On January 15, 1972, “American Pie,”, an epic poem in musical form that has long been etched in the American popular consciousness, hits #1 on the Billboard charts.
The story of Don McLean’s magnum opus begins almost 13 years before its release, on a date with significance well-known to any American who was alive and conscious at the time. Tuesday February 3, 1959, was the date of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson—a date that would be imbued with transcendent meaning by Don McLean when he labeled it “the Day the Music Died.” One might reasonably point out that the baby-boom generation has since invested its entire rock-and-roll experience with transcendent meaning, but don’t blame Don McLean for starting the trend. “American Pie” wasn’t written to be a generation-defining epic; it was written simply to capture McLean’s view of “America as I was seeing it and how I was fantasizing it might become.”
When asked to explain what exactly he was trying to say with some of his more ambiguous lyrics, McLean has generally declined. Many others have applied themselves to the task, however, and even today the Internet bristles with exhaustively reasoned interpretations of “American Pie” and its web of lyrical references to the youth culture of the 1950s and 60s. The meaning of the Stolen Crown and Marching Band may be of interest only to the most obsessive of baby boomers, but almost all of us know the chorus of “American Pie” better than we know our own national anthem, and the chances are good that our great-grandchildren will, too. Which isn’t bad for a song that was written and recorded by a struggling folk singer who merely hoped that it would “earn two or three thousand dollars and make survival for another year possible.”