13 ‘American Pie’ Song References Revealed by Don McLean: the ‘King,’ ‘Girl Who Sang the Blues’ and More

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Videos by American Songwriter

On February 3, 1959, the music died when rising American rock and roll artists Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash, just minutes after taking off.

The shock of that event, the tectonic shift it had on a young Don McLean, and the story of how it later influenced his biggest hit “American Pie” is documented in the new documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ (Paramount+).

Following a similar script to the 96-page American Pie bookazine, which was released earlier this year honoring the 50th anniversary of the release of the song and album, featuring McLean’s own stories and photos throughout the years, The Day Music Died documents the people, memories and life events around the making of one of the greatest American songs.

“It took 10 years to write ‘American Pie’ and to put that album together because, throughout those 10 years, I was harboring this yearning, I guess you could say, for Buddy Holly’s music and the sadness over his departure,” McLean told American Songwriter. In the film, McLean, who grew up in New Rochelle, New York, remembers the cold winter morning when he opened the batch of newspapers he had to deliver and saw the news of the crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson all over the front pages. “It was my guy who was killed,” said McLean in the film. “Buddy was now dead. I was in absolute shock. I read the whole story. I think I might have actually cried. It was that personal.”

Soon after, McLean’s uncle told him that his father had died. “That hurt for a really long time,” said McLean in the film. “It was like the happy ’50s were over.”

The other key moment in the formation of “American Pie” was the state of America at the time. “I wanted to write a big song,” McLean shared with American Songwriter. “We were in the middle of a huge upheaval in the United States: drugs, the war in Vietnam, civil rights, cities on fire, bodies coming home every day from the war in Vietnam. I wanted to write a big song about America, and when I fused the death of Buddy Holly with these ideas, that’s when that song became what it was, but it took 10 years for me to wait for that moment to do that.”

In the film, the viewer follows McLean from the very beginning, from his earlier years through the decade-long journey of American Pie, from getting the album published, to the production of the song, and a breakdown of its lyrics. “It’s me starting from scratch, and all my travails,” said McLean. “Everybody was against me. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine tried to ruin me. There was all sorts of headwinds against ‘American Pie,’ because of the rock writers who said, ‘Well, he’s not rock and roll,’  but what I turned out to be was Don McLean, and that’s the thing that they’ve had to figure out and realize over the years.”

Though “American Pie” is often considered a folk song, McLean says he never wanted to be a pop singer, a rock singer, or a folk singer. “There are only two artists in folk music that I really admired as artists and that was Josh White, and the other were The Weavers, and the rest of them were all kind of amateurs,” said McLean. “I didn’t really enjoy their music and I thought they were out of tune most of the time, and they certainly couldn’t write songs.”

He adds, “Dylan came right out of the same thing as I did. He was kicking around Greenwich Village and starting to get attention, writing these great songs, and then became the huge entity that he has become,” said McLean. “It was a great place to be but not to spend any long amount of time there because it really wasn’t going anyplace.”

Throughout the decades, the classic song has been reinterpreted by everyone from Garth Brooks, who is interviewed in the film, along with other renditions by Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi, John Mayer, and Weird “Al” Yankovic. The song is “about that drive of independence, that drive of discovery, of believing anything is possible,” said Brooks in the film.

Produced by Spencer Proffer of media production company Meteor 17, The Day Music Died moves through all the cultural, and socio-political moments in American history that are as relevant now as they were when the song was first released. “There are interchanges with all stripes of people from many walks of life, including major celebrities, music icons, current breaking artists, and industry leaders,” said Proffer of the doc in a statement. “The film explores what ‘American Pie’ meant to people then, what it means to them now, and what it will mean to generations in the future.”

McLean also reveals some of the secrets behind his iconic song—not all—including some of the more common references throughout “American Pie” that aren’t who or what they seem. Was “girl who sang the blues” really Janis Joplin,” and Elvis Presley the “king”? Surprisingly, the “jester” is not Bob Dylan, after all. 

“I was trying to create some kind of abstract dreamlike story about America,” said McLean in the film.

To celebrate the release of The Day Music Died and the 50th anniversary of the iconic American hit, we’re decoding the real meanings behind some key phrases and other references in “American Pie,” according to McLean.

American Pie

“I chose ‘American Pie’ because you’re as American as apple pie,” said McLean in the film. “But I just dropped the apple out and just said ‘American Pie.'”

This Will Be the Day That I Die

So bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing, “This’ll be the day that I die”

This line in the chorus comes from a line McLean pulled from the 1956 John Wayne western, The Searchers. Buddy Holly first connected to the phrase first in the film, which inspired him to write “That’ll Be the Day.” Holly released the hit with The Crickets in July 1957 with the chorus ‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die.

In the film, Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards used the phrase ‘That’ll Be the Day” whenever someone said something that he didn’t believe would happen. In one scene, adopted son Martin Pawley, played by Jeffrey Hunter, says to him “I hope you die” and Wayne responds “that’ll be the day.” Like Holly, McLean loosely pulled the phrase and made it his own for “American Pie.”

A Lonely Teenage Broncin’ Buck

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died

“That’s a take-off on having bronchial asthma,” said McLean. “I was broncin’ but I was still a stallion… with a pink carnation.” Though McLean admits to never having a pickup truck, he added, “but I could have anything I wanted in my songs.”

Moss Grows Fat on a Rolling Stone

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that’s not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the King and Queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me

The 10 years is McLean referencing his strained relationship with his mother after his father’s death, and the feeling of becoming too idle. “I think I was putting on weight,” said McLean. “I thought I was getting fat and lazy.”

The “Jester”

When the jester sang for the King and Queen 
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean 
And a voice that came from you and me 

Though the “jester” and the “king” are mentioned more than once throughout “American Pie,” McLean insists that neither are about Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, respectively. Though, he does still leave the jester up to interpretation.

“There’s been this discussion about the jester over and over,” said McLean. “I certainly would have mentioned Dylan’s name if I had meant to mention him. I would have said Bob or something else, but I didn’t ’cause it ain’t him.”

Read our recent story on Why Bob Dylan is the Jester in Don McLean’s “American Pie” here.

The “King”

Oh and while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown 
The courtroom was adjourned 
No verdict was returned

“I said the king has stole his thorny crown,” said McLean. “I didn’t mention Elvis Presley, because Elvis did not have a thorny crown. Jesus Christ has a thorny crown. If I wanted to say Elvis instead of the king I would have said Elvis. I say James Dean in the song.”

Lenin Read a Book on Marx

And while Lenin read a book of Marx
The Quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died

“That applies to both John Lennon and the real Lenin,” according to McLean. “Communism radicalized John Lennon and Lenin was radicalized by Marx.”

Eight Miles High … Forward Pass in the Grass

Helter skelter in the summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass, the players tried for a forward pass
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

In the film, McLean says the line eight miles high came from a song but doesn’t mention it. It’s likely the track is the 1966 Fifth Dimension song “8 Miles High” by The Byrds.

This line forward pass in the grass was pulled from the Josh White “Bottle Up and Go”—here I am in the grass, a forward pass you got to bottle up and go. “That was the idea of a ‘forward pass in the grass,'” explains McLean. “And ‘with a jester at the sidelines,’ that just meant this wasn’t funny anymore. This wasn’t funny at all.”

Marching Band

Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?

This line references the “military-industrial complex,” the relationship between the military and the defense industry that supplies it, and how it influences public policy. In the context of the lyrics, the people are trying to rise up, says McLean, but are being held back by the “marching band.”

“I was always marching against the war in Vietnam,” says McLean. “We were constantly being pushed aside in this relentless desire to destroy Southeast Asia.

A Generation Lost in Space

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

In McLean’s words: “We’re in the middle of an endless universe. None of us are important, except to each other. And we are lost in space because the war was hotter than it ever was before.”

Sweet Perfume

Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance

Sweet perfume is a reference to tear gas, something often used by law enforcement to gain control of large crowds, often in protest. 

The Girl Who Sang the Blues

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news 
But she just smiled and turned away

“I got the bad news at the front of the song so now I’m asking her for some happy news at the end of the song,” said McLean. “She doesn’t give me good news.”

The Three Men Don Admires Most

And 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

All of America is a mess, and there are things that need to be mended by the end of “American Pie,” and McLean’s heroes are leaving.

“Even God has been corrupted,” laughed McLean. “He’s going to Los Angeles.”

Photos: Courtesy of 2911 Enterprises

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