Meaning of “American Pie” Lyrics 50 Years After Hitting #1

Exactly 50 years ago on January 15th, Don McClain’s “American Pie” hit number one on the Billboard charts. Classic in every sense of the word. Song is a widely intimate and allegorical autobiography.

So what is the original meaning of the song as written by twenty-four-year-old MacLean? How do words speak to us today?

How American Pie is about the nostalgia of youthful innocence, for MacLean and America.

The song is about the nostalgia that comes with closing a chapter in time. A class that was good, young, and innocent. The song began in the late 1950s, as both McClain himself and post-WWII American sentiment were still honest and innocent, albeit very naive. As we know, naivety and innocence are always lost. For McClain, it was lost when he found out that his favorite musicians, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and Richardson J.B. “The Big Popper” died in a plane crash – the day the music died. And for America, that came when the utopia of the 1950s was revealed as veneer, giving way to the more socially conscious, but tumultuous 1960s.

And the lyrics of the songs line by line…

America’s Less Religious and McClain’s Skeptical Sixties Rock Music.

Can music save your soul? Well one can certainly hope. But with the American secularization of the 1960s, souls found less and less religious, and increasingly looked to musicians for spiritual guidance. MacLean was skeptical of such paganism. He even took to calling these up-and-coming musicians – Bob Dylan in particular – jokers, when compared to the real Elvis Presley.

After all, music is something that makes you feel and dance physically. Not something you ingest and obsess over to inform your worldview, is it?

Everything becomes political, the Beatles, Kennedy, and Helter Skelter.

Everything became more political in the 1960s. Kennedy was assassinated and a courtroom adjourned without judgment, as Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered prior to judicial proceedings. The Helter Skelter murders took place during that hot summer, which if not outright political was certainly ideological.

Music was no exception to all politicization. John Lennon was reading from Marx’s book, as the Beatles released songs evoking the revolution and even referring to the Chinese Mao.

Wasting Time on Drugs, the Death of God, and MacLean’s Catholicism.

The 1960s came and went quickly. Especially for those who wasted him on drugs, lost in their emptiness under the influence of a demonic spell. Those infernal flames soared high, while all the church bells smashed. Despite MacLean’s admiration for three men, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it was clear that God had died in the 1960s. Just like music. And like MacLean’s innocence and America.

What do the words for American Pie mean today?

One thing is for sure – MacLean was skeptical about the change. And there’s been a lot of that lately. Some good and some bad. As for the bad things we see today and where they originated, perhaps Maclean’s song leaves us with hints.

Is the spiritual obsession with musicians that McClain warned could thrive in this toxic social media culture for our celebrities and influencers now?

And at a time when politics permeates everything in culture, even more so than it was in the 1960s, what place is there for entirely apolitical, light, music to entertain the masses?

When so many secular souls talk about relentlessly wandering through life without any real purpose, is it now time to reconsider our relationship to religion?

And what if MacLean was guilty of something that is anathema to societal progress in general, which laments and romanticizes a less equitable time?

heavy stuff. But these are just some of the questions the culture will need to address in 2022. In fact, they are just recent iterations of the same questions McClain was asking fifty years ago. If we look closely enough, perhaps the answers to these new questions can be found in those old words.

Central Press Photo/Getty Images


Leave a Comment