JFK Assassination Reference in “American Pie” by Don McLean

I believe “American Pie” by Don McLean makes a reference to the JFK assassination. “American Pie” is the (early) Baby Boomer coming-of-age story, as the chronology of the song runs roughly from 1959 to 1971, the year “America Pie” was released. The song is about disillusion, and each of the song’s six verses describes a moment of despair (“the day the music died”) for that generation. Most of these moments revolve around music and its potentially redemptive powers, but the song also makes cryptic references to larger political issues of the time.

In the first verse “the day the music died” refers to the plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, all of whom were very young. The Big Bopper was 28, Buddy Holly was 22, and Ritchie Valens was only 17 when their plane went down, and Buddy Holly had been married for less than six months (“I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride”). The second verse is more personal in the sense that it does not reference any major historical or musical figure (except, perhaps, for the Monotones, who released “The Book of Love” in 1958). Still, this verse describes the universal experience of lost or perhaps unrequited love.

The rest of the verses look back on the 1960s. The third verse laments how the musical icons of that era were no longer the voices of their generation. Rock and Roll came of age expressing the youthful ideals of the 1960s, but by the end of the decade the Beatles had broken up, Bob Dylan had become reclusive and had distanced himself from the protest songs of his early years, and the Rolling Stones had become hedonistic, full-fledged rock stars (“moss grows fat on a Rolling Stone”). The fourth verse speaks to the more violent, darker side of the 1960s. “Helter skelter in the summer swelter” refers not only to the Manson Family murders, but also to the urban unrest during the “long hot summers” of the 1960s. Also, many young men went off to fight in Vietnam, as “The marching band refused to yield”. The themes of the third and fourth verses are continued in the fifth verse, which decries the violence that marred the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. The Hell’s Angels provided “security” for the concert, but they were openly antagonistic to the audience, beating back hippies with pool cues. Mick Jagger, dressed in a ridiculous devil costume, tried haplessly to restore order during the Rolling Stones’ set but he clearly had no control over the situation.

The reference to JFK is in the sixth verse: “The three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost/Caught the last train for the coast the day the music died”. On one level, of course, this is a reference to the Christian holy trinity, and the song had already asked the question “do you have faith in God above?/If the Bible tells you so”. But the image of these figures catching the “last train for the coast” is an expression of loss, and the mournful tone of the verse points to the assassinations of the leading progressive figures of the era: John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, all of whom were cut down in their prime. As in the first verse, the song emphasizes the tragedy of death at an early age: JFK was only 46, RFK was 42, and MLK was 39 when they were assassinated.

Just over a year ago I almost had the opportunity to ask Don McLean about my interpretation of “American Pie”. On Tuesday, August 14, 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau (where I work) announced that “American Pi” occurred at 2:29pm that day. What that means is that the POPClock (that is, Current Population Clock that continually updates the estimated resident population of the United States) read 314,159,265, which is the mathematical constant Pi multiplied by 100,000,000.


The Chief Demographer of the Census Bureau called it “a once in many generations event…so go out and celebrate this American pi.” And he’s right. The last time anything like this occurred was in the late 1850s just before the Civil War when the population of the United States was in the low 30 million range.

At that time I googled Don McLean and discovered that he would be performing on September 15, 2012, at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia–not too far from the Census Bureau. I contacted the Census Bureau’s Public Information Office and suggested that we invite Don McLean to come to the Census Bureau to mark the occasion somehow. They were ok with the idea but appointed me to head up the Invite-Don-McLean-to-come-to-the-Census-Bureau Committee (a committee of one, that is). I emailed him several times but the day came and went without a response. Then, oddly enough, his wife emailed me the following Monday, apologizing that she had missed my email. She told me, “I found your fax while organizing his mail” (my fax? organizing his mail? no wonder he didn’t get the message in time!)

Oh well, I probably wouldn’t have gotten much information from him anyway. Don McLean has avoided providing much in the way of concrete answers to the many queries about the song’s meaning. The Straight Dope relates a funny story of their resident musicologist having recorded Casey Kasem claiming that American Top 40 had contacted Don McLean around the time “American Pie” was on the charts. According to Casey Kasem, Don McLean overcame his reluctance to talk about the song’s deeper meanings to give AT40 the skinny on “American Pie”. But the article concludes with a letter (email?) reply from Don McLean who claimed he had never spoken to Casey Kasem or AT40.

Interesting that Don McLean’s website has a page devoted to “American Pie” that includes an interpretation of the song excerpted from the book The Don McLean Story: Killing Us Softly With His Songs by Alan Howard. I’d quote from that page but for some scary language at the bottom of the piece informing me that if I did so I’d be breaking the law. I’d be tempted to claim “fair use” and quote it anyway except that the interpretation isn’t all that profound or insightful (but then again I haven’t read the entire book). If you want to read an analysis of “American Pie”, perhaps the best place to start is “The Annotated ‘American Pie’” by Rich Kulawiec, or “Bob Dearborn’s Original Analysis of Don McLean’s Classic ‘American Pie’” which was among the first of its kind. There’s also “Understanding American Pie” or “The Ultimate American Pie Website“.

One last thought about the title of the song. Snopes refutes the rumor that “American Pie” was the name of the plane that crashed with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper aboard. So forget that one. Snopes quotes Don McLean stating that created the term–and he’s not telling what it means.

American Pie
by Don McLean

A long, long time ago
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
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died

Bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
Them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

Did you write the Book of Love
And do you have faith in God above?
If the Bible tells you so
Do you believe in Rock and Roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely, teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died


Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that’s not how it used to be
When the Jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In a voice that came from you and me
And while the King was looking down
The Jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned
And while Lennon read a book on Marx
The quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died


Helter Skelter in the summer swelter
The Birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight Miles High and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume
While the Sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
But we never got the chance
‘Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?


And, there we were, all in one place
A generation Lost in Space
With no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a Candlestick
‘Cause fire is the Devil’s only friend
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
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died


I met a girl who sang the Blues
And I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
The caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died


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