Don McLean never told anyone what his song was about. This is my interpretation (opinion)and the justification of it.

I am again updating this page. To avoid Copywrite problems, the audio links have now been removed (actually password protected). So I am including more lyrics and images. If you notice typo's please let me know.

This work is copyrighted by Daniel Wedding 2005-2007. Please contact Dan Wedding, Ph.D. prior to reprinting this text (in part or in whole). Songs and images contained herein are the property of their respecive owners. These images and songs are presented here for educational purposes only and are not for profit.




INTRODUCTION: I have read many different explanations of the lyrics to Don McLean’s song, “American Pie” and I have found many incorrect interpretations or references. The reason there are so many incorrect interpretations on the lyrics is due to a lack of knowledge of music, historical perspective, or intellectual laziness. One main reason for confusion is that Don McLean never directly references people or items. He referees to them by a description of their personality or a characteristic. For example, when Don references “a coat”, he is not talking about an article of clothing. But people try to force the coat, as an article of clothing, on the lyric and miss the entire meaning. If one misses the fact that Don is referencing objects and people, you will miss the point of the song.

I see American Pie as a way for Don McLean to paint a picture or pass on a feeling he had. He does this though reference to events. The song is similar to a mosaic made up of events instead of tiles. The smaller "event - images" are there to “color in” the bigger picture. Both the “image tile” and the “big picture” need to be discussed to understand the song. By reviewing the headlines of the times and what Don McLean has said about the song, many of the image tiles fall into place.

PREMISE: Before you can analyze the lyrics you have to start with a basic premise on what the song means. Many people state that the song is an “autobiographical coming of age” song. But I do not believe that is totally correct. An autobiography covers all aspects of ones own life. However, this song centers on the sad and dark side of anyone who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and it uses the history of music as the vehicle to highlight the unpleasantness of the times. Because of the generic nature of the song it is historical and not so much autobiographical.

American Pie is describing how the children of the 50's were brought into the 60's and were witness to a series of unpleasant events. Although Don uses his own life as the frame of reference, the song could be applied to anyone in his generation. The reoccurring theme of death is brought up in every lyric and the death (either figuratively or literally) is tied to music and musicians. Don ties the death of the 50’s music that he views as fun, happy, and somewhat religious to the death of his youth. He then casts a bad light on the music of the 60’s that he sees as a darker, political, and somewhat evil. In Don McLean’s own words,

   ”I have been singing since I was a small child but once I began to play the guitar, I formed in my mind the idea that perhaps I could write songs. Simple rock songs like 'Teenager in Love' could be played with the same chords over and over. I've taught my young daughter how to play this tune, it's that simple. Folk songs were also everywhere in the fifties and the guitar was perfect for them. A simple, beautiful song will inspire most musicians to try to write. Complicated, pretentious and non-melodic music is a turn-off. So are lessons. Keep music in your life and have fun with it and after a time it will grow on you and you will understand the language of song."

Don is pining for the “good old days” in American Pie while explaining the sour historical events that make him want to return to the 50's.

TIMEFRAME: A common presumption is that the song spans four years (from 1959 to 1963) covering the death of Buddy Holly to the death of President Kennedy. But the song clearly states that, “for 10 years we’ve been on our own” so the minimum timeframe for the song is 1959 through 1969, and it is actually longer. Furthermore, Don jumps around in time, so the song is not in sequential order. Clues to the date are peppered throughout the song. Once the date for a verse is established the event that is being talked about becomes apparent. For that reason, a great emphasis has been put on pinpointing the dates for each verse.

“American Pie” - By Don McLean (1972)

Verse 1 (1959): 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

  Don reminisces about how simple and happy he was in the 50’s. The music was fun and pretty simple. Anyone could become a musician because the simple nature of the music of the time. Don even implies that this is what led him to be a musician.

but February made me shiver with every paper I delivered, bad news on the door step, I couldn't take one more step,

 
Don McLean was a paperboy in 1959. On Feburary 3, 1959 Buddy Holly (of “That Will Be the Day" fame), Richie Valens (of "La Bamba" fame) and The Big Bopper (of “Chantilly Lace“ fame) were all killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa (the exact location is listed as “SW1/4 Section 18, Lincoln Twp. Cerro Gordo County, Iowa”).  


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. So…

  Buddy Holly had a pregnant wife, Mary Elena Holly, who mis-carried after the crash and it obviously had a profound impact on Don.

Chorus: Bye, bye Miss American Pie

  “American Pie” refers to the simple “apple-pie America” of the 50’s, where teenagers dated “girl next door”. This is the death of innocence. With the death of three major singers, the music of the 50’s was going to die out and be replaced by the music of the 60’s.

   Myth 1: It was NOT the name of the plane. The plane was simply a red-and-white single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza registration number N3794N.

Myth 2: Another myth was that, Don McLean broke up with a Miss America contestants on the same day as the plane crash. Don was born October 2, 1945, he was 14 at the time of the plane crash. I doubt that a 14 year old paperboy would have been involved with a Miss America contestant.

drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry

  In 1956 through 1963, Dinah Shore was the star of “The Chevy Show” on TV. She sang:

  
See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.
America is asking you to call.
Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A.
America's the greatest land of all.
On a highway or a road along a levee
Performance is sweeter, nothing can beat 'er.
Life is completer in a Chevy.




Audio Link

 


  Don is trying to convey the disappointment he felt as he became an adult in the 1960's. He was promised happiness by Dinah Shore. Don explaining how he did what he was told, he "drove his chevy to the levee" but when he got there it was "dry". He was saddened by the 60's and they were not the "sweeter" times he was expecting.

an them good ol' boys were drinkin whiskey and rye singin’ this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.

  Don McLean was very fond of folk music and the music of the 50’s. This line is a direct reference to the Tex Ritter song “Rye Whiskey” and Buddy Holly’s song “That will be the day”. These references are foreshadowing the images of death that are brought up throughout the song. Some of the lines from “Rye Whiskey” are:

  
It’s a whisky, rye whiskey, rye whisky, I cry,
If I don’t get rye whiskey, well, I think I will die.
I’ll eat when I’m Hungry, I’ll drink when I’m Dry,
If Hard times don’t Kill me, I’ll lay down and die.
… Rye whisky, rye whiskey, rye whisky, I cry,
If a tree don’t fall on me, I’ll live ‘til I die.




Audio Link

 


  Buddy Holly's song, "That'll Be the Day" further points out that when Buddy "left us" was the day he and the culture of the 1950's died. Some lines from “That will be the day” are:

  
Oh you say you're gonna leave,
you know it's a lie 'cause
that'll be the day when I die!




Audio Link

 


  The references to death are obvious in both songs. One can assume that Don is singing about the death of his youth, the death of happiness, the death of innocence, and the death of hope that all accompanied the death of the 1950's. This death ushered in a new era that was damaging to America as a whole.

Verse 2 (Timeframe 1958): Did you write the book of love and do you have faith in God above, if the bible tells you so,

  This is the start of the song; it is the Mid-50’s, prior to the plane crash. It is a flashback of sorts. Don makes reference to The Monotones song, “Book of Love”, where Don is reminiscing about the happy and simple times of the 50’s. God played a part in the songs of this era and everyday live. If a song mentioned God, it was not out of the ordinary because religious faith was strong. The lyrics to “Book of Love” (1958) include the line:

  
Tell me, tell me, tell me
Oh, who wrote the Book Of Love
I've got to know the answer
Was it Someone from above



Audio Link
 




  The line “if the bible tells you so” is a reference to a Sunday school song, “Jesus loves me” and the lines include:

  
Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak but He is strong.
Yes Jesus loves me,
Yes Jesus loves me,
Yes Jesus loves me,
The Bible tells me so.


 


and do you believe in rock n' roll? Can music save your mortal soul?

  Don is asking (either figuratively or literally) what will music do to your faith in God? Will it replace religion or become the new religion? By asking the question “Can music save your mortal soul?” he is implying the answer “no”. He then follows this by lyric after lyric of proof. The rest of the song describes the evil that is a result of removing God and Faith from music. Keep in mind the music of the 50’s was based on rhythm and blues, which were offshoots of gospel songs. The influences of God were strong in the music.

and can you teach me how to dance real slow?

  Don is describing the simple romace of the day, this was a slow dance in the 1950's.

Well I know that you're in love with him cuz I saw you dancin’ in the gym you both kicked off your shoes and I dig those rhythm and blues.

  This is where Don introduces the fall of the 1950's. He sings as if he realizes that the girl he loves is in love with another. She went to a “sock hop” with another boy. Sock hops were popular in the 50’s, the kids had to take off their hard soled shoes in order to prevent damage to the floor of the gym. (This carried on into the 1970's when as a young boy I too had to remove school shoes before walking on the gym floor even though the soles of most school shoes in the 1970's were soft soled.) The sock hops were considered a “romantic evening” in the 50’s. Now that Don lost his “girl next door” he is sad. In short, the loss of the 1950's was as sad as losing your girlfriend.

I was a lonely teenage bronkin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pick up truck but I knew I was out of luck, the day, the music, died. I started singin’... (CHORUS)

  This is a reference to “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)” by Marty Robbins. This song sings of the death of romance, innocence, and the loss of the “Girl next door” aka Miss American Pie. This realization makes Don “Sing the Blues”. The song lyrics to “A White Sport Coat” are:

  
A white sport coat and a pink carnation
I'm all dressed up for the dance
A white sport coat and a pink carnation
I'm all alone in romance
Once you told me long ago
To the prom with me you'd go
Now you've changed your mind it seems
Someone else will hold my dreams
A white sport coat and a pink carnation
I'm in a blue blue mood.


Audio Link
 


Verse 3 (1959 - 1969 ): Now for ten years we've been on our own

  Buddy Holly et al. died in 1959, (thus- we’ve been on our own) the musical leaders were gone and the” lesser known” musical artists were rising to the top, but these new artists were not singing the songs of the 50’s.

and moss grows fat on a rollin stone

  In 1969 (ten years after the death of Holly), Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones died, he drowned in a swimming pool. This line is there to help establish the time frame (1969) in case you overlooked the fact it is 10 years after the death of Buddy Holly. This is also play on words. There is an old saying, "A rolling stone gathers no moss" that implies that change prevents things from decaying and rotting. However, Brian Jones (as well as the music of the day) are gathering moss. This line is not only a way to pinpoint the time frame but it is also used to take a jab at the music of the day.

but that's not how it used to be,

  The song is backing up from 1969, to some point prior 1969. Because Don states that’s NOT how it used to be, he plans to show we had it better in the past. He is going to back up and show how we lost the loss of the 1950's ushered in an era of "decay and rot".

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,

 
This is a very important line in this verse because it pinpoints the year, the Jester, the King, and the Queen. The Jester is Bob Dylan, as stated by Don just after the song came out. Once it is known that the “Jester” is Bob Dylan, the dates can be determined for all of the verses. The line “in a coat [the Jester] borrowed from James Dean” solidifies the date of this verse to 1963. The year 1963 is determined by viewing these two images, one of James Dean and the other being the cover of Freewheelin’ by Dylan. It can be easily seen what Don was talking about in his song. The visual impact and similarity of James Dean’s “Street Pictures" by Roy Schatt and the cover of Freewheelin’ is undeniable. The “coat” refers to the album "jacket” and not the clothing worn by the two men. Dylan obviously stole the image of Dean for his cover and reproduced it to the best of his abilities. This pinpoints the date of this lyric to 1963, the year Freewheelin’ was released.


  
Myth 1: Many claim that this is a reference to the cover of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album – that part is true. The claim that Dylan is wearing the same style of coat that James Dean wore in “Rebel without a cause” is incorrect. Dean wore a red windbreaker that had a zipper up the front in “Rebel” and Dylan is wearing a long brown leather coat that buttons up. The coats are nothing alike.


  Once the year 1963 is established, the King and Queen can be determined. The King and Queen are references to John and Jackie Kennedy. This is more definitively established in the next few lines. The terms King and Queen were used instead of President and first lady for two reasons. First it was a reference to “Camelot” (of King Arthur fame) which is the nickname of the compound where the Kennedy family lived. The king reference also ties in with the “Jester” reference. The southern black vote put Kennedy into the Whitehouse in 1960. From 1960 to 1963, Kennedy was ignoring civil rights in order to get the votes in congress that he needed to pass his agenda. In June of 1963, President Kennedy decided it was time to stand up to the racist southern democrats that he had been placating too for the previous three years.

Why the sudden change in 1963? In 1963, JFK’s popularity was waning and he was behind in the polls. Again, he needed the southern black votes in 1964 to be reelected; this may have helped the needle inside his moral compass to turn. On June 11, 1963 Kennedy gave a television address in which he told America how he had to use the Alabama National guard to force the University Alabama to allow two black students to enter the school. This was by direct order of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama. The rest of the speech described how bad discrimination was for the US. A few months later, Kennedy met with civil rights leaders and gave them his blessing to march on Washington for civil rights. As a folk singer, Dylan was singing “for the people”. In 1963, Dylan started singing with Joan Baez for peace and equal rights. Dylan sang at the 1963 march on Washington (that was endorsed by Kennedy) with Martin Luther King Jr. By singing at the Washington march, Dylan was singing in support of Kennedy’s civil rights bill. In this verse, the word “for” means “in support of” not “in the audience of”. The reference to “a voice from you and me” is alluding to the “common” people crying out for social justice.

   Myth 2: The King is a reference to Martin Luther King Jr. This is the most plausible myth because Dylan literally “played for the King” at the march on Washington. However, Don McLean does not mention anyone by name in the entire song. Everyone is referenced by a description of his or her personality. This alone eliminates Martin Luther King from being the “king” Don is talking about. Furthermore, there is no obvious “Queen” to be with this King. Lastly, Martin Luther King was not assassinated until April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray and this lyric is taking place in 1963. Due to the mismatched years, Dr. King is again eliminated as the king. James Earl Ray was convicted and sentence for the killing and the resulting conviction is in direct opposition to the “no verdict was returned” line. Again, Dr. King is eliminated as the “king” talked about by Don McLean.

Myth 3: The King is a reference to Elvis “the King” Presley. Elvis is referenced as “the King” so much it might as well be his name. Don McLean does not mention anyone by name in the entire song. Everyone is referenced by a description of his or her personality. This alone eliminates Martin Luther King from being the “king” Don is talking about. Furthermore, there is no obvious “Queen” to be with this King. People argue that the “Jester” [Dylan] stole the thorny crown from the “King” [Elvis] because Elvis’ popularity waned when he went into the army and Dylan took over as the new “King” of rock and roll. This is obviously not correct because of the dates. This lyric is taking place in 1963 and Elvis inducted into the army on March 24, 1958 and was discharged on March 5, 1960. The timeline does not match for Elvis.

oh and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown

  John Kennedy was shot in the head and killed on November 22, 1963. Kennedy became a martyr who died for his beliefs, even if these beliefs were only five months old. Don is comparing Kennedy to Jesus who died for the greater good. The king (Kennedy) is looking down (from Heaven). The jester (Dylan) continued to fight for civil rights for many years after the death of Kennedy. Dylan figuratively “took up the cross” or in this case “took on the crown of thorns” and fought for civil rights. The crown is used instead of the cross so that the king, queen, and jester theme would continue. It could also be argued that the crown of thorns worn by Jesus was covered in blood and the crown of thorns may be a secondary referencing the blood on Kennedy’s head to reinforce the imagery of death.

the courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned,

  Lee Harvey Oswald is considered by many to be the lone gunman who shot and killed JFK in Texas. After his arrest, Oswald was being escorted in front of the media and a gunman named Jack Ruby jumped out of the crowd and killed Oswald. Lee Harvey Oswald never went to trial for his crime. Lee Harvey Oswald never went to trial and therefore a verdict was never returned.

and while Lenin read a book on Marx,

  In this line “Lenin” is a play on words, Don is referring to “John Lennon”. As throughout the entire song, Don never uses the name of the actual person he is talking about. So instead he calls Lennon "Lenin" in reference to Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870 - 1924) the leader of the communist movement in the USSR. Don is essentially calling John Lennon a communist. Don is just pointing out the fact that Lennon’s views are communist and stem back to the early 60’s.

 
John (Lenin) Lennon started out on the left and went more and more left as his career progressed. First, he read (a book) about communism. Next, he honored communism by added a picture of Carl Marx to the cover of the album "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" (Marx is in the second row from the top, forth in from the right).  


  Finally, John started to write songs to preach communism. In 1971, one year before American Pie was released, John Lennon released “Imagine”. To anyone who grew up in the 50’s, a pro-socialist song such as Imagine is offensive. Furthermore, if God and religion are important in your life, this song is offensive on two fronts, politically and spiritually. Imagine preaches that you should believe there is no God, Heaven, and Hell. Furthermore, you should follow Alistair Crowley’s advice (who is also on the Sgt. Peppers cover in top row second from the left) and "Do what thou Wilt" by living for today. The song “Imagine” is so anti God and pro Socialist that it is (at the time this paper was written) the anthem or the World Socialist Movement. This line is essentially a comment on the socialist views that John Lennon held could be traced back to the beginning of his career. The more famous John Lennon became, the more radical he became. The Lyrics to Imagine are:

   Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try,
No hell below us, Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries, It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for, No religion too,
Imagine all the people, Living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people, sharing all the world...

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us, and the world will live as one.


the quartet practiced in the park

  In 1963, the quartet (The Beatles) released their first album, “Please Please me”. This was the first album with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison. At the start of their career, they were essentially “practicing” for the fame that was too come.

and we sang dirges in the dark, the day, the music, died. We were singin’... (CHORUS)

  A dirge is defined as a song or hymn of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person. This is a reference to the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Again, Don will not let you forget he is singing about 1963 in this verse.

Verse 4: Helter Skelter in a summer swelter

  This verse starts out in 1969 again. Charles Manson and his “Family” went on a killing spree in 1968. The first body was found on July 31, 1969. Next, a set of killing took place on Aug 9, 1969 and the last set of killings took place on Aug 11, 1969. Manson thought that the song Helter Skelter (by the Beatles, 1968) was foreshadowing the end of the world as discussed in Revelations.

the birds flew off with a fallout shelter, eight miles high and fallin fast,

  As in the previous verse, we are backing up from 1969 and in this case we end up in 1966. The date is established because in 1966, The Byrds released the song Eight Miles High. To be consistent, Don calls the Byrds by a different name, “ the birds”. This is similar to calling Lennon by the name Lenin. The lyrics to Eight Miles High are:

  
Eight miles high and when you touch down
You'll find that it's stranger than known
Signs in the street that say where you're going
Are somewhere just being their own

Nowhere is there warmth to be found
among those afraid of losing their ground
Rain gray town known for its sound
In places small faces unbound

Round the squares huddled in storms
Some laughing some just shapeless forms
Sidewalk scenes and black limousines
Some living some standing alone





Audio Link

 


It landed foul out on the grass

  In this verse, Don does not go into as much detail as he does in other verses so the clues are more obscure. However, the previous line discusses a fallout shelter and 8 miles high and falling fast. The song by the Byrds is not discussing a nuclear bomb.
This lyric is a reference to the Palomares Spain accident. On January 17, 1966, a B-52 Stratofortress collided with a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling plane. Eight men died in the crash. The B-52 was carring four 1-Megaton (Note: Some reports state the bombs were only 70 Kilo-Ton) Hydrogen bombs. One of the bombs fell into the Mediterranean Sea and it did not detonate. It was recovered months later. Two of the bombs broke apart and showered radioactive waste over 2300 square meters of agricultural land that was being used to grow tomatoes. The forth bomb landed in the tomato crop in tact. Again, the purpose of this line is to pinpoint the year to 1966.

   Myth: Many sites state that this is a reference to one of the byrds being arrested for drug possession. I do not beleive that any of the byrds were arrested in 1966. Of the people who state this is true, they never state which byrd was arrested, when, in what city, what was the charge, etc. Therefore, it will be considered a myth until proof of the arrest in 1966 is provided.

the players tried for a forward pass

 
Again, Don starts to get skimpy on his references, but in 1966 NBC started a TV show modeled after the Beatles “A Hard Days Night”. It was called “The Monkees”. Just like the spelling of the Beatles differed from the correct spelling of the beetles – the Monkees also differed from the correct spelling of monkeys. The Monkees started to produce real hits because of the TV show. In 1966 they produced an album and had two major hits, “I’m a believer” that hit #1 in the US and #1 in the UK and “Last train to Clarksville” that hit #1 in the US and #23 in the UK. Don calls the Monkeeys “players” because they were actors (who were playing a part) not musicians. Again, Don uses a description of the musician instead of their name. The Monkeeys were designed to be a clean-cut, honest, drug-free, American version of the Beatles.


with the jester on the sidelines in a cast,

  In July 29, 1966 Dylan broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and was in a cast for 9 months. Again, Don is trying to reinforce the fact that he is singing about 1966 and early 1967.

now the half-time air was sweet perfume while the sergeants played a marching tune

  In 1966, the Beatles started to experiment with marijuana (the sweet perfume) and started work on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sergeant Pepper's was released in 1967.

we all got up to dance oh but we never got the chance

  This is a reference to the Beatles last concert at Candlestick park on Aug-29-1966. This concert was attended by 24,000 fans who screamed so loud the Beatles could not hear themselves. The Beatles got annoyed and left the stage after 33 minutes. The concert was too short for anyone to enjoy it. This line also locks the Sergeants as the Beatles.

Oh as the players tried to take the field the marching band refused to yield

  The Monkeeys (the players) were a successful band and the promoters tried to have them take over as the musical powerhouse. They had produced 2 number one hits in 1966 and had their own TV show. The hope was that if honest, clean cut, all American boys where compared to the long haired, drug using, boys from Liverpool – the American public would choose the Monkeys. Instead, the Beatles went on to produce hit after hit after hit. Over the course of the Beatles’ career they produced over 180 hits. A mind boggling number of hits that are still selling to this day. The Monkeeys faded from the music scene. Their TV show went off the air in 1967 and they disbanded in 1969.

do you recall what was revealed, the day, the music, died. We started singin... (CHORUS)

  On March 4, 1966 John Lennon reveled his true feelings on his fame, "Christianity will go - it will vanish and shrink, I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We are more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

There was a tremendous backlash against the Beatles, but John have a half hearted apology and all was forgiven. Don is stunned by the Beatles’ success. He sees them as communists, he sees them as drug users, and now he sees them as anti-God. He is stunned that this is what the American culture is embracing while at the same time rejecting clean-cut musicians of the time.

Verse 5 (1969): Oh and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space with no time left to start again,

  This is by far the easiest verse to understand even if Don had not mentioned it in an interview just after the song came out – the lyric is so filled with clues that the meaning is obvious. In 1969 the Rolling Stones gave a free concert in San Francisco. It was originally scheduled for Golden Gate Park, it was moved to Sears Point Raceway. That venue also fell through when the permit was withdrawn and at the last minute the Stones moved their venue (again). It was haphazardly moved to the Altmont Motor Speedway, 20 hours before the concert started (no time left to start again). I don’t think there was any time left to move the concert a forth time. San Francisco was the center of the counterculture in 1969 and Don looked on this hippy drug culture as the lost generation.

   Myth: Some claim that this verse is about woodstock. Lets ignore the fact that Don McLean said he was singing about the Altmont Speedway concert in 1972. The entire verse makes repeated mention of Satan and angles born in hell - these are obviously NOT woodstock images.

so come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack Flash sat on a candle stick because fire is the devils only friend,

 
Mick Jagger is the Devil, period. Jumping Jack flash was first released as a single, in May of 1968. This is the same year Beggars Banquet (1968) was released and featured Sympathy for the Devil. In Sympathy for the Devil, Mick sings as if he is Satan and explains all the evil he has done through the ages. The Altamont concert was filmed for the movie “Gimme Shelter” but according to Stanley Booth, author of, ”Dance with the Devil” (also known as “The True Story of the Rolling Stones”) the movie was edited out of order showing The Stones starting off with Sympathy for the devil and ending with Under my Thumb. Because the movie is more widly known, Don follows the movie account of the concert. Mick waited until dark, and had all the lights turned off in the speedway. He put a lone spotlight (a fire) on him and started singing Sympathy for the Devil


oh and as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clinched in fists of rage,
no angel born in hell could break that satan's spell

  In a stroke of genius, Mick Jagger hired Hell’s Angels (the Angles Born in Hell) to police the function. Put thousands of drug crazed hippies all in one place and then give a bunch of Hell’s Angles a big pile of beer and cue sticks and you can pretty much guess what happened. An eighteen year old black man named Meredith Hunter was near the stage with a knife and a gun. The Hell's Angels attacked him with their pool cues. Some reports say he was beaten to death, others state he was stabbed to death. Either way, he was killed. Three others were also killed at the concert; two were trampled while on the ground in their sleeping bags and one more found dead in a ditch. These references to death are obvious.

and as the flames climbed high into the night to light the sacrificial right

  This line just adds the feeling of hell, fire, and brimstone to the whole event.

I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day, the music, died. He was singin... (CHORUS)

  It appears that Don did not feel that Mic Jagger was remorseful and depicts him as laughing with delight at the death of others. This may be overboard, but Don is trying to convey a feeling of evil. In short, Mick Jagger is Satan.

Verse 6: I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news
but she just smiled and turned away,

  This is a reference to Janice Joplin. Janice Joplin is considered the best (white) blues singer of the 1960’s. Two of her favorite singers were “LeadBelly” and “Bessi Smith”, who were giants in blues music. In one of her best known songs, “Me and My Bobby McGee” she even sings about playing her harpoon (a blues harmonica) softly while here boyfriend sings the blues. The first two lyrics (and the chorus) to “Me and My Bobby McGee” are:

  
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train
And I was feeling nearly as faded as my jeans.
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained;
It rode us all the way to New Orleans.

I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna;
I was playing soft while Bobby sang the blues.
Windshield wipers slapping time, I was holding Bobby’s hand in mine,
We sang every song that driver knew.

Chorus: Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free, now now.
And feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,
You know feeling good was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.


Audio Link
 


I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before

  At this point, Don is stating he is returning the to a music store where he (presumably) frequented as a younger man. It should be noted that Don refers the music as “sacred”. This implies that Don considered music as something that would touch his soul and that he holds it dear to him. Music was almost a religion.

but the man there said the music wouldn't play

  This line implies that the music store owner, he is telling Don that the 50’s music is dead. The music he is looking for is no longer available.

and in the streets the children screamed, the lovers cried, and the poets dreamed but not a word was spoken,

  Now that the music and values of the 1950’s has ended, sadness has descended on America. Images of sadness abound such as screaming children and crying lovers. The last line is often misread as a happy line because the poets are dreaming. However, the poets who use words as their craft are held silent. The poets dream BUT the words they write are not ever spoken. This line is meant to emphasize sadness infiltrating all walks of life – children, lovers, poets, everyone.

the church bells all were broken

  Church bells are used to call the faithful to worship. If the bells are broken, the faithful are not called to worship. This is a reference to the sad state mentioned in the previous line. In short – because of the death of faith and values in the American culture, life in America has become sad.



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 they were singin... (CHORUS)

  This is one of the most controversial lines in the entire song and one that I am sure will generate emails to me by the scores. In the last line, Don finally uses real names. The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost literally represent the Divine Trinity. This is the only trio that makes sense in the context of this verse and it ties the whole song together. This verse discusses the "sacred" store and "church bells". The whole point of this song is to point out the evil that descended on the United States in the 60's after the morals of the 50's were abandoned. Once faith and values left the musical industry, the culture of America went into decline. This is why the music is no longer sacred. This is why the church bells no longer call the faithful to their knees. This is why children scream, lovers cry, and poet’s dreams are silent. Because he admired them the most, he sang about the Trinity (or what happens in their absence) in every verse.

   Myth 1: Some argue that the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost represent the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. If you do not believe in God, I could understand this interpretation. This is the secular interpretation. Before going with a secular interpretation, consider this. If Don has pointed out through the whole song "that with the absence of God - the US has started to decline" then why would he remove God at the end of the song? It makes no sense.

Myth 2: Some say the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost represent Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Don is referencing Crosby’s stint with the Byrds. But other that the fact there are three names, there is nothing else in the verse to lend itself to this trio. The evidence that this is not Crosby, Stills, and Nash comes from the next line. They caught the last train for the cost – implying that whoever the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost are, they are no longer in the musical industry. Crosby, Stills, and Nash continued on for decades after American Pie was released.

Myth 3: Others argue the trinity is John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. This does not make sense in the context of the song. Just because you can come up with three names does not make it a match. John F. Kennedy was already mentioned in the song, we know that he is the “King” and not the “Father”. Robert Kennedy is not even mentioned in the song and the closest match to Martin Luther King is the march on Washington. If these men where the people Don admired most, he would have made them more prominent in the song.

Reprise: They were singin... Bye, bye Miss American Pie drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry an them good ol' boys were drinkin whiskey and rye singin this will be the day that I die.

CONCLCUSION: Although it is an unpopular view, the song “American Pie” is more than a historical review of 13 years (1959 - 1972). Don is trying to warn America of trouble in the hopes that it can hopefully change its course.

To Don, the 50's were a time where Christian values were strong and the Soviet Union was hated. With the 60's, these rolls reversed and people started to hate Christianity and the songwriters became pro socialist. Don then shows how this roll reversal caused a serious social decay. The loss of the God fearing country that Don grew up with was highlighted through the song starting with the death of Buddy Holly (et. al), continuing with the assassination of JFK, followed by John Lennon stating he is bigger than Jesus, continuing on with the death of four spectators at a Rolling Stones concert, and finally the death of Janis Joplin. The picture Don is painting with is song is similar to a mosaic. Each incident is like a small picture in a mosaic. When viewed up close - the tiles that are close together may appear to be disjointed. But when viewed as a whole, the image becomes clear. Weather you agree or disagree with Don will be based on your personal beliefs and experiences. But that does not change Don McLean’s beliefs that he is sharing in the song.

In short, the entire song can be summed up in one sentence, "When God was removed from the culture, evil took its place.”