“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
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.”
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?