The Tragic Story Behind Don McLean's American Pie

Don McLean's "American Pie" is one of the most well-known songs in the United States. It's transported many of us back in time whether we were actually alive then or not. The Recording Industry Association of America puts the song at number 5 on their list of "songs of the century." Most people know the chorus at least, but we don't expect you to know every lyric of the song since it's an epic that runs over eight minutes long. Plus, the lyrics are cryptic and difficult to understand. People have spent decades trying to figure out exactly what they mean, but have fallen short ... maybe.

No one knows for sure if their lyrical theories are right or wrong, since McLean likes to respond to questions about the song's meaning with statements like, "It means I never have to work again." That part, at least, is true. The song has made the artist millions. He has other songs as well, but none of them have near the acclaim or listenership as his mysterious "American Pie." Only recently, as the original hand-written lyrics for the song went up for auction, did the world learn anything about the meaning behind the song. It's a sad story that definitely doesn't mean what you think.

Popular theories about the lyrics that might be wrong

Since McLean has never actually told people the meaning of the lyrics to "American Pie," fans have had to spend the last half-century trying to figure it out on their own. One of these theories that gets shot down by a little thing we call "history" says that "American Pie" was the name of Buddy Holly's plane that went down, but the plane was actually called a Beechcraft Bonanza, according to History. Another theory associates the lyrics with Holly's death. (We'll get to that one in a bit.)

"When the jester sang for the king and queen, in a coat he borrowed from James Dean" is another line that falls into this way of thinking. The "jester" is usually attributed to Bob Dylan stealing the fame that belonged to Elvis, but according to The Guardian, McLean hasn't said who this jester was meant to be. As BBC points out, James Dean's jacket is clearly on the album cover for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, so the evidence does point toward Dylan, but they also theorize that the "king and queen" could very well be referring to the folk musicians Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, who came before Dylan. Basically, the point here is we don't know much about the song, but McLean has shed a little light on these mysterious lyrics for the first in what seems like ever.

The tragic influence behind American Pie

"American Pie" is widely accepted as a critique of the '60s and how American culture would never be the same. Of course, it also references the '50s as some sort of magically innocent time period in history. That analysis may be at least partially correct, but after Don McLean opened up (a bit) about the secret influence behind the song's lyrics for the first time in a recent interview with The Guardian, we know that a lot of song carries a more personal meaning.

The interviewer asked McLean about the opening of the song, wondering if it was actually meant to refer to Buddy Holly's tragic death in 1959, as most people have accepted as truth, even though McLean has never said that's what it meant. The singer-songwriter then revealed that it had to do with another tragedy: his father's death. "That's why I don't like talking about the lyrics because I wanted to capture and say something that was almost unspeakable. It's indescribable," McLean said. "'American Pie' is a biographical song."

McLean's father died in front of him in 1961, according to Daily Mail. The experience was traumatizing to the young musician, who says he "cried for two years." It was probably all the more difficult for McLean since he allegedly had a premonition of his father's death days before the accident. "The day the music died" could very well refer to McLean's hopes dying along with his father. Heavy, right?