Come the 4th of July, you can always expect to hear Neil Diamond’s “Coming To America” or Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA” accompanying your local fireworks display. But for many, the ultimate contemporary “American” song is Don McLean’s epic exploration of American culture in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, “American Pie.” It’s been covered by Madonna, embraced by Glenn Beck, parodied by Weird Al, and endlessly analyzed by millions of intrigued listeners trying to figure out just what McLean meant with his barrage of societal and spiritual allusions. Here are 20 facts (or, in a few cases, informed speculations) you might not know about the classic:
1. It’s still the longest song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100, at a whopping eight minutes and 36 seconds. The 45rpm single had to be split into two parts, naturally, and some DJs only played one side or the other, although most acquiesced and played the uninterrupted album version, due to the song’s phenomenal popularity. It includes no fewer than six verses. Subsequent cover versions tended to leave out multiple stanzas.
2. In a survey of the greatest Songs Of The Century, “American Pie” came in at number five. The end-of-the-millennium list was jointly sponsored by the National Endowment For The Arts and the RIAA in 2001. “Pie” was beat out in the list of 20th century classics only by “Over The Rainbow,” “White Christmas,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Respect.”
3. McLean has steadfastly refused to discuss the meaning of most of the lyrics. “As you can imagine, over the years I’ve been asked many times to discuss and explain my song ‘American Pie,'” McLean wrote in an open letter to fans in 1993. “I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the [Buddy] Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of bringing about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur… You will find many ‘interpretations’ of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn’t this fun? Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”
4. The first major cover version was by…the Brady Bunch, in a recording that is a staple of Worst Covers Of All Time lists. A scant year after McLean’s song hit the big time, TV’s favorite non-nuclear family recorded it for their first album, 1972’s Meet The Brady Bunch. They also did super-saccharine versions of soft-rock smashes like “Me & You & A Dog Named Boo” and “Baby “I’m-A Want You,” but history has reserved special scorn for their particularly point-missing rendition of McLean’s meaningful tune. As Barry Williams wrote in his autobiography, Growing Up Brady, “Worst of all though, was our extraordinarily awful rendition of ‘American Pie.’ Ouch!”
5. Madonna’s version is an even more loathed staple of Worst Covers Of All Time lists. Last year, Rolling Stone named Madonna’s travesty the third worst cover ever. (It was beaten only by Limp Bizkit’s “Behind Blue Eyes” and Miley Cyrus’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) The line “I knew that I could make those people dance” seemed to be Madonna’s only real connection to the tune, half of which got chopped out in her chirpy, under-five-minute version. Although it hit number one on the dance charts, Madonna seemed to ultimately disavow it herself, saying, “It was something a certain record company executive twisted my arm into doing.”
6. The song was revived for a 2002 Chevrolet ad. The popular TV commercial included the “Drove my Chevy to the levee” line, naturally…but, also naturally, dropped the “this’ll be the day that I die” part.
7. Glenn Beck embraced it as a conservative anthem. The talk-radio host spent a good amount of time exegeting the lyrics—controversially—on his show in February of this year. Most McLean buffs would say Beck got most of the cryptic allusions to ’60s counterculture events right, whether or not he took away the “right” message. “Don McLean was not just writing about…the demise of an era,” Beck told his listeners. “The erosion of your culture. The erosion of our values. Altamont was the final blow to bring about the day the music died…The good news is, is that there was at least somebody that was in this culture at that time that was mourning the loss of America then, [although] we didn’t lose America then. We’re still going.”
8. McLean’s original tune revived interest in Holly and ultimately led to the hit biopicThe Buddy Holly Story. McLean said, “If you talk to Maria Elena” [the “widowed bride” mentioned in the lyrics], “[she] will tell you that Buddy got more publicity after I wrote my song than he’d ever gotten in his life…I know it sounds self-serving, but if you check it out, you will find that out, and that started the whole thing going.” Indeed, writer John Goldrosen has said that he was finally able to get his Holly biography published because of the interest created by “American Pie”—and it was that book that was adapted into The Buddy Holly Story, the 1978 film that made Gary Busey a star.
9. But McLean also expressed disappointment that the Holly references were all some people got out of the tune. “The fact that Buddy Holly seems to be the primary thing that people talk about when they talk about ‘American Pie’ is kind of sad. But fine with me,” he said in a radio interview. “Because only the beginning is about Buddy Holly, and the rest of it goes on and talks about America and politics and the country, and trying to catch some kind of a special feeling that I had about my country, especially in 1970 and ’71, when it was very turbulent.”
10. Among the uncredited singers on the final background chorus: James Taylor, Carly Simon, Pete Seeger, and Livingston Taylor. “It was quite a star-studded cast, and one that I really should have photographed,” said producer Ed Freeman. On the album sleeve, this all-star chorale was billed simply as the West Forty Fourth Street Rhythm and Noise Choir.
11. McLean really was a paperboy, among other autobiographical references in the song. McLean had a paper route as a boy of 12, but it’s not clear if he still had that job on February 3, 1959 when Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens went down in a plane crash. Nonetheless, the first verse, which has McLean learning about the incident while delivering papers, establishes a strong personal bond. “Buddy Holly’s death to me was a personal tragedy,” McLean said. As a child…I had no idea that nobody else felt that way much. I mean, I went to school and mentioned it and they said, ‘So what?’ So I carried this yearning and longing, if you will, this weird sadness…”
12. The “jester” in the lyrics? Undoubtedly, Bob Dylan. “Moss grows fat on a rolling stone,” McLean sings. In one sense, he’s paraphrasing a line of Buddy Holly’s from the song “Early In The Morning,” which goes: “Well, you know a rolling stone don’t gather no moss.” But he’s also rhyming it with the “on your own” line from “Like A Rolling Stone,” which brings it into Dylan territory—and he may be alluding to the time-out Dylan took in the late ’60s after his motorcycle accident. Even more explicitly, later in the song, he has “the jester on the sidelines in a cast.” McLean also has the jester appearing “in a coat he borrowed from James Dean”—a reference to the cover photo of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, for which Dylan wanted to recreate a famous Dean pose. “And while the king was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown” would seem to refer to Dylan supplanting Elvis Presley as messiah to the masses.
13. To borrow a line from Church Lady: Could Mick Jagger be…SATAN? The Satanic verse of McLean’s tune is more open to interpretation. The third and fourth verses of the song reference Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, and police tear-gassing protesters during the Chicago. But the best interpretation of the devilish fifth verse is that it’s about the Rolling Stones and Altamont, which many consider to be another “day the music died,” at least when it comes to counterculture idealism. “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” probably refers to the Stones playing at Candlestick Park, while “the sacrificial rite” that has “Satan laughing with delight” is more likely Altamont—especially taking into account the “no angel born in hell” line that seemingly references the murder committed by a Hell’s Angel at that show.
14. The holy trinity: JFK, RFK, and MLK? After McLean makes a reference to Janis Joplin “smiling and turning away” in the last verse, he closes with the epic tune’s most mysterious allusion, to a holy trinity. When he sings “the three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast,” some have speculated he was referring to the diminishing of religious relief in an era that produced Time magazine’s famous “Is God Dead?” cover—which would be a neat bookend to an earlier reference to the innocent children’s gospel hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.” But since he just got done referencing Joplin’s death, it might make more sense to imagine he’s referring to the trio of beloved American figures assassinated in the ’60s: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Given McLean’s secrecy, maybe only he and Jesus know for sure.
15. The line “For 10 years we’ve been on our own” may refer to something more personal for McLean. The song deals mostly with political and musical changes between 1959 and 1971. But what happened a decade prior to recording the tune, specifically, that would have had such meaning for McLean to mark its 10th anniversary? Possibly, the 1961 death of his father.
16. Some have said the song starts in mono and gradually becomes stereo, but that may be a myth. It’s often popularly claimed that the original vinyl mix of “Pie” utilizes a slow mono-to-stereo transition, a musical reference to the song’s themes of moving from the ’50s to the ’60s. But Tom Frye, who engineered the 1971 sessions at New York’s Record Plant, has discredited that. “Ed [the producer] originally wanted ‘American Pie’ to start in mono and then go to stereo, but that wasn’t really doable with the board we had, so I talked him out of it,” Frye told Performing Musician magazine.
17. McLean’s vocal is a combination of 24 different takes. Because of all the re-dos, things got testy in the studio. “We had quite a tempestuous relationship,” admitted producer Ed Freeman. “I wasn’t an easy person to work with, Don wasn’t an easy person to work with, so working with the two of us together must have been like watching two wasps go at each other…I took a very heavy hand with him and frankly I don’t think my people skills back then were particularly good. It was disturbing to his ego, and I completely understand that because I would have felt the same in his situation…Don’s vocal was put together from 24 different tracks that we had to bounce together.”
All the session work took place on May 26, 1971. The backing band’s track was live and unedited, except for the piano intro. The vocal? Another thing. “He is an excellent, very, very talented singer, but someone had apparently made fun of him because he sang things with the exact same vocal inflections every time,” said Freeman. “So he decided to be more improvisational, and my estimation was that his improvisations just didn’t work and were muddling up the song. In my head, I knew what it was supposed to sound like—I don’t now remember how I arrived at that, but when I kept asking him to sing it in a certain way, he wouldn’t do it. He wanted to play with it every time, inserting slides, melismas and other things that, to my mind, didn’t fit. So we ended up recording him 24 times on 16-track tape and took different parts from different takes until I got every word the way I wanted it, without all the play, and I don’t think Don appreciated that very much…In Don’s case, I think he was happy with the finished vocal, but he was not happy with somebody else having that much influence.”
18. “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied the song in 1999 as “The Saga Begins,” with Star Wars-inspired lyrics. At the time of The Phantom Menace, Yankovic came up with a more singular set of cultural references. Sample lyric: “We escaped from that gas/Then met Jar Jar and Boss Nass/We took a bongo from the scene/And we went to Theed to see the Queen/We all wound up on Tatooine…” Perhaps needless to say, this is the wordiest Weird Al song ever.
20. Yes, McLean did get money for licensing the title for the American Pie movies.Though the sexploitation comedies couldn’t have less to do with his seriously intentioned song, McLean does own “American Pie” as a registered trademark, as his website is one to remind people.
Bonus fact: The song has been covered by numerous stars in concert, from Tori Amos to Pearl Jam. But the most unexpected interpreter might be the Jonas Brothers, led by ’70s buff Nick…with Brad Paisley on lead guitar.