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"American Pie" is about more than just the death of Buddy Holly; it shows how rock music changed thereafter.
There have been many debates as to the meaning of Don's hit. Here is one synopsis:
"A long, long time ago..." – "American Pie" reached #1 in 1972; the album was released in 1971; Buddy Holly died in 1959
"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" – early rock music was written for people to dance to it
"But February made me shiver" – Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm
"With every paper I'd deliver" – Don delivered newspapers in his teens
"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" – Holly's recent bride was pregnant when the crash took place, but she had a miscarriage shortly afterward
"But something touched me deep inside/The day the music died" – Buddy Holly died with two other big singers at the time, Richie Valens and disc jockey J.P. Richardson, or "The Big Bopper." February 3, 1959 thus became known as "The Day the Music Died."
"So/I started singin'/We were singin'/We started singin'/He was singin'/And they were singin' bye, bye, Miss American Pie" – Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant
"Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry/Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye" – Don is at the bar, not at the "levee" that "broke" as Led Zeppelin recorded it
"Singin' 'This'll be the day that I die/This'll be the day that I die'" – Buddy Holly had a big hit with "That'll be the Day;" the chorus says "That'll be the day that I die."
"Did you write 'The Book of Love'" – "The Book of Love," a 1958 hit by the Monotones
"And do you have faith in God above/If the Bible tells you so?" – an old Sunday School song: "Jesus loves me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so"
"Now do you believe in rock 'n roll?" – The Lovin' Spoonful's "Do you Believe in Magic?" says "Do you believe in magic?" and "It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll," which Don fused into one sentence
"Can music save your mortal soul/And can you teach me how to dance real slow?" – The slow-dancing craze of early rock
"Well I know that you're in love with him/'Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym" – dancing was an expression of love
"You both kicked off your shoes" – the sock hop, which was so named because shoes wrecked wooden floors
"Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues" – R&B essentially fathered rock
"I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck/With a pink carnation and a pickup truck" – shows Don near manhood and alludes to Marty Robbins' 1957 hit "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)"
"But I knew that I was out of luck/The day the music died" – Don didn't feel too pleased with what happened on February 3, 1959
"Now for ten years we've been on our own" – Don wrote his biggest hit in 1969, ten years after the crash
"And moss grows fat on a rolling stone" – The Rolling Stones or the Rolling Stone Magazine
"But that's not how it used to be" – "A rolling stone gathers no moss."
"When the jester sang for the King and Queen" – Bob Dylan is the "jester" and Elvis Presley, of course, is the "king," but we're not sure who the "queen" is
"In a coat he borrowed from James Dean" – In Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean wears a red windbreaker; Dylan is wearing just a similar red windbreaker on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
"And a voice that came from you and me" – Dylan started out as a folk singer, for which the songs "came from you and me"
"And while the King was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown" – As Elvis' career waned in the 60's, Dylan slowly took his place
"The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned" – The trial of the "Chicago Seven"
"And while Lennon read a book on Marx" – John Lennon read about Karl Marx, introducing radical politics into the music of the Beatles. This may also allude to V.I. Lenin, who introduced the ideas of Marx to Russia.
"The quartet practiced in the park" – The Beatles at their final concert at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California, on August 29, 1966
"And we sang dirges in the dark/The day the music died" – Don laments the loss of his three idols
"Helter Skelter in a summer swelter" – the Beatles' song "Helter Skelter" was recorded in the summer of 1968, when psychedelic rock began to take hold
"The birds flew off with the fallout shelter/Eight miles high and falling fast" – The Byrds, whose "Eight Miles High" is thought to be about drugs and who began falling apart after its release
"It landed foul on the grass" – Roger McGuinn and David Crosby got busted for the possession of marijuana or "grass"
"The players tried for a forward pass" – The Rolling Stones as they waited for the Beatles to break up and gain more on the charts
"With the jester on the sidelines in a cast" – On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his motorcycle while riding near his home in Woodstock, New York, and stayed away from the public as he recovered from the accident
"Now the halftime air was sweet perfume" – the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where the "sweet perfume" is tear gas "While the sergeants played a marching tune" – The Beatles' Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is "marching" because it's not music for dancing, but it is music with a message to which we march
"We all got up to dance/But we never got the chance" – The Beatles never performed any "dancing" music at their last concert; it lasted thirty-five minutes
"'Cause the players tried to take the field/The marching band refused to yield" – The Beatles' chart feud with The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Monkees, etc. in the late 60's
"Do you recall what was revealed/The day the music died?" – Essentially, rock music changed forever
"And there we were all in one place" – Altamont Speedway, California, although commonly and erroneously thought to be Woodstock
"A generation lost in space" – Man had just set foot on the moon, which Neil Armstrong, said man, described as "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"
"With no time left to start again" – the Rolling Stones were practically devoid of restarting at this point
"So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick" – the Stone's "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
"Jack Flash sat on a candlestick" – The Stones' Candlestick park concert
"'Cause fire is the devil's only friend" – "Sympathy for the Devil"
"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" – Meredith Hunter, as he attempted to attack the Stones with a gun, was beaten to death by "Hell's Angels"
"And as the flames climbed high into the night/To light the sacrificial rite" – Mick Jagger as Hunter is brutally slain and burned
"I saw Satan laughing with delight/The day the music died" – "Satan" is Mick
"I met a girl who sang the blues/And I asked her for some happy news/But she just smiled and turned away" – Janis Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose in 1970
"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" – The "sacred store" is the Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time, but nobody is interested in hearing "the oldies" anymore
"And in the streets the children screamed" – the "Flower children" being beaten by police and National Guard troops; in particular, perhaps, the People's Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970
"The lovers cried and the poets dreamed" – The trend towards psychedelic music in the 60's
"But not a word was spoken/The church bells all were broken" – The broken bells are the dead musicians; neither can produce any more music
"And the three men I admire most/The Father, Son and Holy Ghost/They caught the last train for the coast/The day the music died" – Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens had left the scene (or died – "went west" is a synonym for dying)