I can still remember how That music used to
make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance,
That I could make those people dance,
And maybe they'd be happy for a while.
One of early rock and roll's functions was to provide
McLean recalls his desire to become a musician
playing that sort of music.
But February made me shiver,
Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959 in a plane
in Iowa during a snowstorm.
With every paper I'd deliver,
Don McLean's only job besides being a full-time
singer-songwriter was being a paperboy.
Bad news on the doorstep... I couldn't take one more
I can't remember if I cried When I read about his
Holly's recent bride was pregnant when the crash
she had a miscarriage shortly afterward.
But something touched me deep inside, The day the
The same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also
took the lives
of Richie Valens ("La Bamba")
and The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace")
Since all three were so prominent at the time, February
became known as "The Day The Music Died".
Bye bye Miss American Pie,
Don McLean dated a Miss America candidate during
the pageant. (unconfirmed)
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinkin whiskey and rye
This'll be the day that I die, This'll be the day
that I die."
One of Holly's hits was "That'll be the Day"; the
the line "That'll be the day that I die".
Did you write the book of love,
"The Book of Love" by the Monotones; hit in 1958.
And do you have faith in God above, If the Bible
tells you so?
In 1955, Don Cornell did a song entitled "The Bible
Tells Me So".
Rick Schubert pointed this out, and mentioned that
he hadn't heard the song,
so it was kinda difficult to tell if it was what
McLean was referencing.Anyone know for sure?
There's also an old Sunday School song which goes:
"Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells
Now do you believe in rock 'n roll?
The Lovin' Spoonful had a hit in 1965 with John
Sebastian's "Do you Believe in Magic?".
The song has the lines: "Do you believe in magic"
and "It's like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Dancing slow was an important part of early rock
and roll dance events --
but declined in importance through the 60's as things
like psychedelia and the 10-minute guitar solo gained
Well I know you're in love with him 'Cause I saw
you dancing in the gym
Back then, dancing was an expression of love, and
carried a connotation of committment.
Dance partners were not so readily exchanged as
they would be later.
You both kicked off your shoes.... A reference to
the beloved "sock hop".
(Street shoes tear up wooden basketball floors,
so dancers had to take off their shoes.)
Man, I dig those rhythm 'n' blues
Some history. Before the popularity of rock and
like much else in the U. S., was highly segregated.
The popular music of black performers for largely black audiences was called,
first, "race music", later softened to rhythm and
In the early 50s, as they were exposed to it through
such as Allan Freed, white teenagers began listening,
Starting around 1954, a number of songs from the
rhythm and blues charts began
appearing on the overall popular charts as well,
but usually in cover versions by established white artists,
(e. g. "Shake Rattle and Roll", Joe Turner, covered
by Bill Haley; "Sh-Boom",
the Chords, covered by the Crew-Cuts; "Sincerely",
the Moonglows, covered by the Mc Guire Sisters;
Tweedle Dee, LaVerne Baker, covered by Georgia Gibbs).
By 1955, some of the rhythm and blues artists,
like Fats Domino and Little Richard were able to
get records on the overall pop charts.
In 1956 Sun records added elements of country and
western to produce the kind of rock and roll tradition
that produced Buddy Holly.
I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck With a pink
carnation and a pickup truck
"A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)", was
a hit for Marty Robbins in 1957.
The pickup truck has endured as a symbol of sexual
independence and potency, especially in a Texas context.
But I knew that I was out of luck
The day the music died I started singing...
(Verse 3) Now for ten years we've been on our own
McLean was writing this song in the late 60's, about ten years after the
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
It's unclear who the "rolling stone" is supposed
to be. It could be Dylan, since "Like a Rolling Stone" (1965) was his first
major hit. The "rolling stone" could also be Elvis. It could refer to rock
and rollers in general. Or, finally, it could refer to the Rolling Stones
themselves; a lot of musicians were angry at the Stones for "selling out".
their country merely to save taxes.
But that's not how it used to be When the jester
sang for the King and Queen
The jester is Bob Dylan, as will become clear later.
There are several interpretations of king and queen: some think that Elvis
Presley the king, which seems pretty obvious. The queen is said to be either
Connie Francis or Little Richard.An alternate interpretation is that this
refers to the Kennedys -- the king and queen of "Camelot"
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean In the movie
"Rebel Without a Cause", James Dean has a red windbreaker that holds symbolic
meaning throughout the film (see note at end.) In one particularly intense
scene, Dean lends his coat to a guy who is shot and killed; Dean's father
arrives, sees the coat on the dead man, thinks it's Dean, and loses it.
On the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", Dylan is wearing just such
as red windbreaker, and is posed in a street scene similar to one shown
in a well-known picture of James Dean. Bob Dylan played a command performance
for the Queen of England. He was *not* properly attired, so perhaps this
is a reference to his apparel.
And a voice that came from you and me Bob Dylan's
roots are in American folk music, with people like Pete Seeger and Woody
Guthrie. Folk music is by definition the music of the masses, hence the
"...came from you and me".
Oh, and while the King was looking down The jester
stole his thorny crown This could be a reference to Elvis's decline and
Dylan's ascendance. The thorny crown might be a reference to the price
of fame. Dylan has said that he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, one of
The courtroom was adjourned, No verdict was returned.
This could be the trial of the Chicago Seven.
And while Lennon read a book on Marx,
John Lennon reading about Karl Marx; figuratively,
the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles. There
are two schools of thought about this; the obvious one is Beatles playing
in Shea Stadium, but note that the previous line has John Lennon *doing
something else at the same time*. This tends to support the theory that
this is a reference to the Weavers, who were blacklisted during the McCarthy
era. McLean had become friends with Lee Hays of the Weavers in the early
60's whilperforming in coffeehouses and clubs in upstate New York and New
York City. He was also well-acquainted with Pete Seeger; in fact, McLean,
Seeger, and others took a trip on the Hudson river singing anti-pollution
songs at one point. Seeger's LP "God Bless the Grass" contains many of
And we sang dirges in the dark
A "dirge" is a funeral or mourning song, so perhaps
this is meant literally...or, perhaps, this is a reference to some of the
new "art rock" groups which played long pieces not meant for dancing.
The day the music died. We were singing... Refrain
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter "Helter Skelter"
is a Beatles song which appears on the "white" album. The birds flew off
with the fallout shelter Eight miles high and falling fast.
The Byrd's "Eight Miles High" was on their late
1966 release "Fifth Dimension". It was one of the first records to be widely
banned because of supposedly drug-oriented lyrics.
It landed foul on the grass
One of the Byrds was busted for possesion of marijuana.
The players tried for a forward pass
Obviously a football metaphor, but about what? It
could be the Rolling Stones, i.e. they were waiting for an opening which
really didn't happen until the Beatles broke up.
With the jester on the sidelines
in a cast On July 29, 1966, Dylan crashed his Triumph
55 motorcycle while riding near his home in Woodstock, New York. He spent
nine months in seclusion while recuperating from the accident.
Now the halftime air was sweet perfume
Drugs, man. Well, now, wait a minute; that's probably
too obvious. It's possible that this line and the next few refer to the
1968 Democratic National Convention. The "sweet perfume" is probably tear
While sergeants played a marching tune
Following from the thought above, the sergeants
would be the Chicago Police and the Illinois National Guard, who marched
the protestors out of the park and into jail. Alternatively, this could
refer to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Or, perhaps
McLean refers to the Beatles' music in general as "marching" because it's
not music for dancing. Or, finally, the "marching tune" could be the draft.
We all got up to dance Oh, but we never got the chance The Beatles' 1966
Candlestick Park concert only lasted 35 minutes
'Cause the players tried to take the field, The marching
band refused to yield.
Following on from the Chicago reference above, this
could be another comment on protests. If the players are the protestors
at Kent State, and the marching band the Ohio National Guard. This could
be a reference to the dominance of the Beatles on the rock and roll scene.Some
folks think this refers to either the 1968 Democratic Convention or Kent
State. This might also be a comment about how the dominance of the Beatles
in the rock world led to more "pop art" music, leading in turn to a dearth
of traditional rock and roll. Or finally, this might be a comment which
follows up on the earlier reference to the draft: the government/military-industrial-complex
establishment refused to accede to the demands of the peace movement.
Do you recall what was revealed, The day the music
died? We started singing
Refrain (Verse 5) And there we were all in one place
Woodstock. A generation lost in space
Perhaps this is a reference to hippies, who were
sometimes known as the "lost generation", partially because of their particularly
acute alientation from their parents, and partially because of their presumed
preoccupation with drugs. It could also be a reference to the awful TV
show, "Lost in Space", whose title was sometimes used as a synonym for
someone who was rather high...but I keep hoping that McLean had better
With no time left to start again
The "lost generation" spent too much time being
stoned, and had wasted their lives? Or, perhaps, their preference for psychedelia
had pushed rock and roll so far from Holly's music that it couldn't be
So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick
Probably a reference to Mick Jagger of the Rolling
Stones; "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was released in May, 1968.
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
The Stones' Candlestick park concert? (unconfirmed)
'Cause fire is the devil's only friend
It's possible that this is a reference to the Grateful
Dead's "Friend of the Devil". An alternative interpretation of the last
four lines is that the may refer to Jack Kennedy and his quick decisions
during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the candlesticks/fire refer to ICBMs and
And as I watched him on the stage My hands were clenched
in fists of rage No angel born in hell Could break that satan's spell
While playing a concert at the Altamont Speedway
in 1968, the Stones appointed members of the Hell's Angels to work security
(on the advice of the Grateful Dead). In the darkness near the front of
the stage, a young man named Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed death
-- by the Angels. Public outcry that the song "Sympathy for the Devil"
had somehow incited the violence caused the Stones to drop the song from
their show for the next six years. This incident is chronicled in the documentary
film "Gimme Shelter". It's also possible that McLean views the Stones as
being negatively inspired (remember, he had an extensive religious background)
by virtue of "Sympathy for the Devil", "Their Satanic Majesties' Request"
and so on. I find this a bit puzzling, since the early Stones recorded
a lot of "roots" rock and roll, including Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away".
And as the flames climbed high into the night To
light the sacrificial rite
The most likely interpretation is that McLean is
still talking about Altamont, and in particular Mick Jagger's prancing
and posing while it was happening. The sacrifice is Meredith Hunter, and
the bonfires around the area provide the flames. (It could be a reference
to Jimi Hendrix burning his Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival,
but that was in 1967 and this verse is set in 1968.)
I saw Satan laughing with delight
If the above is correct, then Satan would be Jagger.
The day the music died He was singing... Refrain
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news But she just
smiled and turned away
Janis died of an accidental heroin overdose on October
I went down to the sacred store Where I'd heard the
music years before
There are two interpretations of this: The "sacred
store" was Bill Graham's Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll
venues of all time. Alternatively, this refers to record stores, and their
longtime (then discontinued) practice of allowing customers to preview
records in the store. (What year did the Fillmore West close?) It could
also refer to record stores as "sacred" because this is where one goes
to get "saved". (See above lyric "Can music save your mortal soul?")
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
Perhaps he means that nobody is interested in hearing
Buddy Holly et.al.'s music? Or, as above, the discontinuation of the in-store
And in the streets the children screamed
"Flower children" being beaten by police and National
Guard troops; in particular, perhaps, the People's Park riots in Berkeley
in 1969 and 1970.
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
The trend towards psychedelic music in the 60's?
But not a word was spoken The church bells all were
It could be that the broken bells are the dead musicians:
neither can produce any more music.
And the three men I admire most The Father Son and
Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens--or--Hank Williams,
Presley and Holly-- or--JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy-- or
-- the Catholic aspects of the deity. McLean had attended several Catholic
They caught the last train for the coast
Could be a reference to wacky California religions,
or could just be a way of saying that they've left (or died -- western
culture often uses "went west" as a synonym for dying). Or, perhaps this
is a reference to the famous "God is Dead" headline in the New York Times.
David Cromwell has suggested that this is an oblique reference to a line
in Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale", but I'm not sure I buy that;
for one thing, all of McLean's musical references are to much older "roots"
rock and roll songs; and secondly, I think it's more likely that this line
shows up in both songs simply because it's a common cultural metaphor.
The day the music died This tends to support the conjecture that the "three
men" were Holly/Bopper/Valens, since this says that they left on the day
the music died.
And they were singing... Refrain (2x)
Other notes: "Killing Me Softly With His Song", Roberta
Flack's Grammy Award-winning single of 1973, was written by Charles Gimble
and Norman Fox about McLean.
The Big Bopper's real name was J.P. Richardson. He
was a DJ for a Texas radio station who had one very big novelty hit, the
very well known "Chantilly Lace".
There was a fourth person who was going to ride
the plane. There was room for three, ahd the fourth person lost the toss
-- or should I say won the toss. His name is Waylon Jennings...and to this
day he refuses to talk about the crash. (Jennings was the bass player for
Holly's band at the time.
Some people say that Holly had chartered the plane
for his band, but that Valens and/or Richardson was sick that night and
asked to take the place of the band members.)
About the "coat he borrowed from James Dean"
James Dean's red windbreaker is important throughout
the film, not just at the end. When he put it on, it meant that it was
time to face the world, time to do what he thought had to be done, and
other melodramatic but thoroughly enjoyable stuff like that. The week after
the movie came out, virtually every clothing store in the U.S. was sold
out of red windbreakers. Remember that Dean's impact was similar to Dylan's:
both were a symbol for the youth of their time, a reminder that they had
something to say and demanded to be listened to.
American Pie is supposed to be the name of the plane
that crashed, containing the three guys that died. (Reported by Ronald
van Loon from the discussion on American Pie, autumn 1991, on rec.music.folk)
Dan Stanley mentioned an interesting theory involving
all of this; roughly put, he figures that if Holly hadn't died, then we
would not have suffered through the Fabian/Pat Boone/et.al. era...and as
a consequence, we wouldn't have *needed* the Beatles -- Holly was moving
pop music away from the stereotypical boy/girl love lost/found lyrical
ideas, and was recording with unique instrumentation and techniques...things
that Beatles wouldn't try until about 1965. Perhaps Dylan would have stuck
with the rock and roll he played in high school, and the Byrds never would
have created an amalgam of Dylan songs and Beatle arrangements.
Still other notes:
Andrew Whitman brings a sense of perspective to
all of this by noting: As to what they threw off the bridge, Bobbie Gentry
once went on record with the statement that it was the mystery that made
the song, and that the mystery >would remain unsolved. Don McLean later
used the same device to even greater success with "American Pie," which
triggered a national obsession on figuring out the "real meaning" of the