American Pie

  1. American Pie
  2. Till Tomorrow
  3. Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)
  4. Crossroads
  5. Winterwood
  6. Empty Chairs
  7. Everybody Loves Me, Baby
  8. Sister Fatima
  9. The Grave
  10. Babylon (Adapt. from Psalm 137)

Released by United Artists in 1971.

UNITED ARTISTS UAS-5535, Released October 1971 [LP]
UNITED ARTISTS U-8299, Released October 1971 [8T]
LIBERTY LN-10037, Reissued October 1980 [LP]
EMI MANHATTAN CDP 7 46555 2, Reissued 1987 [CD]
ULTRADISC MFSL UDCD 728, Reissued July 1998 [CD]

 Commentary on “American Pie” from The Don McLean Story

“American Pie” is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s. It was initially inspired by Don’s memories of being a paperboy in 1959 and learning of the death of Buddy Holly. “American Pie” presents an abstract story of McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time it represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s, but metaphorically the song continues to evolve to the present time. It is not a nostalgia song. “American Pie” changes as America, itself, is changing.

For McLean, the transition from the light innocence of childhood to the dark realities of adulthood began with the deaths of his father and Buddy Holly and culminated with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, which was the start of a more difficult time for America. During this four year period, Don moved from an idyllic childhood, through the shock and harsh realities of his father’s death in 1961, to his decision, in 1964, to leave Villanova University to pursue his dream of becoming a professional singer.

The 1950s were an era of happiness and affluence for the burgeoning American middle class. Americans had a feeling of optimism about their prospects for the future, and pride in their nation which had emerged victorious from World War II, setting the world free from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. Popular music mirrored society. Performers such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley and the Comets churned out feel-good records that matched the mood of the nation. Sinister forces such as communism were banished, and serious folk groups like the Weavers were being replaced by the beat poets who, as members of the intelligentsia, were excused their lack of optimism.

The 1960s was the antithesis of the previous decade. The exuberant simplicity of the 1950s was displaced by a much more volatile and politically charged atmosphere. People were asking questions. The cozy world of white middle class America was disturbed, as civil rights campaigners marched on Washington, D.C., and Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The following year saw the 1964 Civil Rights Act become law. On the world stage, America’s leading super-power status was being challenged by the Soviet Union, and its military might was being tested by the Vietnamese. Even in music, America soon found itself overrun by a British invasion. The 1960s was a turbulent time for McLean’s generation.

By 1971, America was still deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control. The anti-war movement was gathering momentum and being listened to. On April 22, 1971, former naval officer, John Kerry, stated to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

 “…In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart…”

Other events of the time, such as the successful launch of Apollo 14, did little to restore national pride. “American Pie,” in the opinion of the song’s producer, Ed Freeman, was the funeral oration for an era: “Without it, many of us would have been unable to grieve, achieve closure, and move on. Don saw that, and wrote the song that set us free. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that.”

 Extract from The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard Copyright 2007 Starry Night Music, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction or translation of any part of this work without the permission of the copyright owner is unlawful. Used by permission.

Don McLean Sings American Pie on Top of the Pops (October 31, 1991):

  • Gabe

    The fifties was great for white middle-class men that’s for sure. Grieving the loss of innocence generally equate to a longing to return to ignorance of social injustice and exclusion. The more significant loss of innocence came about when it became clear that the police and the military would attack, maim and kill protestors at the behest of the ruling class.

    • mike2000917

      Protesters charging them (armed young soldiers) with rocks and implied threats of violence. You probably didn’t feel quite so bad about Waco where it was a legitimate government sanctioned slaughter.

  • justwanttobeloved

    I’m an African American . Today I turned 59 and found this site. Last year a few of my friends black and white took their own lives. We have to evolve. The alternative is leading quiet lives of desperation or… I can’t imagine anything good ahead. I love all kinds of music, most especially the lyrics and poetry of folk and rock. Thankfully Woodstock showed us that shared ideas were not restricted by one’s racial orientation. I learned about freedom and how deeply people could love, hate, or just be in the world from artists like Don McLean, Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Eagles. I experienced joy and sorrow through the music of Elton John and the Who, national and ethnic pride James Brown. Loved the dance music of the Dicso era.

    While I have had the good fortune of finding love through the years, many crushes and such, I guess at the beginning, through the middle, to the bitter end, and in new beginnings, music, in sound tracks, play lyrics, movie scores, music of the people, for the people, and an abiding faith in God have always been there.

  • Stephen Perrault

    I have been listening to this song on my parents radio since I was born (1975). It took me until I was 39 to truly understand how profound and deep the meaning of the lyrics were. I must say when I put it all together I had to move “American Pie” to the top position of the best song ever written. I wish we still had people out there with this kind of talent.

  • Peter Dennis

    I once heard American Pie on the radio and a few minutes later stalled out a 1985 Chevy Cavalier on a road that was flooded due to a levee that didn’t hold the water back after a storm. I used to say “drove my chevy to the levee but the levee’s not dry.” Irony.


    this video does not play the whole song.

  • James Cheng

    Saw Don last night at Orleans in Vegas. He is still as good as a 30 year old. Amazing concert.

  • Copper Cliff Man

    Don do you remember singing at Queen’s University in 1971 for $500 for two sets before Blood Sweat and Tears! You stole the show! On Saturday at out homecoming football game they were all singing “Bye Bye Miss American Pie”. One of the most moving experiences in my life@@talkcampingnhcom:disqus

  • JB

    I wish Don were either allowed or willing to share the meaning of his lyrics. This is an explanation that really doesn’t explain. “Oh, and as I watched him (the devil?) on the stage
    My hands were clenched in fists of rage
    No angel born in Hell (what? Why would they?)
    Could break that Satan’s spell (This is so specific. Which spell? Does this refer to Kennedy’s death?)

    And as the flames climbed high into the night
    To light the sacrificial rite (again, this sounds so specific, what is this about?)
    I saw Satan laughing with delight (did you actually? In a vision?)
    The day the music died (poetic, perhaps, but can’t be going back to Buddy Holly dying.)