Nothing is more intriguing than an allegory. “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis is one of the most well-known allegories speaking to spiritual matters and of course there are many others. In the world of music a song that has been dissected and shredded is “American Pie” by Don McLean.
On July 3, 1971 which was my birthday I returned to the United States from Vietnam. After a couple of months I was transferred to the headquarters of my unit as a head clerk. It was there one afternoon that I heard the song “American Pie” on the radio. All of the workers in the office would stop to listen to it. It was an amazing song. Over time it became obvious to people that it was a lot more than simply a song about rock and roll, it was a biography of the artist, Don McLean, the time, 1959 to 1968 and the history of music and the United States.
In analyzing it is there more than one right answer? The author of the song himself says there is.
Here in part is my review of “American Pie:”
The first tip that this song is more than a rock and roll song is when he sings he is delivering papers in February and there is “bad news on the doorstep.” The “music” is rock and roll represented by Buddy Holly. He left a young “widowed bride” with child who miscarried shortly thereafter. Holly died in a tragic airplane crash on February 3, 1959.
The beginning of the song “A long, long time ago…” along with the chorus which talks about driving a Chevy to the levee is about a more innocent age which certainly 1959 was compared to 1971 when the song was released.
The song goes on to intertwine The Bible and rock and roll. It talks about dancing slow and pickup trucks. This is about an era; this is about the problem people had with rock and roll and it is the time when boys couldn’t’ dance and McLean talks about not being able to trust a girl. This is all about teenage angst of that time.
“Ten years we’ve been on our own” refers to the time covered in the song since Holly’s death in 1959. It took us through and incorporated the time period that involved Bob Dylan. Dylan is referred to as the “Jester” who sang for the king and queen. Dylan sang for the King and Queen of Great Britain and did so looking like James Dean. There is a change and the King, wearing a thorny crown has it stolen by the jester. The King is referring to the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. There are many other suggestions as I have linked to but I think you can chase your tail at a given point. There is a change of music from the initial rock and roll of Elvis Presley to the questioning times of Bob Dylan; a person who was the “voice of the people.”
John Lennon was a “mini-socialist” hence “Lennon read a book on Marx” (while) the quartet (The Beatles) practiced in the park.
I don’t want to give you every point I think the song refers to although I have given you a link to use as a reference.
As you read through the lyrics consider the 1960’s “a generation lost in space” as a result of drug use. The “marching band that would not yield” is considered to be The Beatles who would not give up top spot of music and “Satan laughing with delight” with angels (Hells Angels) where a concert was held with the Angels as body guards and several people were killed refers to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.
The “girl who sang the blues” is thought to be Janis Joplin and the “three men I admire most” perhaps John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King although there are many other considerations.
Even with this look at allegory why does American Pie remain such a mysterious and wonderful song? Perhaps it is because of the start with the death of Buddy Holly. An age of innocence went quickly into an age of sin and degradation by many people’s standards.
In 10 years a lot happened with the change of music and there were a number of deaths of great musicians like Holly, Richie Valens, Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
It was a melancholy time. Most great times are.