Don McLean’s “American Pie” is undoubtedly one of the defining songs of the 1970s. And with its ambiguous lyrics, it feels like it’s perhaps been dissected more than any other tune from the same era. But a documentary released 50 years after the track first came out has proven that the most common interpretations of this classic aren’t always the most accurate.
This article was originally published on eXXLMag
“American Pie” has been covered by everyone from Jon Bon Jovi to Madonna over the years. The latter’s version even reached the U.K. number one spot at the turn of the century.
But it’s McLean’s original that remains the definitive version. So why exactly has the song endured so well?
Well, Spencer Proffer, the man behind the doc The Day the Music Died, has a simple explanation. He told The Guardian, “It’s a song that spoke to its time. But it’s just as applicable now.”
Of course, exactly what it was speaking about has been a matter of scrutiny ever since its 1971 release. And Proffer’s feature film seeks to put all the different theories to bed once and for all.
Proffer not only details the ways in which the song impacted 20th century pop culture and beyond. He also speaks to the man himself about how and why he came to write a part of the Great American Songbook.
Proffer revealed, “I told Don, ‘It’s time for you to reveal what 50 years of journalists have wanted to know.’ This film was a concerted effort to raise the curtain.”
McLean had begun his career at the height of the Greenwich Village scene during the 1960s. The star had been inspired to write his own songs in his teenage years following the premature death of his dad from a cardiac arrest.
Proffer claims, “That had a profound effect on him. He has carried the death of his father in his soul.”
Pete Seeger, a member of The Weavers, took the young McLean under his wing.
The aspiring singer-songwriter was inspired by the group’s ability to tell stories in their songs as well as their knack for penning a strong melody. These were two qualities that’d help McLean’s signature tune become such a huge hit, of course.
Though McLean was undoubtedly influenced by Seeger and co. he wanted to forge his own musical path. And in 1970 MediaArts, a tiny independent label, issued his first studio effort, Tapestry.
But unlike the Carole King album of the same name the record failed to attract any notable attention.
Thankfully, McLean’s profile changed forever when his label was bought by the much bigger UA. The singer was given much more of a promotional push with his second album, American Pie.
And the faith invested in him paid off when its title track peaked at pole position on the Hot 100 in January 1972.
The song “American Pie” certainly didn’t follow the rules for a number one single, though. Unlike most chart-toppers, which finished around the three-minute mark, McLean’s breakthrough clocked in at almost nine!
And it could easily have been longer. There were actually several other verses that never saw the light of day.
So “American Pie” has a similar story to another enduring classic, “Hallelujah.” Leonard Cohen also trimmed several verses from its already mammoth running time. And the enigmatic lyrics that did make it have been pored over by everyone from fans to scholars ever since.
Proffer believes there’s one notable difference, though, telling The Guardian that “American Pie” is a sociological study and “Hallelujah” a spiritual one.
And unlike “Hallelujah,” which only charted on the Hot 100 following Cohen’s death, “American Pie” was a massive hit. McLean has UA to thank in part for its success, too. The label decided to release the track with one half as the A-side and the other as side B.
Listeners keen to find out how the story ended insisted that radio stations played both halves and the song ended up staying at number one for four weeks!
“American Pie” entered the record books as the longest single ever to reach the top of the U.S. charts.
It was a feat that was only surpassed nearly half a century later by Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” which clocked in at a full ten minutes! But it wasn’t just McLean’s words that appeared to make the entire nation sit up and listen.
Proffer believes its simple melodies helped to make it such a universal anthem. He stated, “It’s like a camp fire song. Everyone is invited to sing.” In fact, the documentarian even compares “American Pie” to a nursery rhyme.
And if you’ve ever belted it out at a karaoke bar, you may remember that the track also quotes one with the line, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.”
McLean probably didn’t mind the comparison. After all, he practically invited them with the cover of the album that featured “American Pie.” It saw the singer-songwriter hold out his thumb, which was painted with the stars and stripes flag.
This is seen as a nod to the “put in his thumb and pulled out a plum” line in the nursery rhyme “Little Jack Horner.”
Let’s not forget the musical aspects of the track, either. Paul Griffin, a session keyboardist who’s contributed to albums by the likes of Steely Dan and Bob Dylan, is credited with providing both the song’s pop exuberance and its gospel elements.
But it’s McLean’s determination to write the next great anthem about the American dream that undeniably gives “American Pie” its edge.
Of course, McLean certainly wasn’t the first singer of his era to hit on such an idea. Smokey Robinson had referenced the murders of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King that shook the 1960s on “Abraham, Martin, and John,” for example.
And Paul Simon had conjured up visions of the Statue of Liberty drifting off into new waters on “American Tune.” But “American Pie” was a very different kind of alternative national anthem.
In the documentary The Day The Music Died, McLean explains, “The country was in some advanced state of psychic shock. All this bedlam and riots and burning cities."
"I wanted to write a song about America but I didn’t want to write a song about America like anybody ever wrote before.”
It’s fair to say that McLean achieved his goal, too. Ed Freeman, who was as a producer on the song, told The Guardian, “For me, ‘American Pie’ is the eulogy for a dream that didn’t take place.
We were witness to the death of the American dream.” Of course, the track begins with lyrics about a literal death. Well, three to be exact.
Yes, in 1959 a tiny aircraft plummeted down to an Iowa field just minutes after taking off. It was carrying a trio of musical icons: Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and JP Richardson, the latter better known as The Big Bopper.
Tragically, all three lost their lives in the accident. McLean idolized Holly in particular, which is why he refers to the incident as “the day the music died.”
In the documentary, McLean recalls the moment he first became aware of the tragedy: on the front pages of the papers he was being paid to deliver.
The Day the Music Died also visits the last venue the trio played, the Surf Ballroom, and interviews someone who was at that show along with one of Valens’ siblings. Connie Valens expresses her gratitude toward McLean in the film for helping to extend her brother’s legacy.
While it was pretty obvious what McLean was alluding to in the song’s most famous line, he made listeners work much harder elsewhere. Referring to its array of coded lyrics and cultural references, Proffer told The Guardian, “Every time you listen, you think of something else.”
But thanks to his documentary fans are now a little clearer on what McLean is singing about. Or should we say not singing about.
That’s right: McLean reveals that several of the most common beliefs about the song are well wide of the mark. Remember the line, “Oh and while the King was looking down”?
Many fans believed this was a reference to the undisputed king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. But in documentary McLean reveals that he didn’t have the hip-swinging legend in mind.
Then there’s the “girl who sang the blues.” At the time that “American Pie” was released, the music world was still coming to terms with the death of raspy-voiced female blues singer, Janis Joplin.
But McLean insists that the “Me and Bobby McGee” singer isn’t the woman in question.
And it turns out that, again contrary to popular belief, the jester isn’t another man who came up through the Greenwich Village scene, Bob Dylan. That probably didn’t come as a surprise to the multiple Grammy-winner, though. Referring to the rumors during a 2017 chat with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan said, “A jester?
Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma.’ I have to think he’s talking about somebody else.”
In the documentary McLean reveals that Dylan was dead right, remarking, “I said James Dean in the song. If I meant Elvis or Bob Dylan I would have said their names...
If you want to think the King is Elvis, you can, but the King in my song has a thorny crown. That’s Jesus Christ.”
Yet McLean does confirm that the Lenin reference in “American Pie” relates to another pop icon.
He explains, “If you look at where I talk about John Lennon, I say ‘Lenin read a book on Marx.’ Well, Lenin read Marx, and then there was Marxist Leninism, and John Lennon certainly read Marx because he wanted socialism. So, it’s both.”
McLean goes through the song line by line in the documentary. So if you also want to know who the man watching a girl “dancing in the gym” is, you’re in luck. It’s the singer-songwriter himself.
And the “moss grows fat on a rolling stone” line also refers to McLean as well as his mom in the wake of his dad’s passing.
Other wider issues are addressed later in the song, too. McLean reveals in the doc that several lines relate to how senseless he felt the Vietnam War was. And as for the name of the track?
Well, it’s simply a reference to the “American as apple pie” saying without the middle two words.
Speaking to Forbes magazine in 2022 McLean revealed why he’d never previously put these rumors to bed. “It was too hard in an interview to explain the subtlety of what I was trying to say,” the singer explained.
“So, I would say, ‘Look I really don’t talk about the lyrics. And that’s all I would say.”
McLean added, “Because it would require a set-up such as this movie makes, for me to then come in and talk about how I lived through this.”
And the musician seems to be glad that he said “yes” to the experience. That’s because during his first viewing of the documentary he had something of an epiphany.
That’s right — McLean told Forbes that while watching the film he was struck by how difficult the making of “American Pie” had been.
“I realized how everything was against me and I didn’t allow it to defeat me,” the songwriter said. “The record producer didn’t think I had any talent, he didn’t really care about my songs.”
No doubt the producer in question feels rather foolish nowadays, what with “American Pie” becoming a part of American folklore and all.
In fact, it’s even been adopted by some as a follow-up to “The Star-Spangled Banner!” One fan in the documentary also argues that it’s a track that makes “you pause and be grateful for everything that you have.”
McLean himself doesn’t have a problem with different fans taking different things from the track, though.
In a statement about The Day the Music Died, he said, “This documentary is something that will make people think, especially since so many throughout the years have asked me what certain lyrics meant or whom I was referring to, but now I finally can solve many of those mysteries... So many people have their own interpretation of the song, and I love it.”
It isn’t just members of the public who’ve interpreted the song in such different ways, either. Country legend Garth Brooks was asked about the track, which he once covered, in the documentary.
And he argued that it’s “about that drive of independence, that drive of discovery… of believing anything is possible.”
So how can the song still be so wildly misinterpreted after all these years? Well, Proffer told The Guardian that the likes of Brooks “aren’t thinking about what [the song] really means.
They’re thinking about how it makes them feel.” And the filmmaker believes that newer renditions may finally help the message to get through.
Jade Bird, a British singer-songwriter who isn’t even old enough to remember the Madonna cover let alone the McLean original, performs her own take on the track in the documentary.
And Maffio and Jencarlos, a producer and vocalist respectively, give “American Pie” a Spanish-language makeover. Proffer said, “It’s exciting to know that something that happened 50 years ago can resonate to later generations.”
And Proffer also believes that “American Pie” can still act as an alternative history lesson no matter how it’s interpreted.
He stated, “Through listening to the song, people get a glimpse into what life was like then and what it came to be today.” In fact, Proffer feels that the song itself should be held up as a piece of history.
During a 2022 chat with CBC Proffer explained what’d specifically connected him to the song in the first place. “Personally, there were different images, visual images in words,” he recalled. “There were different subject matters.
The curiosity abounded when I wondered, who was the jester?... There was marching, and I remembered marching for civil rights and I didn’t know if that’s what he meant.”
“I knew that there was a lot of divisiveness in America and I thought maybe there’s some element to that in the form of a great campfire song with a fantastic melody,” Proffer continued.
“So it just struck me as a work of art… and it really gave me goosebumps when I heard it.”
Proffer even argues that McLean’s work deserves to be compared to various literary greats. “It’s timeless to me because the melody and the music [are] timeless, and the lyrics are just an epic tale. It’s like a poem that doesn’t stop,” he observed.
“The best of Robert Frost, the best of Shakespeare, are all embodied in the ways that Don McLean wrote his poem called ‘American Pie.’”