“I said Don it’s time for you to reveal it”: 50 years later the truth behind American Pie | music


A A long, long time ago—five decades, to be precise—America was rocked by shattering intergenerational showdowns, massive street protests, and a blazing array of social justice movements. Now, half a century later, similar events and dynamics dominate public debate. So maybe it’s poetic that exactly five decades have passed since a song that captured all that cultural turmoil, American Pie, became a smash hit. “It’s a song that spoke for its time,” said Spencer Proffer, who has produced a comprehensive new documentary about the song called The Day the Music Died. “But it’s just as applicable now.”

In fact, American Pie has only grown in fans and prominence as it has hit successive generations and spawned new covers. It has been interpreted by artists over the years, from Madonna (who created a commercially successful if aesthetically weak version in 2000) to Garth Brooks to Jon Bon Jovi and John Mayer. Over the years, journalists have subjected the song to Talmudic scrutiny, while its songwriter, Don McLean, has provided drop-by-drop insights into its intent. In contrast, the new documentary offers the first line-by-line deconstruction of the song’s lyrics, as well as the most detailed analysis of its musical development to date. “I said to Don, ‘It’s about time you revealed what 50 years of journalists have wanted to know,'” Proffer said. “This film was a concerted effort to lift the curtain.”

Additionally, it provides an emotional account of the tragic event that McLean used as a starting point for the larger story he wanted to tell.

The event, which McLean called “the day the music died”, shook the pop world of the time and shaped the songwriter. On a cold night in 1959, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) crashed into a corn field in Clear Lake, Iowa, minutes after takeoff, killing everyone on board. The documentary begins with that event and travels back to the Surf Ballroom, where the stars played their final show. The filmmakers pulled off a coup by catching on camera a man who saw that fateful concert, as well as the man who owns the airline that leased the doomed plane. It also includes a moving interview with Valen’s sister, Connie, who thanks McLean for immortalizing her brother in song.

The first part of the film covers McLean’s early life, including his days as a newsboy in the suburbs of New York City, where he grew up. In an extensive interview for the film, McLean talks about delivering the newspaper that broke the news of the crash, something he alludes to at the beginning of the lyrics. Buddy Holly was his musical idol back then. If his death inspired the song’s words, a more personal loss changed the course of McLean’s life. When he was 15, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. “It had a profound impact on him,” Proffer said. “He carried his father’s death in his soul.”

In his grief, McLean threw himself into music and developed a talent with enough promise to earn him gigs in Greenwich Village folk clubs as a teenager. He found a role model in the Weavers, particularly Pete Seeger, who was his friend. The primacy of storytelling in the group’s songs, as well as their socio-cultural anchoring, served as a template for certain aspects of American Pie. He also learned the value of singing along from Seeger. A clear draw to American Pie is its chorus, which anyone can emulate. The simplicity of its melody is reminiscent of children’s music. “It’s like a campfire song,” Proffer said. “Everyone is invited to sing”

Some of the lyrics even quote nursery rhymes, including “Jack be nimble/Jack be quick”. The American Pie album cover underscored the connection by featuring McLean’s thumb in the foreground to reference another nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner “sticking his thumb in/pulling out a plum”.

At the same time, the song’s message couldn’t be more mature. “To me, American Pie is the eulogy of a dream that didn’t happen,” says the song’s producer Ed Freeman in the film. “We have witnessed the death of the American Dream.”

“The country was in an advanced state of mental shock,” says McLean on camera. “All this chaos and riots and burning cities.”

The cover of American Pie, 1971 album by Don McLean on United Artists - Editorial use only2AKEF7K The cover of American Pie, 1971 album by Don McLean on United Artists - Editorial use only
Photo: The Cover Version/Alamy

The end of it all got McLean creatively shooting for the moon. “I wanted to write a song about America, but I didn’t want to write a song about America like anybody’s written before,” he says.

It was no small goal considering how many songwriters back then were creating their own odes to the disillusionment of the American Dream. They ranged from Paul Simon’s American Tune (which takes the Statue of Liberty sailing out to sea) to Dion’s version of Abraham, Martin and John (which poignantly addressed the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy).

McLean’s desire to stand out from the other singer-songwriters then dominating music also had a career appeal. His debut album Tapestry, released in 1970, had not made waves and his small record label MediaArts had little faith in him. Still, the big statement song he dreamed up to reverse that arrived in a form that defied a hit’s most basic edict — that it last no more than three minutes. American Pie meandered for eight and a half minutes and was crammed with cryptic imagery worth a fever dream.

In fact, McLean wrote even more verses than the last song contained. “He just kept writing,” Proffer said. “If it had lasted more than eight minutes, it could have been 16.”

In that sense it has something in common with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. In both songs, verses were written and discarded by the author (although in Cohen’s case many more were discarded). Both songs have also grown in stature and impact over the years. (Coincidentally, Cohen’s song is also the subject of the new documentary entitled Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song). At their core, however, they are fundamentally different. “Hallelujah is a spiritual study,” Proffer said. “American Pie is a sociological study.”

It’s often a shy one. The lyrics teem with coded references to kings, queens, and jesters, as well as a variety of cultural figures, which together turn them into a virtual pop quiz: “Name that reference!” The result made the song particularly poignant and hooked the listener to solve his riddle. “Every time you listen, you think of something different,” Proffer said.

In the film, McLean dismisses some of the most common speculations about his reference points. Elvis was not the king in question. The “girl who sang the blues” wasn’t Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan wasn’t the fool. In 2017, Dylan commented on his alleged connection to Rolling Stone: “A fool?” he said. “Sure, the fool writes songs like Masters of War, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, It’s Alright, Ma. I have to think he’s talking about someone else.”

As imaginative as some of McLean’s lyrics may have been, its core reference to the “day the music died” made the song a history lesson for those born too late to remember that event as damningly as it did McLean. Even when the song first came out, it had been over a decade since the crash, the equivalent of a thousand years in pop’s fast-paced life.

One of the most interesting sections of the documentary provides a detailed analysis of the development of the song’s arrangement. It didn’t find its true groove until they brought in session keyboardist Paul Griffith, who has played on seminal recordings from Dylan to Steely Dan. His piano parts brought a gospel fervor to the song as well as an added pop leap. Hooks like this helped make a song of frightening density and length loved by millions.

To deal with its length, McLean’s record company came up with a clever idea. The first half of the song appeared on side A of the single, the second half on side B. The result turned side A into a cliffhanger that the listener had to sit through to the end. Subsequent demand forced AM radio stations to play both sides. At the same time, FM radio – whose mission was to go deeper and play longer – was at its commercial peak at this time. Released in late 1971, American Pie went to #1 in January ’72, where it stayed for a month. It held the record for the longest number-one song for 49 years—until Taylor Swift’s 10-minute cut “All Too Well” broke it.

McLean in 2019.
McLean in 2019. Photo: Charles Sykes/AP

Interestingly, both songs have some anger in them. But over time, McLean’s play has shifted significantly in the public consciousness. Today it is sometimes performed and interpreted as some kind of rousing sequel to The Star-Spangled Banner. In the film, one fan describes it as a song that “makes you stop and be thankful for everything you have.”

Garth Brooks says in the film it’s a song “about that urge for independence, that urge for discovery… believing that anything is possible.”

Both views couldn’t be more confusing given the sadness and disgust of the actual words. In fact, American Pie ends with “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” so appalled at the state of the land that even they — humanity’s supposed saviors — flee to the shore. “People don’t think about what (the song) really means,” Proffer said. “They think about how it makes them feel.”

If such reactions wildly decontextualize the song, the film can serve to recontextualize it. In addition, it aims to expand his legacy by introducing new versions of the song written by someone from the current generation (24-year-old British singer Jade Bird) as well as artists from a different culture (singer Jencarlos and producer Maffio, who created) were sung a version in Spanish). “It’s exciting to know that something that happened 50 years ago can resonate with future generations,” Proffer said. “By listening to the song, people get a glimpse of what life was like back then and what it has become today.”

  • The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie is available now on Paramount+

  • This article was modified on July 19. American Pie was originally said to hold the record for the longest song to reach number one for 39 years, but it’s 49 years. This has now been changed

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