Unraveling the Secrets of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’

A new documentary explores the meaning of the catchy, enigmatic tune

Don McLean
Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie” is the subject of a new documentary. Photo by Andrew Benge / Redferns via Getty Images

On February 3, 1959, a single-engine plane crashed in a corn field near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing music stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson. News of the fatal crash hit Don McLean especially hard—so much so that, years later, it inspired him to write and record the 1971 hit “American Pie.”

But for McLean, “the day the music died” was simply a jumping-off point for a song that captured the broader, tumultuous moment in America. Amid civil rights marches, assassinations and anti-war protests, McLean penned a “eulogy for the American dream,” as Mark Kennedy writes for the Associated Press (AP).

Now, a new documentary unravels the secrets behind “American Pie,” the popular, eight-and-a-half-minute song that the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts named one of the top five “Songs of the Century.”

The Day The Music Died: American Pie | Official Trailer | Paramount+

Though fans and journalists have long tried to make sense of every word, McLean has mostly remained silent about the true meaning of the song or specific lyrics—until now. The Day the Music Died, now streaming on Paramount+, offers a line-by-line breakdown of the song’s lyrics, which are packed with cultural references and phrases that are open to interpretation, while also exploring the broader cultural significance of the catchy, mysterious tune.

The 90-minute film includes archival news clips, interviews with musicians like Garth Brooks and Brian Wilson, dramatizations by actors and footage of McLean visiting the last place Holly, Valens and Richardson played before the crash.

It also offers a behind-the-scenes look at the at-times strained process of rehearsing and recording the song, which radio stations were initially reluctant to play because it was so long.

“I told Don, ‘It’s time for you to reveal what 50 years of journalists have wanted to know,’” says Spencer Proffer, the documentary’s producer, to the Guardian’s Jim Farber. “This film was a concerted effort to raise the curtain.”

When the 1959 crash took the lives of some of his favorite musicians, McLean was 13 years old.

“I was in absolute shock,” he says in the film. “I may have actually cried. You can’t intellectualize it. It hurt me.”

As a teen, McLean delivered newspapers; he also suffered from bronchial asthma, which often kept him home from school and made him “a lonely teenage broncin’ buck,” per the song’s lyrics.

A few years after the plane crash, McLean suffered another loss when his father died. The burgeoning singer-songwriter carried on with his professional music aspirations, eventually channeling his pain and grief from both events into “American Pie” while working on his second album.

But the song goes far beyond those two moments, using “the day the music died” as a metaphor for “the loss of American innocence,” as Matthew Leimkuehler wrote for the Des Moines Register in 2019. As McLean reveals in the documentary, his mention of the “marching band” actually refers to the military-industrial complex, while “sweet perfume” was his euphemism for tear gas.

“It’s about America,” McLean told the Des Moines Register. “Buddy Holly’s death is what I used to try to write the biggest possible song I could write about America. And not a ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or ‘America, the Beautiful’ or something like that. I wanted to write a song that was completely brand new in its perspective.”

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