Hello again, American Pie

The song American Pie was, despite its unusually long 8½ minutes, a big hit for Don McLean when he released it in 1971. It was a big hit in Sri Lanka too and I liked it a lot. The words were strange, lurching from one mental image to another seemingly with no connection, but I didn’t worry about it, just enjoying the bouncy beat. You can read the lyrics here or read it along with hearing the song below.

While I knew that the song took as its central theme the deaths in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (known as The Big Bopper), no one I knew in Sri Lanka tried to decipher any deeper meanings to the words. I for one just found them zany and fun.

But Stephen Carter writes that there was apparently a lot of debate in the US by people trying to identify the hidden meanings in the words, while McLean kept a stony silence. You can read one attempt here by someone who has clearly put in a lot of thought and effort.

I am not sure why people seem to be so intent with finding hidden meanings, except on the general grounds that people like solving puzzles and riddles. Hidden meanings in songs and books seem to have a fascination for some, like trying to figure out the puzzles planted by James Joyce in his book Ulysses or who Carly Simon is referring to in her song You’re So Vain.

But apparently all the secrets will be revealed soon because Christie’s New York is going to auction off the original manuscript of American Pie on April 7 and it is expected to fetch over $1 million. At that time McLean supposedly has said that he will also reveal what the song is all about.


  1. DonDueed says

    One correction: it wasn’t Ritchie Havens who died in that plane crash, but Ritchie Valens. The former is known for his long rendition of “Motherless Child” at Woodstock; he died only recently. Valens had a huge hit with a rock version of the traditional song “La Bamba”.

  2. Steve Lion says

    Well shit! I was going to make some smarmy remark like “Richie Havens is dead?! Damn, I need to pay more attention to this stuff?”
    So to be sure I didn’t make a fool of myself I checked with Mr. wiki and sure as shit he is! Jeeze! Now I feel foolish and let down.
    Never mind…

  3. Jenora Feuer says

    Some people are utterly fascinated by ‘real meanings’ in poetry and songs. The Beatles got a lot of that sort of thing.

    Which was why they wrote ‘I am the Walrus’, as a deliberate attempt to make a song so confusing that people would be stumped for years trying to find any real meaning in it.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Around the same time that “American Pie” came out, I was trying to figure out the meaning of another 8 1/2 minute hit; Yes’s “Roundabout“. Turns out it was about a trip through Scotland, driving home from a gig. So, actually one of Jon Anderson’s more accessible songs.

  5. dogfightwithdogma says

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I was in 9th grade the year that song came out. I fell in love with it. It was one of the many songs I would listen to on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I’d lay down on the couch and listen to my various albums for hours at a time. Don’t have but a few of those albums anymore. Thanks for the link to the YouTube song. While there I discovered that there were a great many songs on YouTube videos like this one, showing the verses as the song played. Also discovered another YouTube video version of American Pie. But this one had text explaining what each of the lyrics was referring to. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsZFiMo8TIc

  6. mnb0 says

    “its unusually long 8½ minutes”
    In 1971 songs of such length weren’t unusual anymore. RG already mentioned Yes; to which I add Deep Purple (Child in Time), Led Zeppelin (How many more times), Jimi Hendrix (two songs on Electric Ladyland), Iron Butterfly (Inagaddadavida)
    Child in Time was even a single.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Brian E,

    That was superb! Thanks a lot for that.

    Weird Al’s lyrics make more sense than the original …

  8. says

    I’m more impressed by an economy of words than wordiness. Since Ulysses was mentioned….

    Who wrote that tired sea song?
    Set on this peaceful shore
    You think you’ve heard this one before

    Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
    Still I remain tied to the mast
    Could it be that I have found my home at last?
    Home at last


    mnb0 (#7) --

    In 1971 songs of such length weren’t unusual anymore. RG already mentioned Yes;

    I stopped listening to Yes after Rabin ruined the group, but I still listen ELP sometimes (Karn Evil 9 still knocks it out of the park, even if just the first 13 minutes).

    Rush is the only group in my music collection that gets their own root directory, not lumped into categories (e.g. jazz, rock, pop), both because of their longevity, output and quality. I still love all the extended pieces they’ve done except (oddly) the last, “The Camera Eye”.

  9. csrster says

    As puzzles go, “American Pie” isn’t exactly The Voynich Manuscript, is it? I mean it’s just a romp through the history of rock’n’roll -- “The Sergeants” are The Beatles, “The King” is Elvis etc. But it’s a very good title song -- from a _great_ album.

  10. tecolata says

    60s music and some 60s news -- the Jack who “flashed out on a candlestick” IMO was John Kennedy, girl who sang the blues Janis Joplin (only woman in the song except Miss American Pie herself!), I thought the Jester who stole the King’s crown was John Lennon. But doesn’t everyone give it their own meaning?

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