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Clear Lake, Iowa

American Pie by Don McLean

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Do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul? Read full Lyrics
Crash site monument
In the summer of ‘72, Don McLean had something going for him that all musicians dream of, yet few obtain. The ambiguity and mystique surrounding the lyrical meaning behind his hit song (having reached the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts) "American Pie" was a potential cash cow Don could’ve taken to the bank for decades. Speculation ran rampant due primarily to his ingeniously worded, impressionistic, and cryptic lyrics. The Day the Music Died could’ve literally been anything, any point in history or even a fictitious future. However, in 1978, McLean came clean and clued his listeners into the fact that he’d written the song about one fateful night in 1959 when a plane crash killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Clear Lake is a small town with a population of approximately 8,000 located in north-central Iowa. If not for the night of February 3rd, 1959, the community would’ve remained unknown to most music lovers (and just about everybody else who lives outside Iowa). In the seemingly middle of the night, a Beechcraft Bonanza containing the three somewhat legendary rock stars took off from a tiny airport in Mason City and headed toward its destination in Moorhead, Minnesota. Unfortunately, the plane didn’t make it very far and all aboard were killed when it crashed into a cornfield. In 1988, a memorial - depicting three records and a stainless steel guitar - was erected at the site, aka Buddy Holly Place, by an artist and fan of the 1950s era music.

Don McLean was only 14 years old (the age of influence) when he learned of the crash. As a paperboy, he read the headlines as he delivered newspapers to the neighborhood; this memory he immortalized in the lyric, “But February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver.” Other specific mentions to the crash - “Eight miles high and falling fast” and “And as the flames climbed high into the night” - appear throughout the largely autobiographical song that chronicles McLean’s adolescence, love of music, and loss of innocence in the 1950s and '60s.

The emotion McLean felt and expressed through the lyrics illustrate similar themes to Simon and Garfunkel’s "Sound of Silence" and recount a confusing time in American history… the times they were a’changin’. The crash and the date dubbed The Day the Music Died became symbolic of the death of the American Dream, the loss of those ideals, and the growing pains the country experienced during the decade that followed.
The Surf Ballroom, where Holly played his last show
(Tim Fuller, Flickr)
He said, “The song was written as my attempt at an epic song about America, and I used the imagery of music and politics to do that. Also, I was really influenced by the Sgt. Pepper album, and the American Pie album was my attempt to do that, but the song totally overshadowed the album.” Most of us will never hear, without a concerted effort, the rest of the cuts on the 1971 full-length LP; however, the success of the title track cannot be overstated. The beauty of McLean’s magnum opus can be found in the details.

Allegorical by nature, the other lyrics in "American Pie" not only hint toward a potential future void of music, arts, and emotion, but also provide a few additional nods to specific people and events that occurred during the Swinging Sixties. As mentioned earlier, McLean was heavily influenced by the Beatles (honestly, who wasn’t?) and he hid a reference to the Fab Four when he sang, “While the sergeants played a marching tune.” The sergeants are obviously Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Additionally, the Jester, who borrowed a coat from James Dean, is most likely a reference to Bob Dylan, who wore a similar coat on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. In July of ‘66 he had a motorcycle accident that kept him laid up for nine months (‘With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast’). Jack Flash represents Mick Jagger - quite easy to pick out - but a slightly more obscure reference is the "girl who sang the blues," who I believe is supposed to be Janis Joplin.

Finally, the ‘three men’ he admired most is a vague allusion, but could be construed to either refer to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper themselves, or (and probably more accurately) the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., all of which took place in the 1960s, while McLean was growing up and losing his innocence.

Regardless, "American Pie" is a classic song and its lyrics are open to many interpretations. I’m sure music fans for generations (lost in space) will contemplate their many possible meanings as they sing along for years to come, because thankfully, the music hasn’t died - and never will.
~ Justin Novelli
American Pie Songfacts
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Comments: 1

  • Dennis from Calabash NcThe irony is that not only did the song put Clear Lake IA on the map but also the three legendary singers. Buddy Holly was getting a pretty good reputation but the Big Bopper and Richie Valens each had 1 hit. Without the crash would they have become "legendary" or gone the route of many 1 hit wonders.
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