American Pie - Project

By: Sarah Harrington

Historical References

Chorus Verse: "Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry"
Don McLean's hit song "American Pie" had a lot more meaning to it than first interpreted. For starters, it was a song written for McLean's hero growing up, Buddy Holly. Holly died in a planecrash which also included Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. 'Big Bopper'). McLean was only 13 years old at the time.
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"Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry", is a verse in the chorus of 'American Pie'. This verse has different meanings, as well as the rest of the chorus. Most of these lyrics were intentionally left open to ambiguity, as McLean himself stated, "I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time." Some of the following interpretations are, therefore, debatable.


Some people believe that this verse was merely a metaphor for the death of the American Dream, a popular topic in McLean's song. The Chevy was also the car to drive back in the day. The levee was a popular gathering location for teens who wanted to hang out without adult supervision. The levee could have been metaphorical too, with the levee business revealing that America wasn’t fertile anymore (in the sense of music).


McLean was first inspired to later write this song as a young paperboy, when he saw the headline of the paper about the tragedy, learning about the death of Buddy Holly. He wrote his song 13 years later.


'American Pie' was not meant to be a song about nostalgia. McLean wrote about the evolution of how events changed over time and innocence lost as a boy, starting with the death of his father and Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of the president. The death of President John F. Kennedy was the start of a more difficult time for America.


"And them good ole boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye,
Singin' this will be the day that I die,
This will be the day that I die."

This verse was a play on the phrase "That'll be the day that I die," in Buddy Holly's hit song "That'll Be The Day."
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“I met a girl who sang the blues /And I asked her for some happy news /But she just smiled and turned away.”

Janis Joplin (pictured above) is most likely the person McLean is referring to here, as she was the woman with the biggest hits of blues in this time. She died of an accidental heroin overdose with a possible compound of alcohol on October 4, 1970.


“A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile”

Don McLean is talking about the 1950s, and it seems like a long time ago because of all the turmoil that occurred in the 60s. He enjoyed the music from the 50s the most. It was also a time when he recalls that the best music played, when many musicians were becoming legends.


“And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Now I know that you’re in love with him,
‘cause I saw you dancing in the gym.”

In the 1950s, dancing was a serious deal. If you danced with someone, it implied that you were committed to them… McLean caught his girlfriend cheating on him this way, by dancing with another man.


“And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”

McLean was Catholic, and this is a common term that represents the Trinity of God. This could have also had another meaning; that McLean was tying in the rock Trinity of Holly, Valens, and Richardson, with the Christian Trinity of God. Another possibility is that he was referring to John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.: all prominent political leaders who were also assassinated in the 1960s.


"But February made me shiver,"

The plane crash that took the lives of many including Holly, was on February 3, 1959 in Iowa during a snowstorm.


"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"

After learning about Holly's death, McLean thought about Holly's wife (pictured above), who was pregnant at the time of Holly's death. She experienced yet another tragedy with a miscarriage shortly afterwards.

11., 12., & 13.

“The players tried for a forward pass”

This was a metaphor using the sport of football for protestors of the 60s. The forward pass was their movement to change the situation they were in, which was full of government corruption.

“Cause the players tried to take the field”

In 1968, protestors rioted during the Chicago Democratic convention, where some were beaten by police. In 1970, four students at Kent State University were killed by the National Guard in response to their anti-Vietnam protests.

“The marching band refused to yield”

Some new songs by The Beatles had anti-violence messages, which influenced protestors and caused them to think twice with their actions.

Project Conclusion

My Reflection

I enjoyed learning so much more about this legendary song. I once believed the song was a happy tune, full of life and brought me thoughts of summertime. I never quite understood what the lyrics actually meant, I just figured that it was a tune not actually meaning much. Then again, I never really heard the song enough times to really understand it. The lyrics themselves, without analyzing them, don't reveal a great deal about who and what the story is about.
But, as I studied the lyrics, they revealed a much darker story, hiding behind metaphors. This song was not a song of nostalgia, but instead a song of tragedy experienced through the eyes of a young boy and growing up in one of the darkest decades in recorded American history. A boy who lost his innocence with an onset of events that changed his life forever, starting with the deaths of both his father and his hero Buddy Holly. These subsequent events included government corruption and rioting from protestors (some being killed), the president's assassination, the death of Janis Joplin, the 'death' of rock-and-roll music, society's fading faith in God, as well as many other events that are either subtly or (what would seem as) obvious references in 'American Pie'.
America became broken.