American Pie Analysis
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The immensely popular song “American Pie”, written by Don McLean, describes the “day the music died”, and the decline of society in the following decade. This date, specifically February 3rd 1959, is marked by the deaths of influential musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson. McLean wrote the song to describe his feelings towards the deaths, and to describe the history of American music up to the date “American Pie” was written, using symbolism to describe events without directly naming them or those involved. McLean uses many different themes, including theology and time to describe this journey. Don McLeans “American Pie” uses symbolism to tell the story of American music and the “day the music died”, and the events that lead up to the apocalypse.
The first line in the song “A long, long time ago” (McLean) suggests a feeling of timelessness, which is often used in mythic stories and events. This line also refers to the narrators (presumably McLean) youth, before he was a well-known musician. The following lines describe McLeans desire to bring joy to people through music and dance. “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe theyd be happy for a while” (McLean). Music is often used symbolically as a connector with the universal and with the cosmos. “Music with its different harmonies, tones, tempi and instruments is a means of identifying with the life of the cosmos with all its fullness” (Chevalier 688). Dance can also be seen as a manifestation of the spirit and of life (272-273). During the time that McLean was a youth, dance was seen as a serious sign of affection, to a greater and more meaningful extent than it would later. Dance is a constant theme in the song, and as it progresses it is diminished to a more trivial role, to McLeans dismay.
The next section dramatically alters the tone of the song from upbeat “music used to make me smile” (McLean) to somber “But February made me shiver” (McLean). Symbolically, cold weather deteriorates both physically and spiritually whomever it engulfs, showing McLeans changing physical and emotional state. The verse continues with references to a newspaper on a doorstep which bears bad news for the narrator McLean. Paper is an archetype of fragility and of the timeless part of an individual (Chevalier 735). Thus, the bad news of the newspaper reflects the fragility of the good mood of the first verse. Also, the doorstep on which the newspaper rests suggests to a gateway. “Gateways symbolize the scene passing from one state to another, from one world to another, from the known to the unknown, from light to darkness” (422). On top of this, McLean is unable to take a step, symbolizing an end to any forward progression. Progression is also an important theme in the song, usually to describe society during the decade following 1959. The abundance of transcendent imagery in this verse complements the change of American music and society following the “day the music died”, referenced in the next section.
“I cant remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride” (McLean). This line references those killed on February 3rd 1959 by taking mention of their wives. Tears are an obvious symbol of grief and death (Chevalier 977), and here make allude to the sorrow felt not only by McLean, but by the entire American society. Widows are often used in reference in the search for their dead husband, and is also a synonym for the gallows and guillotine (1109). This symbol represents the grief felt by those who lived during this time, and their search for peace. These symbols combined with the next line “…something touched me deep inside, the day the music died” (McLean) represents to sorrow and the search for reason felt by society following the deaths of the three musicians.
The “American Pie” of the first line of the refrain may symbolize American society itself. “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie” (McLean). The words bye, bye may reference a loss of innocence caused by the deaths. Also due to the deaths of the musicians, society was in a stage of grief. The refrain continues “drove my chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry” (McLean). Any automobile suggests a dream or a change in psychological development (Chevalier 58). Also, oil is normally seen as a symbol of prosperity and divine blessing (714). Therefore, the dry levee shows the absence of prosperity of the American dream following February 3rd. “And them good ol boys were drinking whisky and rye, singing thisll be the day that I die…” (McLean). The boys symbolize the youth and innocence of America, and the alcohol symbolizes their corruption and sadness following the deaths of the musical idols.
“Did you write the Book of Love?” (McLean). Books traditionally symbolize knowledge, and also represent the universe. Therefore, the Book of Love represents universal love. “And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so” (McLean). This may be a criticism of Christians during this time, when many people were Christians simply because the Bible tells them that it is the right religion. The Christian religion is the central theme around which the entire song revolves. Many references are made to both God, and later Satan. McLean may be telling those that do not truly believe in Christianity to reexamine their faith. “Do you believe in rock n roll, can music save you mortal soul, and can you teach me how to dance real slow?” (McLean). This next section refers back to the music and dance of the first few lines of the song, but it is now mentioned as a means of salvation, instead of a means of joy.
The next section refers to lovers dancing in a gym. As mentioned before, dancing is identified with life, and lovers are symbols of emotions and egos (Chevalier 620-621). “You both kicked off your shoes” (McLean). In Western tradition, shoes show funerary significance. These symbols once again show the death and negative emotions following the day the music died.
“I was a lonely teenage bronckin buck, with a pink carnation and a pickup truck” (McLean). A buck, or deer, is a common symbol of the spirit (Chevalier 283-284). A flower is also seen as a symbol of spiritual perfection (395), and as mentioned before, any automobile suggests a dream or psychological development. These symbols show how McLeans spirit was in a state of perfection prior to the events of February 3rd. “But I knew I was out of luck the day the music died” (McLean). This line foreshadows sadness, despair and grief felt not only be McLean himself, but by all people.