American Pie: the hidden meaning of a cryptic song

Posted by

The original version of the song has been successful in the most important charts in the world (which is unusual for a song that lasts almost nine minutes). Especially in the United States, this piece has achieved such popularity that it has been proposed as World Heritage. There are countless covers, among which the one created by Luisa Veronica Ciccone, better known as Madonna, stands out.

I’m talking about Don McLean’s American Pie.

Its lyrics are the strongest element beyond the catchy melody.

The lyrics, however, are difficult to interpret, so much so that today there is no “official” point of view, or univocal interpretation of its meaning. Asked several times for clarification, Don McLean has always refused to give explanations, saying that there are so many interpretations that there is no need to provide more.

I, on the other hand, wanted to investigate the text to provide you with my thoughts.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Let’s start with the title, which apparently makes no sense and instead …

American pie could be intended as an American sweet. It is true that the lyrics say “Miss American pie”, which might refer to a person. Yet pie is written in lowercase. Therefore, the interpretation about an American sweet can still be valid.

But why “miss American pie?

The female figure is intended as an American symbol. In fact, the founding fathers adopted many traditions of the Indians who saw the birth of North America due to the descent of a woman from heaven. The female reference in the lyrics therefore serves to reaffirm certain roots: Don McLean thus wants to accuse the abandonment of values, of original history.

The refrain, not surprisingly, reads “bye bye American Pie”, or “goodbye American dream”. Don McLean began writing the lyrics right after a historic accident in the 1950s.

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
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”

What were those years for the singer-songwriter and for many young Americans?

World War II was over, the Cold War had not yet reached the “Reganian” tension, the economy was experiencing a growth that seemed unstoppable, heroin and cocaine had yet to invade American cities, and the era of liberation was beginning for women. A simple and idyllic world, and also naive. Everyone seemed happy and carefree and even the lyrics of the songs were “idiots”, they just had to communicate happiness and will to live. This was what Buddy Holly did.

When he died on February 3, 1959, crashing with the plane, not only for many was the end of music, “the day the music die”, but for Don he represented the end of childhood dreams. A bit like when a child discovers that there is no Santa Claus. All that world, which Buddy represented as a rock icon, dissolved in an instant.

Don began to observe the world that went on anyway, with new artists and new musical phenomena that from that tragic 1959 to 1972, the year of publication of the song, began to emerge (the references in the text are many, from Janis Joplin to the Beatles up to Bod Dylan). The dream had now, however, vanished. When he discovers that Santa Claus no longer exists, even if you continue to receive gifts, you know you have lost something forever.

The whole lyrics travel through this contrast: on the one hand the joy of seeing the birth of new stars but on the other the obsessive repetition of the refrain “bye bye miss American pie”, that means, nothing will ever be the same again.

The most likely interpretation is that, through those lyrics, Don McLean expressed the sense of a world that has changed, with fragments of something beautiful that have been irretrievably lost. This obviously concerns America in its entirety, but specifically also the musical world, which for him represented the most intimate perspective.