For the Record: The Day the Music Died

“For the Record” is a series dedicated to music
and the personal experiences that surround it.

I have an older brother who, when I was a child, I absolutely adored. It was through him I came to like the Beatles and he filled my information bank with trivia on the Fab Four and other musicians and bands he liked. He was given to talking about song lyrics, and I can recall him discussing with his friends the meaning behind Don McLean’s song “American Pie.” The conversation actually went on for years, at times including me, and the intrigue never left.

I happened to hear “American Pie” on the radio this afternoon and decided to write about it—at least as much as I know of or can recall being told. While many see the 1960s as an almost mythical period, others mark it as a time when the rise of rock and roll coincided with a decline in culture and society, symbolized, with reference to the 1959 plane crash that killed singers/musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, as “the day the music died.” The song’s lyrics also reference various other events that occurred throughout the subsequent decade in the land that birthed rock and roll. The music was majestic, often poetic and awe-inspiring, but what accompanied it was as frequently unholy and depraved, and the consequences were too often dire. Some say this is the flip side of the influence and authority the music held, and perhaps they are not too far off, given music and other celebrity lifestyles’ connection with politics and power.

I didn’t experience watching or hearing about any of these events as they happened, so none of them are personal memories, but I do recall the feel of first hearing the song, how poetic and terrible and wonderful it was at the same time. Like our earlier conversations, people are still discussing today what the song is all about, and what qualities it possesses that enabled it to succeed, despite being an eight-minute song at a time when three were the max. Below is a song breakdown of sorts, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has information to add to or correct something I’ve written below, especially if you’re someone who does know from the experience of living in the late 1950s and/or through the 1960s.

“American Pie” by Don McLean

Buddy Holly and the Crickets in 1957 (top to bottom: Allison, Holly and Mauldin) Image courtesy Wikimedia. Click for details.

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
Used to make me smile
That of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, pioneering acts of rock and roll in a time of greater “innocence” within American society. Their popularity was changing the face of music
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
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
Maria Elena Santiago, the pregnant wife of Buddy Holly, who died along with Valens and the Big Bopper in an Iowa plane crash
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
As a young teen McLean delivered newspapers, and on the morning of February 4, 1959, as he folded newspapers in preparation for delivery, he saw the news


So, bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Apple pie was used as a metaphor for things American
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Chevy, short for Chevrolet, was the car to have because it was American made ~ a dried up levee indicates the end of production or an era, possibly the beginnings of shifting American production and jobs elsewhere, depriving Americans of the ability to make a living in an America that itself is no longer American made
And them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Possibly references the Depression and Prohibition eras that would have influenced Buddy Holly’s family life and upbringing, as well as that of Valens and Big Bopper. Valens, at 17, was the youngest of the three and not born until around 1940, but he still would have been influenced by the deprivations his family suffered during the time.
Singin’, “This’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die”
References the final line in Holly’s song “That’ll be the Day”: “That’ll be the day-ay-ay, when I die.”

Image courtesy Wikimedia. Click for details.

 Did you write the book of love
“The Book of Love” – 1958 song by the Monotones
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
References a 1950s song with a similar name, but also alludes to the reality that people were beginning more openly and often to behave in ways not sanctioned by the God their (larger) society worshipped, and the religious heritage their country was founded upon
Now, do you believe in rock ‘n’ roll
Also references a song, this one from the 1960s that asks, “Do you believe in magic?” The line itself referred to the magic of music, specifically rock and roll, that was able to stay with the listener, conjure up memories, be a part of their consciousness in a way that study of other art froms did not, at least for the common man
Can music save your mortal soul?

And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Dancing in the 1950s was said to be somewhat territorial: if you slow danced with someone, it indicated a particular attachment
Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
Unknown if this is biographical, but given the reference above, it could be that the narrator saw his girl dancing with another boy
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
Rock and roll is born from the blues, which typically sung of heartache
I was a lonely teenage bronckin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died


Iconic image of James Dean in a still photo for his film Rebel Without a Cause. Image Courtesy Wikimedia.

Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
Ten years after the plane crash, the Rolling Stones performed at Altamont, where a group of Hell’s Angels said to be providing security beat back an audience member during the Stones’ set. He approached again with a revolver and was stabbed to death
And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone
Folk-rock singer Bob Dylan was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident, from which he recovered over the course of the next year. He had written the song “Like a Rolling Stone,” his first serious break from his folk roots, a year or two prior
But that’s not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
Jester – Bob Dylan | King and Queen – Folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, with whom Dylan sang during a folk festival
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
Dylan wore a red windbreaker not unlike the one James Dean wears in the film Rebel Without a Cause
And a voice that came from you and me
Dylan became an unofficial spokesman during the 1960s through his lyrical messages
Oh, and while the king was looking down
Seeger had been on a higher level than Dylan; when Dylan shifted his focus to rock and roll, his fame and success far eclipsed that of Seeger
The jester stole his thorny crown
Elvis Presley is also referenced; he went into the army and while enlisted the music business changed forever
The courtroom was adjourned
Reference to Kennedy’s murder, never prosecuted because his assassin himself was murdered – 
No verdict was returned
-by someone who was convicted, though his appeal was made moot by his death from cancer
And while Lennon read a book on Marx
Reference to John Lennon’s statement about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus at a time when their music was becoming more political, a far cry from early songs such as “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”
A quartet practiced in the park
The Beatles
And we sang dirges in the dark
Dirge – lament for the dead, here referenced as connected to the assassination murders of John F. and Robert Kennedy, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.
The day the music died


Promotional photo of the Byrds in early 1965. Image courtesy Wikimedia

Helter skelter in a summer swelter
Refers to the murderous Manson “family,” the leader of which was said to “understand” a variety of messages in Beatles’ songs, including “Helter Skelter,” words Manson wrote on a wall following a family slaughter. Incidentally, a helter skelter is a type of slide.
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
The Byrds were a 60s band, and fallout shelters were places in which people could take shelter in the event of a nuclear explosion, at the time feared as a consequence of Soviet attack
Eight miles high and falling fast
Reference to a drug-inspired, psychedelic song released in the 60s
It landed foul on the grass
Grass – marijuana
The players tried for a forward pass
Players – protesters | Forward pass – Attempts to create change
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Bob Dylan, recovering in a cast from his motorcycle accident
Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume
While sergeants played a marching tune
Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with drug references, elaborate cover design and recording of gibberish at LP’s end
We all got up to dance
The music was good, but…
Oh, but we never got the chance
…music was no longer necessarily the type to which one could dance – instead many people saw it as an opportunity to do drugs and get high
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
Protestors at Chicago Democrat Convention and Kent State
The marching band refused to yield
Some didn’t go along with protestors’ tactics or even their demands, e.g. the Beatles’ “Revolution”: “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”
Do you recall what was revealed
Protests were unproductive, failing to usher in change because just as the government is as corrupt as ever, so too are too many wings of protesting groups
The day the music died?
The day Holly, a pioneer of rock and roll, died, the music representing all the hopes people had placed on it, did as well. It was almost prophetic as to how events in the next decade would bring about the rot of American society


Chicago Seven, Vietnam war protestors, at a news conference, February 28, 1970. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
So much talent and future aspirations lost to drugs and its effects on people and their behavior
With no time left to start again
An entire decade was wasted on this state, and for what?
So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Reference to Rolling Stones song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” a return to their blues roots following years of psychedelia infused music and living…
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
…merged with a nursery-rhyme phrase
‘Cause fire is the Devil’s only friend
Links to the above as well as another Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil” perceived as selling out to the devil. The band was in competition with the Beatles and some considered them to have nothing else to provide
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
The Altamont murder was done out in the open
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
Anger, of course
No angel born in Hell
Hell’s Angels
Could break that Satan spell
Reportedly Hell’s Angels were paid in beer and acid that they were given in advance. What else would anyone expect from such a setup? How could you expect anything else with such a demonic arrangement?
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
By the time the 1960s drew to a close, Satan had won a great deal of ground in his battle to control humanity, and he laughed in celebration
The day the music died
…just as he laughed the day Buddy Holly’s death foretold the coming anarchy and destruction


I met a girl who sang the blues
Janis Joplin, who sang blues lyrics such as “Take another piece of my heart out, baby” and “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
Joplin famously commented, “I make love to 25,000 people and then I go home alone” – she smiles, but the gesture is melancholic, not happy
I went down to the sacred store
Music store
Where I’d heard the music years before
Possibly music from the 1950s, which ~
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
~ seems to have been forgotten
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
People have forgotten God
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
Anguish that God has abandoned those who turn their backs on Him



Previous For the Record is here.

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