“Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye.” That line’s always bugged me and my buddy Lee. If you’re drinking rye, you’re already drinking whiskey. It’s like saying, “Them good old boys were eating meat and steak.” Also, “drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry”? A levee is an embankment that runs alongside a river. The river can run dry, from drought or flood, but not the embankment itself. If it were wet, not dry, that would mean the levee has broken and you need to get the hell out of there. Then there’s the whole question of calling the Christian Holy Trinity “three men,” but I’m not sure I have the theological background to address that with authority.
The above lyrics are from Don McLean’s early ‘70s hit single “American Pie.” Besides the aforementioned lines, listeners have long puzzled over the meaning of such lyrics as “While the King was looking down / The jester stole his thorny crown” and whether Lenin was Lennon and other mysteries embedded in the 8 minute and 42 second long song’s six verses. The new Paramount+ documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s “American Pie” examines the song, from its creation to its cultural impact, and was directed by Mark Moormann, who also helmed 2003’s excellent Tom Dowd & the Language of Music.
Released in October 1971, the same month McLean turned 31, “American Pie” is the big bang of Boomer nostalgia. It begins in the supposed innocence of 1950s America, as the writer pedals on his newspaper delivery bike through his teenage glory days, having his heart broken by unrequited love and the death of his rock n’ roll idols, then embarking on an impressionistic odyssey through the 1960s, witnessing the upending of the social order and the turmoil that ensues, before returning home and finding it in ruins. The message is pretty clear. The past? Fire. The present? Feh!
McLean’s primary trauma is located in the first verse, “the day the music died,” when ‘50s rock n’ rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as “The Big Bopper,” died in a plane crash on February 9, 1959 while on tour. Their deaths are woven throughout the documentary. We meet the Nicholas family, who own the corn field where the crash occurred, and Valens’ sister Connie, who emotionally recalls walking home from school when someone on the street told her, “Your brother’s dead.“
McLean explains how the sound of ‘50s rock saved his “mortal soul.” For all the song’s sentimentality, his childhood doesn’t sound idyllic. Growing up in the suburbs, he wasn’t the man his father hoped for, a situation further complicated by his early death. He became part of the 1960’s folk boom, eventually touring with Pete Seeger, who became a mentor and friend.
While working on his second album, McLean began writing an “abstract dreamlike story about America,” inspired by the folk songs he heard at Seeger’s knee, which encompassed everywhere he’d been and everything he’d seen. The documentary meticulously chronicles its creation, with McLean giving a line-by-line breakdown of the lyrics. SPOILER ALERT: he wasn’t singing about Elvis or Dylan, he was talking about Lenin and Lennon. Besides these big headlines, however, McLean reveals not everything in the song is about something specific. Rather, reality and fantasy mingle to create a work of art that offers clues for a riddle with no answer.
Upon its release, “American Pie” quickly shot to the top of the charts. With its epic arc and sing-along chorus, the song took on a life of its own, with listeners projecting their own meaning and memories onto it. For country superstar Garth Brooks, who’s covered it since he was still playing bars, it’s possibly “the greatest song in music history.” For Rob Bliss, who directed a lip-sync video of the song to show off the civic pride of Grand Rapids, Michigan, it’s, “the all-American story that we still idealize and we still want to be true.”
Getting closest to the truth, producer Ed Freeman describes “American Pie” as, “The eulogy of a dream that didn’t take place.” In a recent interview with Fox News, McLean called the 1950s a time of “wonderful civility, there was trust, doors were open.” It was also a time of unchecked white supremacy and sexism, its largesse and freedoms only accessible to part of the population. To deny this fact does no favors to us a nation and society, no matter how good the music was.
In 2022, with the rights of women and minorities under legislative assault and one of America’s two political parties actively undermining the will of the majority of American voters, I have a hard time not being contemptuous of “American Pie”’s idealized nostalgia. But Goddamn, if I didn’t just put it on and enjoy it. It’s a great song that pulls you in with its lyrics and length, and the musical accompaniment, including McLean’s vocal performance, is outstanding. The epic scope of The Day The Music Died matches its subject matter and will appeal to any music lover. If anything, the documentary enables me to enjoy the song more, revealing McLean’s roots, inspiration and lyrical intent were more complex than the jingoistic tone-poem it’s mistaken for.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.