Scoot: A conversation with Don McLean about “American Pie” and a changing America

“Bye, bye Miss American Pie” – the lyrics in Don McLean’s iconic hit “American Pie” – seem to express a sadness that America was changing and the American Pie was symbolic of something being “as American as apple pie.”  That song reflected change in America that is not unlike the change that continues today.

In preparing for my conversation with Don McLean, I studied the lyrics of “American Pie” and some of the interpretations of the lyrics, and I was reminded of the relevance of this poetic rock masterpiece.  Don McLean does not like to talk about specific interpretations of the powerful imagery in the song, but he did talk about how the song reflected his lament over strong political and societal changes in America.

“American Pie” is about the day that rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the “Big Bopper” were all killed when a small plane carrying them to the next city on their tour crashed in an open field on a frigid winter night in Iowa.  In the song, that is “the day the music died,” but as that refrain continues through the song, it became obvious that “the day the music died” refers to those events that rob an entire generation or individuals of their innocence about the world around them.

As a young paperboy, Don McLean learned that one of his music idols – Buddy Holly – had been killed in a plane crash when he saw the headline while folding the papers for his route that morning.

Early in the song, McLean describes his feelings that morning he learned Buddy Holly had been killed:

“But February made me shiver – with every paper I’d deliver - 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 – but something touched me deep inside – the day the music died.”

But for other generations “the day the music died” would have been the day John Lennon was killed or the day Kurt Cobain committed suicide. 

As I thought about that, I realized that the imagery of the song “American Pie” is like the Constitution and the Bible in that all three documents have the elasticity to apply to current-day America.

“American Pie” is rich with images of people and events that signaled a changing America, like:

“Oh, and there we were all in one place

A generation lost in space

With no time left to start again.”

Those lyrics can refer to the times a generation feels lost because the establishment-run world is changing.  In my conversation with McLean, he said, “So, I came up with this idea of politics and music influence one another – flowing forward and parallel and that’s the most I can tell you about that song.”
However, in more general terms, McLean did talk about the inspiration behind “American Pie” and commented: “When you get your politics from the left or the right they’re so far apart – there’s no compromise in this country.  When you get that far you back into each other – each one is worse than the other.”
In preparing for the interview – I came across the video done with “America Pie” in 1989; and I said that when the song came out in 1971 and for many years after – there were no visual images set to the song and we were all left with our imaginations to create the images.  McLean responded: “The way show business is now – there’s nothing left to the imagination and imagination is a very endangered species.”  Also – our imaginations reflect our view of life, therefore the images our minds create from a song are personal and lasting.
Don McLean is reluctant to talk about specific interpretations of the lyrics in “America Pie” and said, “I’m very religious about it because it is a dream and if I were to make it specific then I would be diminishing what it is that I tried to do.”
Our talk about the song and politics led to McLean to comment on the political climate in America, saying, “We are in a very materialistic place in our country where people don’t really believe in much of anything – except money – and we have the right president for this – whether we like what he does or not – it’s all about money and success and winning.  These are very basic things, but they should not be the philosophy of a nation.”
Don McLean is more than “American Pie” – his second hit – “Vincent” - in 1972 reached #1 in the UK and #12 in the US.  I asked what inspired him to write a song about famed artist Vincent Van Gough.  His response: “I don’t really know why I do what I do and as I get older I don’t even know how I did what I did – (laughing) – to tell you the truth.”  But he did say that he had the credentials and the look that made him the right person to write that song.

In 1980, McLean covered the Roy Orbison classic, “Crying,” which shot to #1 in the UK and Australia and #5 on the US charts.  His version of “Crying” led to praises for his voice, and Orbison said McLean’s voice was one of the great musical instruments of the 20th Century.

If you haven’t listened to “American Pie” in years or if you are too young to have any personal reference to the song – find it.  Download it and carefully listen to the brilliant lyrical odyssey and how relatable the song is to America today.

And as the chorus begins – Don McLean is saying, “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” to symbolize the on-going generational gravity of change in America.