning himself in the famous London levees but Hootman the Bandit had stolen the water the day before. The “good ole boys” worked the levees but were now out of a job, which is why they were also trying to commit suicide via alcohol and large loaves of rye bread. They did not succeed.

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?

These were not intended to be lyrics, rather Mr. McLean was speaking to a scarecrow while lost in a corn field on his way home from the levees.

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

Still speaking to the Scarecrow, Mr. McLean flew into a jealous rage after accusing the Scarecrow of being romantically involved with Mr. Whitmore, whom Mr. McLean had an tragic infatuation with.

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
I started singin’

Ah, here he speaks of his years as a horse, the result of a shooting star and a forlorn warlock with a penchant for nocturnal trickery. It references the period of 1943–1948, when Mr. McLean — as a horse — drove a truck around London’s West End and, upon Mr. Whitmore’s death, began to sing a tune.

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

You already said this Don. No need to say it again.

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

Mr. McLean teamed up with the scarecrow for a decade, where they charted fungal growth in Northern England.

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

By 1951, the gang had grown to about a dozen characters, including an old man who called himself “The Jester,” and a pair of playing cards who gained sentience, once again from that old warlock. The Jester had a habit of sailing in a steamboat to America and sneaking into James Dean’s dressing room to steal his coats. This is what causes Dean’s death.

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

The Jester, that old bastard, stole the origami crown McLean had made for the playing card. Then, upon realizing the King didn’t have legal standing, he was disbarred from practicing law in London and the current murder trial was declared “good enough.”

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
We were singin’

One of the easiest references, this is about John Lennon’s passion for Groucho Marx. At this point the gang was whittled to just a quartet: McLean, the Scarecrow, The Jester, and a piece of twine named Tibs. They sang in alleyways constantly.

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

Again? Jesus.

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast

Ah, the old London Nuclear Strike of ’61. They say if you caught a falling dead bird that day, you’d be married within the year.

It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

After England outlawed footballs in ’62, players used dead birds for sport. The Jester, however, was nearly beaten to death in an argument over socks. He never played another game.

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
’Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
We started singin’

This one requires background. You have to know that in England, the most bitter rivalry was between American Football players and marching bands, mostly because the football players were Catholic and the people in a marching band were in a marching band. At halftime, the band refused to stop playing “Barbara Ann.” This went on for nine and a half hours.

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

……..

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again

The gang spent two years in low-Earth orbit because The Jester misheard directions to an off-West End performance of “The Lyle Nesbit Story: Starring Lyle Nesbit and Friends.”

So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
’Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
Oh and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell

Back on Earth, the gang teamed up with a plucky street urchin named Jack Flash. He was an orphan and a Satanist and coerced them into many fire rituals. But McLean, a devout Christian, refused to partake and was ostracized from the group. To this day, he hasn’t spoken to The Jester.

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
He was singin’

McLean realized it was The Devil who murdered Mr. Whitmore, and he responded in song:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
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
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

Now alone, McLean met a young tavern girl at an Open Mic night. She refused to give him the news of the day, so he left for Stonehenge, where he’d heard chanting music during his escapades with the Jack Flash gang. But, Jack Flash having been killed in a candle accident, no music played that night.

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

Truly horrific. The London Church Bell Massacre of ’67 was by far the bloodiest day in English history. For twelve hours there were no bells, nothing to signal the hours, and chaos descended upon the streets.

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing

A popular folk band of the day, “The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost” was seen leaving on the last working train ever to ride the rails in England. To this day, no one has figured out how a train works, exactly.

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

Now you’ll see for the first time, Mr. McLean says “They were singing.” This is because Mr. McLean died and went to Hell, where he met all his old pals: Mr. Whitmore, The Jester, The King and Queen playing cards, Jack Flash, Tibs, the Scarecrow, and even old Hootman the Bandit, still soaking wet from his aquatic theft.

They sang and screamed for all eternity in penance for their Earthly sins, and that’s what this little diddy is really all about.

You’re welcome, history.