By in Music

What is the Meaning of Don McLean's American Pie?

I stumbled across this video the other day - click here It's a great watch- the whole song (today it's my favourite song) combined with images and text that attempt to explain the meaning of American Pie. It's a useful and fascinating insight into the song's symbolism but I'm not convinced it captures the full meaning...

The Death of the American Dream

American Pie was written 10 years after Buddy Holly's death in 1959. McClean was reflecting on Holly's death and the sixties. Looking back, McClean saw that the crash marked the end of fifties, the end of innocence and the death of the American Dream. Buddy was so wholesome, wide-eyed and innocent, full of life, energy, hope and optimism. Everybody believed anything was possible. The next 10 years saw the assassinations of Kennedy and MLK, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam war, the hippy movement and the drug culture. America had swallowed a truck full of apples from the Tree of Knowledge. American Pie is nostalgic for the naivety of the fifties but, at the same time, chronicles the events that mean there's no turning back. The death of the American Dream, the birth of cynicism.

Is it better to be blissfully ignorant, buoyed by uninformed optimism or is the loss of innocence inevitable? Is it possible to transcend cynicism and find the real American Dream?

What Do You Think is the Meaning of American Pie?

The above is just my take, and McLean himself said that the song will mean different things to different people. What's your take?

Image Credit »

You will need an account to comment - feel free to register or login.


MegL wrote on September 23, 2014, 6:46 AM

Sounds like a good take on the symbolism of the song. I like the song myself. While it may symbolise the move from innocence to knowledge, this is also a part of growth for each person and perhaps the social consciousness of America grew up in that period?

bestwriter wrote on September 23, 2014, 6:51 AM

Ignorance is bliss but at the same time one cannot ignore what one sees.

suffolkjason wrote on September 23, 2014, 6:56 AM

I love the song, I was lucky enough to see Don McClean live in Ipswich 30 plus years ago. I agree about growing up- we all have to turn and face the strain.

suffolkjason wrote on September 23, 2014, 6:58 AM

and the world had its eyes opened in the sixties.

LoudMan wrote on September 23, 2014, 7:02 AM

I KNEW it was about Buddy Holly! I just KNEW IT! *Pats self on back, too, *

LoudMan wrote on September 23, 2014, 7:02 AM

Mind translating some Dimmu Borgir now please? :D

suffolkjason wrote on September 23, 2014, 7:05 AM

emoticon :grin:

suffolkjason wrote on September 23, 2014, 7:07 AM

I had to Google them. Might be beyond me!

bestwriter wrote on September 23, 2014, 7:53 AM

When it was too late :(

Feisty56 wrote on September 23, 2014, 1:18 PM

I am with Don McLean on this as far as each person who hears the song takes his or her own meaning from it. It's interesting to know what the writer had in mind when the song, poem or story was penned, but once it is available to others, it seems to me that the reader/listener takes from it what they will.

tinamarie wrote on September 23, 2014, 2:05 PM

It's one of my favorites. It's about those that died on that plane. Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Just think if Waylon Jennings had not got the flu he would of went down with the plane as well.

BarbRad wrote on September 23, 2014, 10:34 PM

Here I was hoping you would set me straight. The tune is so catchy, but the message so murky. I was unfamiliar with McClean until until I started driving a close friend's car while mine was in the shop. He has a cassette tape of a lot of McClean's songs, including this one. I was always trying to figure it out because it seemed to be full of mixed messages. I'm still wondering. My friend later commit suicide. I always wondered if that song was about suicide. But I didn't know anything about Buddy Holly, either. i just wasn't into listening to popular music or what was in the movies back then. I'm still not.

GemOfAGirl wrote on September 23, 2014, 11:28 PM

About a million years ago when I was in high school, one of my teachers allowed extra credit for a "music interpretation" project, and used "American Pie" as an example of what he meant by that. (It was the most lightweight thing about the class and the points available for it were very few, so there's no need to lament that this signaled the end of a decent public school education.) He went through line by line with an interpretation that was very similar to what's on this video, although, his overall theme wasn't that it was the death of the American Dream; he contended that it was innocence of the American adolescent. It was a lament for a time when kids could still be entertained by the likes of Buddy Holly and other singers who wore suits and short hair, and a sadness that kids were now demanding music that had messages of social meaning, protest or raunchiness. One tiny detail he mentioned that doesn't come up in the video is that he said that the "good ol' boys" in the chorus is a reference to Buddy Holly being originally from Texas. He also mentioned that the "jester on the sidelines in a cast" was a reference to Bob Dylan being in a major motorcycle accident. The video shows people in gas masks in one section that references the "halftime air was sweet perfume", but my teacher said that it was a marijuana reference (which seems pretty obvious to me). There's more, but I've already gone on too long.

AliCanary wrote on September 24, 2014, 12:27 AM

I knew "the day the music died" referred to the death of Buddy Holly, but your line "swallowed a truck full of apples from the Tree of Knowledge" has a lot of impact, besides being witty. McLean probably was bemoaning a certain loss of innocence, but guess what? The good old days weren't all that good, as eminent sage and philosopher Billy Joel put it. Oh sure, TV made things look extra wholesome, but there were plenty of people who didn't have that "My Three Sons" kind of life. The 50s was a pretty bad time to be a black person, for example. You couldn't sit where you wanted on the bus, or sit at certain lunch counters or drink from certain water fountains. You couldn't count on a decent education or a decent job, and you couldn't even VOTE in some places. And being a woman was pretty limiting, as well.

The Tree of Knowledge showed us that "innocence" is more like "ignorance", a lot of times, as you mentioned. I believe it's better to go into things with eyes open, and the rising tide of awareness seems to be lifting all boats. Americans may be more cynical, but we are still quite optimistic. If the American Dream were dead, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have so many people crossing the oceans and deserts to come here.

SandraLynn wrote on September 24, 2014, 6:54 AM

I think you nailed it pretty darn well, my friend. And innocence (ignorance) is bliss but there is too much going on today for us to miss much. The American Dream is a joke...

SandraLynn wrote on September 24, 2014, 6:57 AM

Perhaps I spoke too hastily. It's not a joke, exactly. We still wish for it, but we are too quick to want what we think is the dream and we are forgetting important things along the way. We need to stop, reassess, regroup and begin again...

arthurchappell wrote on January 29, 2015, 9:05 AM

great song - I try to identify the figures in it - Jester is Elvis as Holly would be the King if he had lived - hate The Madonna cover version