Today marks the 52nd anniversary of the plane crash that killed rock n roll legends and pioneers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The story of the crash and the meteoric lives of the ill-fated musicians on board have been shown in film in The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba. But it was Don McLean’s song, American Pie, that did the most to immortalize this tragedy in art and it was McLean who coined February 3rd as “the day the music died.”
American Pie was one of the first pop songs that I can remember singing as a child. My dad taught me the lyrics to the chorus and I especially delighted in the rhyming of “Chevy” with “levee.” This was also an educational experience - it was because of this song that I learned what a “levee” was (we had no rivers or dikes on Long Island) and that “rye” was something that you drank. But I didn’t understand much about the song and when I marched around the kitchen cheerfully singing, “This’ll be the day that I die,” I wasn’t aware of the nod to Buddy Holly’s That’ll be the Day.
American Pie has become one of the most analyzed songs in the history of popular music. It’s famous for its many references and allusions to musicians and events of the rock n roll decade. The February 3rd plane crash is simply the most obvious one, and of course it’s the event that kicks off the narrator's tale. For years, music critics and fans have discussed and debated the meaning of the lyrics. Is the “jester on the sideline” Bob Dylan? What about the marching band? Is McLean making a reference to Kent State? Altamont? Are the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost a reference to Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper? Or is the narrator talking about a more personal loss of faith?
Don McClean has been refreshingly tight-lipped about the meaning of his lyrics. (Supposedly, when asked what the song means, McClean replied "It means I never have to work again.”) But that’s how it should be when an artist creates a work. He’s already said what he’s had to say. That’s what the song is for. Still, we listeners can’t help ourselves and we’ve imbued the song with the importance of a Homeric epic. Like any epic poem, it’s a song about many things: music, love, the birth of rock n roll, the loss of innocence, the coming of age of a generation – all woven together in a melodic strum-along tapestry.
It seems somehow strange to think that McClean’s song was released in 1971, just 12 years after the fateful plane crash. He was fourteen years old when he heard about the tragedy (apparently, he really did have a paper route) and was 26 when he released American Pie. In cultural terms, the span between 1959 and 1971 seems massive. But 1959 was as near to McClean in 1971 as 1999 is to us today. For me, at least, 1999 seems like yesterday. Remember 1999? Some people thought the world was about to end. Don’t they always?