The Day The Music Died – Understanding “American Pie”… Or Not…

am pie2

Spending many years as a performing songwriter/artist, I remain amazed at how many people have always known the words to the chorus of Don Mclean’s “American Pie.” Young and old. It’s the only part they know, yet they robustly flaunt their knowledge in unfathomable decibels having nary a clue what any of it means. It’s a classic. It’s catchy. Almost an anthem. Who cares anyway? Well… After singing the song since 1971, I suddenly did. It’s funny. In 46 years not one single person has asked me if I know what the lyrics mean. No one wants to admit they are clueless and I’m thankful I’ve never had to admit I’ve been rowing in the same boat as them for a long time.

am pie

Like so many others, I always believed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, died in a tragic plane accident while in route to a gig. This information by today’s standards would be considered false news. It seems Buddy Holly was tired of wearing the same old stinky clothes during a bus tour of the Midwest, so he chartered a plane to the nearest washing machine which was in Fargo, North Dakota. Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the flight when he saw the weather was getting rough.


It was Feb. 3rd, 1959. The skies over Clear Lake, Iowa were dark and the wind was rapidly picking up pace. The pilot, who was not certified to take off in inclement weather, took a roll of the dice and lifted off anyway. The small plane ultimately crashed, killing everyone on board. And that my friends, was the day “The Music Died.” And we started singing…


Don McLean did not write the song immediately following the plane crash. He wrote it 13 years later in 1971. According to the L. A. Times, the original 16-page manuscript complete with unintelligible scribbling and scratched out sentences sold for a cool 1.2 mil. Nice retirement check. Or, maybe he’ll surprise us with a new album?

Knowing the origin of the chorus somewhat helps better understand what he was attempting to say, but the original version of the song was 8 ½ minutes long so that’s a hell of a lot of words we’re still clueless about. Why did he take his Chevy to the levy? And why was it dry?  Inquiring minds…


When asked about the verses, McLean was once quoted as saying, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Now, personal opinion only, I interpret this to mean, “Hell if I know. It was the early 70’s and I was high as hell.”

In a 2015 article published by The Telegraph, McLean offered even further insight into these words of useless wisdom by saying: “Basically in American Pie, things are heading in the wrong direction”. “It is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” Yeah, we get it now. Thanks, Bud.

Don McLean Performs At Royal Albert Hall In London

Don McLean today. His music is very popular in Ireland so he tours there quite often.

Understanding the only way to grasp the meaning of the verses is to be as high as Don McLean was while he was writing them is not recommended since he can’t even remember what they mean. The only logical consensus is they say whatever you decide they say. Quit trying to figure them out and move on. Go along with them like you always have. I’ll keep singing the song because it’s a great song regardless, and others will keep chiming in at the appropriate times, but my final conclusion is this: There are just some things we were never intended to understand. Perhaps in the next life… Til then… We’ll keep on singing…


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