The Legend and Legacy of American Pie
“American Pie,” written and recorded by Don McLean, is the longest song to ever reach #1 on the charts. At 8 minutes and 38 seconds, it topped the charts on January 15, 1972 and remained there for four weeks.
Don McLean wasn’t able to play sports or engage in any vigorous physical activities as a child due to his severe asthma. He worked hard at therapeutic exercises and helped improve his physical condition, but it also helped him in another way. Don’s asthma had also made it hard for him to reach and hold certain notes, and the asthma exercises improved his ability and range as a singer. At age 15, Don decided to pursue a career as a singer, composer, and musician.
His first album, Tapestry (yes, just like Carole King’s) was released in 1970 after being rejected by 34 different record labels. The album had some success and garnered good reviews. But this moderate hit was in no way indicative of the legendary phenomenon that he came out with the next year.
Don’s album American Pie was released in 1971 and contained a song that was to become a part of music history. “I can’t necessarily interpret ‘American Pie’ any better than you can,” Don was to tell Life magazine. With one exception: Don was to say “Buddy Holly was the first and last person I ever idolized. Most of my friends liked Elvis Presley, more of them liked Elvis Presley than Holly, but I liked Holly because he spoke to me. He was a symbol of something deeper than the music.”
While a young boy delivering newspapers, Don clearly remembers reading about Holly’s fatal plane crash, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. In his stack of papers for February 3, 1959, Holly’s profound effect on McLean was indelible and, 12 years later, was to be the genesis of “American Pie.” Yes, the song was definitely about the tragic death of Buddy Holly, a great hero of Don’s, but aside from this basic agreed-upon point, he has never discussed the rest of the enigmatic lyrics. “American Pie’s” lyrics have been interpreted, dissected, discussed, debated, and pored over, much like lyrics to Beatles’ songs.
Common theories about “American Pie” lyrics include:
While the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown. The “king” is Elvis Presley and the “jester” is Bob Dylan.
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone. About a slightly overweight Mick Jagger in a too-small stage outfit.
Lenin read a book on Marx. About John Lennon and Karl -or maybe Groucho- Marx.
I met a girl who sang the blues… About Janis Joplin.
Helter skelter in a summer swelter… About Charles Manson.
And on and on it goes…
Guessing at the lyrics of “American Pie” has been an indulgence of musical scholars and dilettantes for forty years now, and will be going on as long as a radio station, TV show, website, or movie plays the unforgettable tune. But besides it’s admitted Buddy Holly homage lyrics, Don McLean has added one other pertinent point:
“I’m very proud of the song. It is biographical in nature. I don’t think anyone has ever picked up on that. The song was about Buddy Holly. But it moves on to describe America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasizing it might become, so it’s part reality and part fantasy. I’ve never analyzed the lyrics to the song. They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.”
In another particularly revealing interview, he was to add, “American Pie” was about the “turn from the innocence of the fifties to darker, more volatile things in sixties music and politics.” Don was to later joke that when he was older, he would open a pay-to-listen phone line in which he would tell what the song means.
When “American Pie” was first released, it was so long it took up both sides of the record. It was actually banned by several American radio stations because of its eight-and-a-half minute length. Many stations limited songs to a length of 3:30. For this reason, the “American Pie” title of “longest record to ever reach number one on the charts” is sometimes disputed. The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” clocking in a seven minutes and 11 seconds, is listed in some sources as the title holder, because it was a single side of a single record.
Don McLean has some other hits and around twenty mostly well-received albums after the incredibly heady success of American Pie. Don sang “American Pie” on New Year’s Eve in 1999 in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Don McLean remains a hard-working and active singer, composer, and musician. He has fronted everything from Bluegrass to rock bands to the Israeli Philharmonic. In 2007, his official memoirs were published. McLean and his most famous and beloved song remain a part of American pop culture. The recording industry of America recently voted “American Pie” number five on its list of all-time greatest songs:
1) “Over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
2) “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
3) “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
4) “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
5) “American Pie” by Don McLean
Don McLean has claimed that he never knew how commercial “American Pie” was, just that he had “written a masterpiece.”