American Pie: 5 enigmatic lyrical references in Don McLean's song

Don McLean's handwritten notes about his hit song American Pie have just sold for $1.2 million US. McLean has famously refused to divulge the meaning of the tune, so the task has been left to music critics, cultural theorists and millions of amateur sleuths.

Handwritten notes to Don McLean's 1971 hit sold for $1.2 million

American folk-pop singer Don McLean topped the charts for four weeks in 1972 with his song American Pie. (Central Press/Getty Images)

The enigmatic lyrics to American Pie continue to tantalize music lovers 44 years after the song's release.

On Tuesday, the original manuscript and notes to Don McLean's iconic ballad sold at Christie's auction house to the tune of $1.2 million US.

Released in 1971, American Pie is McLean's bittersweet lament for the 1950s, an era of hope and idealism that was largely devastated by the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

The handwritten American Pie manuscript sold for $1.2 million US on April 7. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Although the song spent four weeks at the top of the U.S. pop charts in 1972, its cultural significance has reigned much longer — it remains a staple in karaoke bars and around summer campfires.

McLean has famously refused to divulge the meaning of his lyrics — which seem to jump between the literal and the metaphorical — so the task has been left to music critics, cultural theorists and millions of amateur sleuths.

Here's a closer reading of some of the song's key passages.

"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 / But something touched me deep inside / The day the music died."

Despite his reticence to explain himself, McLean has acknowledged that the February event that shook him was the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens in Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959. The accident, which snuffed out three major figures of early rock 'n' roll, has come to be known as "the day the music died."

Don MacLean has acknowledged that the opening verse of his hit song American Pie was inspired by the 1959 plane crash that killed, from left, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper. (File/AP Photo)

"His widowed bride" is a reference to Maria Elena Holly (née Santiago), Buddy's wife, who was pregnant at the time of his death and miscarried shortly thereafter.  

American Pie isn't the first song to memorialize this tragic event, nor even the most moving. Three Stars, which was written by Tommy Dee and covered by Eddie Cochran in 1959, features direct, spoken tributes to the three deceased musicians. (Cochran's voice noticeably trembles when he delivers the line, "Buddy Holly, I'll always remember you with tears in my eyes.")

"While the King was looking down / The jester stole his thorny crown"

Many people believe the references to "the jester" in American Pie are allusions to folk icon Bob Dylan. ((William Claxton/Sony BMG/Associated Press) )

With this lyric, McLean is thought by some to be addressing the changing winds in popular music and society on the whole. If Elvis Presley was "the King of Rock 'n' Roll," the "jester" was folk icon Bob Dylan, according to Saul Levitt, creator of the Ultimate American Pie Site.

The song on the whole reflects McLean's nostalgia for a time when music was intended as escapism and an excuse to dance — which is pretty much the antithesis of Dylan, a scruffy bard whose tunes exposed the lies and hypocrisy of the establishment. Earlier in the song, McLean rhapsodizes about a person who sang in a "voice that came from you and me." This is a reference to "Dylan's untrained, common voice of the people," writes Levitt.

"While Lennon read a book of Marx / The quartet practised in the park / We sang dirges in the dark"

Here, McLean appears to examine the cultural influence of the Beatles, who began the '60s as lovable mop tops and eventually came to represent the artistic, political and pharmacological experimentation of the mid to late '60s. John Lennon, in particular, took an interest in leftist politics, although he all but repudiated it by 1968, the year the Beatles released the song Revolution.

The Beatles are thought to play a cameo in American Pie's overarching narrative. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"The quartet practised in the park" is a reference to the Beatles' final concert, in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, on Aug. 29, 1966, according to Jim Fann, creator of the website Understanding American Pie. Exhausted by the demands of touring, the Fab Four decided to focus their energies on the studio. There, they would not only break new sonic ground with records such as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album, but tackle darker and more difficult subjects, such as social rebellion, sexual obsession and suicide.

"Jack be nimble, Jack be quick / Jack Flash sat on a candlestick / Cause fire is the Devil's only friend / Oh, as I watched him on the stage / My hands were clenched in fists of rage"

Jumpin' Jack Flash was a rollicking 1968 hit for the Rolling Stones, and McLean uses the title to segue into the Stones' infamous concert at Altamont Speedway in December 1969.

The Rolling Stones, and particularly their performance at Altamont in 1969, represent the darker side of the 1960s in American Pie. (Arthur Elgort, 1981)

At the show, a member of the Hells Angels biker gang, who had been hired as security at the event, killed a young black man who was close to the stage. Scholars often refer to Altamont as the end of the 1960s — or, at least, the fantasy of freedom and enlightenment that the decade promised.

According to Fann, the "him on the stage" is Stones singer Mick Jagger, who McLean paints "as representative of someone freely pushing the social envelope and inciting rebellion—and in direct opposition to the values of a previous era."

"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"

The song ends with a seemingly blatant religious allusion. Or does it?

Fann writes that "the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost" could be a reference to a) Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens; b) John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King, three key U.S. political figures who were assassinated in the '60s; or c) the three remaining members of Holly's backing band, the Crickets.

As with so many lines in the song, and the many ways to interpret them, it's ultimately for the listener to decide the meaning.


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