Don McLean himself refuses to reveal the precise meanings of each line in this song because he fears "You'll say 'you never meant that'", but many people have attempted to produce their own interpretations of the song. Obviously everyone interprets it differently, but I have compiled this one after reading many other people's views, selecting the points that I feel are most appropriate for each line. This interpretation, as with all others, is open to debate, and I make no claims whatsoever regarding its validity. It is simply one fan's view of a very popular song.
The entire song is a tribute to Buddy Holly and a commentary on how rock and roll music changed in the years since his death. McLean is lamenting the lack of danceable good time party music in rock and roll and (in part) attributing that lack to the absence of Buddy Holly et. al.
(Verse 1) A long, long time ago... American Pie reached #1 in the US in 1972; the album containing it was released in 1971. Buddy Holly died in 1959.
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. One of early rock and roll's functions was to provide dance music for various social events. McLean recalls his desire to become a musician playing that sort of music.
But February made me shiver, Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane crash in Iowa during a snowstorm.
With every paper I'd deliver, Don McLean's only job before becoming a full-time singer-songwriter was being a paperboy.
Bad news on the doorstep... I couldn't take one more step. I can't remember if I cried When I read about his widowed bride Holly's recent bride was pregnant when the crash took place; she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
But something touched me deep inside, The day the music died. The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took the lives of Richie Valens (La Bamba) and The Big Bopper (Chantilly Lace). Since all three were so prominent at the time, February 3, 1959 became known as The Day The Music Died.
So... (Refrain) Bye bye Miss American Pie, Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant.
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry I see this as being a metaphor. The Chevy represents Don, and the levee is the music he loved, he is saying that since the death of Buddy Holly the well of music has dried up and his journey was in vain.
Them good ol' boys were drinkin whiskey and rye Singing This'll be the day that I die, This'll be the day that I die. One of Holly's hits, "That'll be the Day", contains the line 'That'll be the day that I die'.
Did you write the book of love, "The Book of Love" by the Monotones was a hit in 1958.
And do you have faith in God above, If the Bible tells you so? There's an old Sunday School song which goes: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so
Now do you believe in rock 'n roll? The Lovin' Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John Sebastian's "Do you believe in Magic?" The song has the lines: 'Do you believe in magic and It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll.'
Can music save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow? Dancing slow was an important part of early rock and roll dance events -- but declined in importance through the 60's as things like psychedelia and the 10-minute guitar solo gained prominence.
Well I know you're in love with him, 'Cause I saw you dancing in the gym Back then, dancing was an expression of love, and carried a connotation of commitment. Dance partners were not so readily exchanged as they are now.
You both kicked off your shoes A reference to the beloved sock hop. (Street shoes tear up wooden basketball floors, so dancers had to take off their shoes.)
Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues Some history. Before the popularity of rock and roll, music, like much else in the U. S., was highly segregated. The popular music of black performers for largely black audiences was called, first, race music, later rhythm and blues. In the early 50s, as they were exposed to it through radio personalities such as Allan Freed, white teenagers began listening, too. Starting around 1954, a number of songs from the rhythm and blues charts began appearing on the overall popular charts as well, but usually in cover versions by established white artists, (e.g. 'Shake Rattle and Roll' Joe Turner, covered by Bill Haley; 'Sh-Boom' the Chords, covered by the Krew-Cuts). By 1955, some of the rhythm and blues artists, like Fats Domino and Little Richard were able to get records on the overall pop charts. In 1956 Sun records added elements of country and western to produce the kind of rock and roll tradition that produced Buddy Holly.
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck With a pink carnation and a pickup truck A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation) was a hit for Marty Robbins in 1957. The pickup truck has endured as a symbol of sexual independence and potency, especially in a Texas context.
But I knew that I was out of luck The day the music died I started singing...
(Verse 3) Now for ten years we've been on our own McLean was writing this song in the late 60's, about ten years after the crash.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' (1965) was his first major hit, and since he was busy writing songs extolling the virtues of simple love, family and contentment while staying at home (he didn't tour from '66 to '74) and raking in the royalties. This was quite a change from the earlier, angrier Dylan.
But that's not how it used to be When the jester sang for the King and Queen The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later. Elvis Presley is the king, which seems pretty obvious. The queen is either Connie Francis or Little Richard.
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean In the movie Rebel Without a Cause James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic meaning throughout the film. In one particularly intense scene, Dean lends his coat to a guy who is shot and killed; Dean's father arrives, sees the coat on the dead man, thinks it's Dean, and loses it. On the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan is wearing a red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar to the one shown in a well-known picture of James Dean.
And a voice that came from you and me Bob Dylan's roots are in American folk music, with people like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Folk music is by definition the music of the masses, hence the '...came from you and me'.
Oh, and while the King was looking down The jester stole his thorny crown A reference to Elvis's decline and Dylan's ascendance. (i.e. Presley is looking down from a height as Dylan takes his place.) The thorny crown a reference to the price of fame. Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of his early idols. Alternatively, this could refer to Lennon's claim that the Beatles were bigger than God (with Lennon as the jester and Jesus with his thorny crown).
The courtroom was adjourned, No verdict was returned. The trial of the Chicago Seven.
And while Lennon read a book on Marx, Literally, John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively, the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. The Marx-Lennon wordplay has also been used by others, most notably the Firesign Theatre on the cover of their album 'How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?'
The quartet practised in the park A reference to the Weavers, who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. McLean had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early 60's while performing in coffee-houses and clubs in upstate New York and New York City. He was also well-acquainted with Pete Seeger; in fact, McLean, Seeger, and others took a trip on the Hudson river singing anti-pollution songs at one point. Seeger's LP 'God Bless the Grass' contains many of these songs.
And we sang dirges in the dark A reference to some of the new art rock groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing.
The day the music died. We were singing...
(Verse 4) Helter Skelter in a summer swelter 'Helter Skelter' is a Beatles song which appears on the White album. Charles Manson, claiming to have been inspired by the song (through which he thought God and/or the devil were talking to him) led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murders. Summer swelter is a reference to the long hot summer of Watts.
The birds flew off with the fallout shelter Eight miles high and falling fast The Byrd's 'Eight Miles High' was on their late 1966 release Fifth Dimension. It was one of the first records to be widely banned because of supposedly drug-oriented lyrics.
It landed foul on the grass One of the Byrds was busted for possession of marijuana.
The players tried for a forward pass A football metaphor about the Rolling Stones, i.e. they were waiting for an opening which really didn't happen until the Beatles broke up.
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph motorcycle while riding near his home in Woodstock, New York. He spent the next nine months in seclusion.
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume This line and the next few refer to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The sweet perfume is tear gas.
While sergeants played a marching tune The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band music in general as marching because it's not music for dancing. But music with a message to which we march.
We all got up to dance Oh, but we never got the chance The Beatles' 1966 Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes and there wasn't any music to dance to.
'Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching band refused to yield. A reference to the dominance of the Beatles on the rock and roll scene. For instance, the Beach Boys released 'Pet Sounds' in 1966 -- an album which featured some of the same sort of studio and electronic experimentation as Sgt. Pepper (1967)-- but the album sold poorly. It's a comment about how the dominance of the Beatles in the rock world led to more pop art music, leading in turn to a dearth of traditional rock and roll.
Do you recall what was revealed, The day the music died? We started singing
(Verse 5) And there we were all in one place Woodstock.
A generation lost in space A reference to hippies, who were sometimes known as the lost generation, partially because of their particularly acute alienation from their parents, and partially because of their presumed preoccupation with drugs.
With no time left to start again The lost generation spent too much time being stoned, & had wasted their lives.
So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick A reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' was released in May, 1968.
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick The Stones' Candlestick park concert.
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend The Stones were playing with fire . . .
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 While playing a concert at the Altamonte Speedway in 1969, the Stones appointed members of the Hell's Angels to work security. In the darkness near the front of the stage, a young man named Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death -- by the Angels. Public outcry that the song 'Sympathy for the Devil' had somehow incited the violence caused the Stones to drop the song from their show for the next six years.
And as the flames climbed high into the night To light the sacrificial rite About Altamonte, and in particular Mick Jagger's prancing and posing while it was happening. The sacrifice is Meredith Hunter, and the bonfires around the area provide the flames. Alternatively, this could refer to the burning of Beatles albums in outrage after Lennon allegedly claimed they were bigger than God.
I saw Satan laughing with delight Satan would be Jagger.
The day the music died. He was singing...
(Verse 6) I met a girl who sang the blues Janis Joplin.
And I asked her for some happy news But she just smiled and turned away Janis died of an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970.
I went down to the sacred store Where I'd heard the music years before The sacred store was Bill Graham's Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time.
But the man there said the music wouldn't play Nobody is interested in hearing Buddy Holly et.al.'s music.
And in the streets the children screamed Flower children being beaten by police and National Guard troops; in particular, perhaps, the People's Park riots in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970.
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed The trend towards psychedelic music in the 60's.
But not a word was spoken, The church bells all were broken The broken bells are the dead musicians: neither can produce any more music.
And the three men I admire most: The Father, Son and Holy Ghost Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens.
They caught the last train for the coast A way of saying that they had left the scene (or died – went west as a synonym for dying).