Time Capsule “American Pie” Turns 50

Major title from artist Don McLean tells the story of “The Day the Music Died.”


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Don McLean performing in 2013 at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury.

Matty Hauth, Copy Editor

“A long, long time ago,” on Oct. 24, 1971, Don McLean released his album titled “American Pie”, featuring a single sharing the name. 

This narrative-style epic spans all of 8 and a half minutes, and details the events of one of the most historically well-known tragedies in the music industry: “the day the music died.”

On Feb. 3, 1959, tragedy struck when a plane crashed around Clear Lake, Iowa. Those in the plane, Buddy Holly, “The Big Bopper”  J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens, along with the pilot, all lost their lives.

All three artists had been massive staples in a young rock and roll industry, and served as influences for many future musicians, including McLean himself. Holly had especially inspired the sound, as his rich, clear vocals had resonated with many.

This led to depressing reactions from Holly’s wife and mother, as his wife suffered a miscarriage shortly after, and his mother later collapsed in emotional distress.

These, however, were not the extent of the reactions.

13 year old Don McLean, a young fan of rock and roll music, had been an avid fan of Holly’s. After hearing of the crash, McLean was in shambles and knew he had to follow through with his musical dreams in an effort to pick up where his idols had left off. 

Enter “American Pie,” named after a combination of “Miss America” and “as American as apple pie,” a figure of speech to detail an American character.

The song tells of the tragic event and the narrator’s early inspiration to create music. The narrator, a young paperboy, had been faced with delivering the newspaper that next day with stories detailing the crash, which deeply saddened the young fan.

From here, the narrator describes driving a Chevrolet truck to the levee, “but the levee was dry.” This expert lyricism combines the death of the American dream in a dry levee, as well as the traditional American Chevy truck, and depicts how affected youths of this day had been, given the news.

Shortly after this, McLean mentions faith and the Bible in the line “Did you write the book of love/And do you have faith in God above/If the Bible tells you so?”

In comparing the connection to religion to that of music, Mclean perfectly encapsulates how many feel deeply connected and freed by music, just as many do by faith and religion.

After a brief jump in time, the verse following the chorus begins 10 years after the crash and tells of how the industry has recovered. 

Moving past the days of traditional, Holly-style rock, there were now the likes of Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley ruling the scene. McLean references Elvis’s downfall as Dylan’s rise to fame, and lists the event as Dylan stealing his “thorny crown.”

The third verse continues the impressive string of musical references, including the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter,” and  The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” All of these represent how time has progressed and changed, all while preserving the memory of the long-missed musicians.

This same verse, after mentioning the devastating motorcycle crash of Dylan, explains how the Beatles now claimed their role as kings of rock music, a title they lost after the failures of live performances.

After this line, however, the typical tone of the transition is seen to be slightly altered.

 Now reading “Do you recall what was revealed/The day the music died?,” this line explains the end of an era following Dylan’s crash. The world transitioned from the cheery, calm 1950s to the  war-ridden and fear-mongering 60’s featuring the Vietnam conflict and Cuban Missile Crisis.

From here, the dark tone continues.

In a reference to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” as well as the traditional nursery rhyme “Jack Be Nimble,” McLean introduces his near-final verse with the concept of an innocent idea, similar to that of the 50’s and 60’s, with a disaster to reveal the true colors of the situation.

After this, the song references a tragic murder occurring during a Rolling Stones concert committed by motorcycle club Hells Angel member Alan Passaro, symbolizing the end of a peaceful and innocent period of time. 

This could not “break that Satan’s spell,” as the band continued in their playing, turning a blind eye to the heinous act that had just been committed.

Now, later in McLean’s endeavors to find escape in music, he arrives at a music store, though the clerk has no good news for him, in his presentation of the now-lost Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Now, the rock and roll “church bells” had all gone silent: there had been none left.

Wrapping up the song, McLean leaves a reference once again to the tragedy of Feb. 3, 1959, as his three idols had “caught the last train for the coast,” referencing “heading West,” commonly used in lieu of saying one has died.

The song then concludes with the familiar chorus, as McLean fades out of the song much like his idols had suddenly faded from his life.