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Don McLean Reveals the True Meaning of American Pie 50 Years Later

If you’ve been alive in the past 50 years, it’s pretty likely you have, at some point, sung along with a crowd of people to the classic song, “American Pie.” Don McLean’s masterpiece about the “day the music died” has not only lasted since it was put out in 1971, it has grown in popularity over the years. And it has become a staple of American pop culture.

And like any massively huge song or piece of art that has pervaded society, scholars and casual fans alike have tried to figure out the meaning of all of its twists and turns. It’s a long and complex song, lyrically speaking, with quite a few references and phrases that have stumped people for the last five decades.

But fans of American Pie and of Don McLean now have a reason to be thrilled. Because, while McLean has given tidbits of info over the years about his enigmatic song, he is taking that to a new level. McLean appears in a new documentary called “The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ which airs on Paramount+. And in it, McLean gives an expansive take on the song, its lyrics, and its effect on American culture.  So join Facts Verse, as Don McLean reveals the true meaning of American Pie 50 years later.

The Day The Music Died

Fans of Don McLean, American Pie, and music history are likely familiar with the “Day The Music Died.” It was when several promising young musicians, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens The “Big Bopper,” were killed in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3rd, 1959. At the time, Don McLean was merely a child in New Rochelle, New York.

The new eye-opening documentary, “The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ begins by taking us back to that fateful day. They managed to find a man who was at the final concert that those musicians ever played. They were in the middle of a tour, and had decided to fly to the next stop because their bus kept breaking down in the frigid Iowa winter. Also featured in the documentary is the man whose company rented out the plane that went down. And to top it off, the documentarians managed to get Richie Valens’ sister Connie to agree to be interviewed about the song. And while she is obviously still sad about the loss of her brother, she is thankful that McLean created this legendary song that cemented Richie’s place in American history and culture.

McLean’s Childhood

In 1959, Don Mclean was only 13 years old, living in a suburban neighborhood in New Rochelle. And as the song mentions, he was a paper boy at the time. In the documentary, McLean gives an exclusive interview essentially breaking down each lyric to the song. So, not surprisingly, it begins with an examination of his childhood years. He says he remembers delivering the paper on the day the news of the crash was reported, and how deeply it affected him as a fan of music and of those artists. Buddy Holly was in fact his number one childhood idol, so McLean was devastated by the loss. He also talks about how he had bronchial asthma, and how he used to head to the House of Music, a local record store on Main Street in New Rochelle. These details were immortalized in the song with lyrics calling himself a “teenage broncin’ buck” who would go down to the “sacred store.”

Tragedy struck again for McLean when his father died only two years after the Day The Music Died, when he was 15. This event, plus the plane crash that killed his musical idols, are the two things that prompted him to write the song in the first place. It could even be seen as therapeutic, as McLean tried to grapple with the losses he suffered as a child, through songwriting as a grown man.

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McLean’s Songwriting Years

The documentary explores McLean’s years as a budding singer/songwriter, as he honed his chops in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He learned a lot from legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, and McLean talks about how those influences showed up in American Pie. For example, the sing-a-long nature of the chorus of the song is very reminiscent of people singing traditional songs around a camp fire. He even notes how the song has elements of nursery rhymes like “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.”

Yet Don talks about how the youthful nature of these musical devices helped to counter the tumult of the era. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, America was going through as much change as it had in a century, and the chaos of the times was reflected in some of the song’s lyrics. And perhaps part of the magic of American Pie is that it weaves seemingly contradictory elements so effortlessly.

McLean Clarifies the References

American Pie contains so many pop culture, storybook, and political references, that it can be confusing to follow along, let alone understand what each reference is about. McLean helps to clear up some of that ambiguity in the documentary. For example, he denied that Elvis was the “king” he refers to. He also puts an end to the speculation that Janis Joplin was “the girl who sang the blues” as well any notions that he was referring to Bob Dylan when he mentions a ‘jester.’

The Song’s Arrangement and Length

McLean not only dives into the lyrics elements of American Pie, but he also gives behind-the-scenes info on the arrangement and the length of the song. He mentions that the song had been missing its core groove for a while. Then they had Paul Griffith, a session piano player, join the recording. Griffith added gospel energy to it, with a little bit of a pop groove.

McLean also talks about the massive length of the song. Most hit songs were about half the length of American Pie, making it a bold undertaking to begin with. His label at the time decided they’d split the song in half, and have side-A of the vinyl record be the first half of the song, and have it finish on side-B. As such, the first half of the song ended in a bit of a cliffhanger. This ended up being quite the hook for radio listeners, who demanded that the on-air DJ’s turn the record over to hear the end of the song and find out what happens. This was particularly true for AM radio, though the trend for FM at the time was to embrace longer songs. So it wasn’t as hard of a sell for those stations.

Regardless, the song hit number one on the charts, and for 50 years it was the longest song to do so, at 8 minutes and 42 seconds. (Taylor Swift’s recent “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) recently eclipsed it.

McLean isn’t happy

While Don McLean has firmly established himself in the pantheon of great American songwriters, that doesn’t mean he’s lived a life of carefree happiness. As is the case with many great creative artists, McLean has somewhat of a tortured psyche. At 76 years old, McLean says that he feels more fragile than ever. And because he’s getting up there in years, he now tries not to overextend himself, as he’s constantly worried about the strain of exhaustion.

But it’s not simply his age that gives McLean grief. He has admitted to generally not being a happy person. He references his childhood as lacking warmth or togetherness, and instead remembers it being more of an empty house where he felt isolated. As a result, he turned inward and started more creative endeavors. McLean also admits that people like him, namely creative artists, are inherently emotional and feel things acutely. He says he actually had a nervous breakdown at one point in the 1970’s where he couldn’t leave the house or stop crying.

As a result of a lifetime of feeling lonely and emotionally charged, McLean says he is distrustful of others, and feels very much on his own. He says he has a few friends, including his bandmates. But he also has difficulty keeping up with his friendships, especially people from long ago in his life. And he also sold the house that he grew up in, because whenever he’d visit he’d be filled with sadness, triggered by his negative memories from childhood.

He now lives with his girlfriend, Paris, and yet he still tries to maintain a certain level of separation from her within their house. And the two are sure to not touch each other’s stuff around the house. Yet at the same time he admits that he has a great life, and that he’s lucky to have her as well as his legacy.

American Pie has gone down as an all time classic song. And now that Don McLean is revealing many of the secrets behind it, it’ll perhaps be even more noteworthy.

Now it’s time to hear from you. Which lyric in American Pie do you think is the most confusing? Do you know the lyrics to the whole song? Let us know in the comments section below. And before you go, be sure to give this video a like, and subscribe to Facts Verse if you haven’t already. Click the bell icon to stay updated on all our latest content. 

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