Even this generation must know the song “Killing Me Softly” as it was covered by Lauryn Hill in the 90’s. This song was originally composed by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel in 1971, and was based on a poem by Lori Lieberman. The poem was titled “Killing Me Softly With His Blues” and was written after watching a then-unknown Don Mclean perform “Empty Chairs”.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song”
Sadly, this generation may wonder “Don Who?” yet would sing along if I were to play “American Pie”. (Bye, bye, miss american pie… drove my chevy to the levee but the levee was dry… you with me now?)
So after sharing the fun trivia fact that “Killing Me Softly” was originally written for Don Mclean, let’s discuss what the lyrics to American Pie truly mean.
Some people already know that this song is about the death of Buddy Holly. Some people really don’t care what this song is about and I could only wonder why somebody who doesn’t care would continue to read this article, because I am here to tell you that it is about much more than Buddy Holly.
If you know what the word play means it is clear as day that the line “this will be the day that I die” is in direct reference to lyrics from Buddy Holly’s most popular song “That’ll be the day….. when I die”. However, there are also references to Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, Elvis, James Dean, the Rolling Stones, and much more. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (whom all dies in the plane crash the day “the music died” are never specifically named. In fact, every person and event named in “American Pie” is only ‘referred to’ in a symbolical manner.)
“American Pie” has made songwriter Don Mclean an important contributor to our nations music and cultural history, and a “Songs of the Century” education project declared “American Pie” as the number 5 song of the twentieth century. It is the lyrics that have remained a semi-controversial mystery and songwriter Don Mclean refuses to explain them. If you ask him what “American Pie” means, he’ll tell you “It means I never have to work again.”
However, fans of the song have composed many compilations of interpretations of what “American Pie” lyrics mean. Read along and see if any of your theories have been correct, but understand these are interpretations written by fans and can not be proven correct.
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
A ‘long time ago’ is the fact that the music in the beginning of this song is from the 1950’s, and American Pie was written in 1971. In the 1950’s the main purpose of music was for dancing – sock hops.
But February made me shiver
with every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step
The plane crash in wich music legend Buddy Holly (whom Don Mclean idolized) the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens were killed ocurred on February 3, 1959. Don Mclean worked as a paperboy during this time, and he first learned the news when he cut into his stack of papers and read the front page story.
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
Buddy Holly’s wife was pregnant when the accident occurred. (She had a miscarriage soon after.)
February 3, 1959 will forever be known as ‘the day the music died’. The 3 music legends killed in the crash were the only 3 standard rock and roll artists remaining.
So bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
and good old boys were drinking whisky and rye
singing this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die
There has been a rumor that “American Pie” was the name of the plane that caused the fatal crash. This is not true. The chorus to American Pie is where most of the controversy lies about the true meaning of the lyrics… and while there is no way of knowing exactly what is right and what isn’t… the key words are fairly obvious. “This will be the day that I die” is in direct reference to “That will be the day….. when I die”, a song by Buddy Holly.
As for “American Pie”, this could be a symbolism for the standard rock and roll from the 1950’s, how American it was. (What we may now consider hot dogs and beer. The tradition of it.) The same thing could be said for the Chevy… the all-American-vehicle. The levee being dry could be just as symbolical as “the music wouldn’t play” but many fans note that there is both a bar and a town near where Don Mclean grew up, both named “The Levee”.
What is so great about Don Mclean’s “American Pie” is that nearly every line has many possible translations. We may never know the true meaning of some things, and that kind of mystery definitely has made itseld a name in history!
Did you write the book of love and do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
“The Book of Love” was a hit by the Monotones in 1968. Don Mclean was also Catholic, and you will find many religous ‘codings’ in nearly all of his songs. Also, please note that “American Pie” is not the only song of it’s kind. Check out “Starry, Starry Night” by Don Mclean!
Now do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And, can you tell me how to dance real slow?
Again, this is possibly more religous than anything but it is all your opinion. Some relate this to “Do You Believe in Magic?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. Personally I can’t comprehend that connection, but you may.
Now I know that you’re in love with him
’cause I saw you dancing in the gym
you both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rythm and blues
Aside from the obvious reference to a sock hop, many relate this to Don catching his love cheating on him, The blues are a type of music one would listen to when depressed, and dancing was more serious in the 50’s. If you danced with somebody, you were ‘going steady’.
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
with a pink carnation and a pick up truck
but I knew I was out of luck
the day…. the music died
The most consistent interpretation here is that the pick up truck was a symbol of sexual freedom.
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
and moss grows fat on a rolling stone
but that’s not how it used to be
A simple idea would be that Don Mclean is now referring the Rolling Stones. However, it is more likely that this is referring to Bob Dylan. (Who wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965.) To extend on this some fans have gone on to discuss “fat” referring to a year Dylan hid in his house after suffering a motorcycle accident and “moss” meaning the time change. Dylan didn’t recover his ‘muse’ until 1975. It is also believed that Mclean did not care for Dylan’s ‘folk rock style’ in the mid sixties.
Also note that “Early in the Morning” by Buddy Holly contains the line “You know a rolling stone don’t gather no moss”. Many lines in American Pie have been declared as having more than one possible meaning, only adding to the mystery and the talent of Don Mclean as a songwriter.
When the jester sang for the king and queen,
in a coat he borrowed from James Dean
and a voice that came from you and me
These lines are also controversial between opinions. Some swear that the king mentioned must be “The King” (Elvis) yet others say the jester is, again, Bob Dylan. The king is Peter Seger and the queen is Joan Baez. During the Newport Folk Festival (1963) Dylan performed his own set then combined with these two legends. It was an honor for him.
This seems most plausible because the jacket is a red windbreaker. James Dean wore one in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” and Dylan wore the same coat on the cover of “FreeWheelin’ “.
Oh, and while the king was looking down
the jester stole his thorny crown
This could possibly be a reference to Elvis, being drafted. However it is more plausible that the king is still Seger who remained a traditional folk singer while Dylan became more popular by constantly reinventing himself.
In case you can’t tell, Mclean is religous. “Thorny crown” is pretty easy to understand.
The court room was adjourned
no verdict was returned
Commonly, this refers to the Kennedy assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered, therefore he was never convicted.
And while Lennon read a book of Marx
the quartet practiced in the park
and we sang dirges in the dark
the day…. the music died
The Beatles music became political. However, some also believe that it is not John Lennon mentioned here, that it is Vladimir Lenin (a communist dictator) and I personally do not see how that interpretation would even fit with anything else in this song. Some also put different meanings into what Marx may mean. Some believe it would be the socialist philosopher Karl Marx. Others say it could mean Groucho Marx.
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
Charles Manson is one of the most dangerous serial killers in history. To summarize, he massacred an entire family in the summer of 1968 because of the song “Helter Skelter”. Manson was dropping too much acid, thought the Beatles were talking to him and that song had told him to kill those people. After committing those murders, Manson wrote the title of the song in blood on the wall.
The Byrd fell off to a fall out shelter
I’m sure you may have heard of the Byrds. A fall out shelter is another name for a rehabilitation center.
Eight miles high and falling fast…
“Eight Miles High” was the first psychadelic song. (It was written on speed, and the guitar is supposed to sound like a saxophone.)
Then landed in the foul grass
One might think that Mclean could be talking about marijuana. I personally find nothing foul about this grass… but that’s just an opinion.
The players tried for a forward pass
In the 1960’s, an era of protesting our government’s corruption began.
With the jester, on the sidelines
in a cast
Remember the jester (Dylan) was in a motorcycle accident?
Now the half time air was sweet perfume
He may be talking about marijuana again, and describing it a bit better than before.
While sergeants played a marching tune
Come on… if you can’t relate this to the Beatles you must do more research into our history of music! Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band… check it out!
We all got up to dance…. but we never got the chance
Unlike the music from the 1950’s, the ‘new music’ (Beatles) could not be danced to and enjoyed in the same way.
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
the marching band refused to yield
Do you recall, what was revealed?
The day… the music died.
To remind you, the players would be the protesters, who became violent and more so were handled violently. The marching band (Beatles) were non-violent and a few of their songs even made protesters think twice about the way they were acting.
And then we were all in one place
Woodstock, in case you can’t figure it out….
A generation lost in space
Okay, if you know anything about Woodstock you’ll get this. However it has also been considered that this could be a reference to the moon landing and other space related news that occurred within this time.
With no time left to start again
In Mclean’s opinion, it took a decade to get to this point and it was wasted on drugs.
So Come on Jack be nimble
Jack be Quick
Jack Flash sat on a candle stick
Have you ever heard of “Jumpin Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones? Hmmm… Perhaps you are familiar with the nursery rhyme in which Jack jumps over a candle stick?
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend
The Stones ‘sold out to the devil’. In a comeback to the infamous Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones brought the album you have probably never heard of… “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and a song “Sympathy for the Devil” which showed a real desperation to sell albums.
Oh, 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!
As far as I have seen, there is absolutely no controversy over this particular section of “American Pie”. In fact, this is a good lesson in history! In December of ’69, the Stones attempted a free concert hiring the well known ‘biker gang’ Hell’s Angels as security. They paid their guards with handfuls of acid and beer… which resulted in a man being beaten and stabbed to death.
There is no mistake about it that this is what Don Mclean meant!
As the flames climbed high into the night
to light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
the day…. the music died.
Still referring to the incident with the Hell’s Angels.
I met a girl who sang the blues
and I asked her for some happy news
she just smiled and turned away
There is no mystery that ‘a girl who sang the blues’ is about the one and only Janis Joplin, who died of an accidental heroin overdose.
I went down to the sacred store
where I heard the musric
but the man there, said the music wouldn’t play…
The ‘sacred store’ is most likely a record store. In the 70’s, almost everyone was ignoring music from the 50’s.
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken
What is so great about this song is how open many of the lines are for interpretation. This is probably Mclean’s observance on “what’s wrong with the world today?!” but has meant other things to many fans.
And the three men I admire most
the father, son and the holy ghost
they caught the last train for the coast
the day… the music died
(and we were singing….)
As mentioned earlier, and it is obvious if you listen to any other songs written by Don Mclean, he was Catholic and highly religous. Many fans relate the ‘three men I admire most’ to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper whom all died in the plane crash. While every line in this mystery is open for interpretation, it is highly likely that Mclean meant just what he said… the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost.
So there you have it. Don Mclean’s “American Pie” is an important mark in history and in music. It is a beautiful song to listen to, and it is a mysterious song to understand.
There are many songs that may make you wonder “What is this about?” Good songs that fall in that category are “Hotel California” by the Eagles, and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel (documents 40 years of historical names and events). Sadly, music today may either make you wonder the same thing for the wrong reasons… or leave no mystery at all. (It’s all about booty shaking and talking down other artists.)
Still, the most well written song in history, in my opinion, is “American Pie” by Don Mclean.