Deconstructing ‘American Pie’

Originally posted January 30, 2009

It was late January 1972, and I was killing time in the little room we used as a lounge at KVSC, the St. Cloud State radio station. In the main studio, a deejay was dutifully playing the noontime classical program and preparing for the afternoon’s offering of symphonies, sonatas and concertos; we played rock music in the evenings, but wouldn’t switch to rock fulltime until May. The other studio, however, was used to play the music we listened to in the lounge, with jocks honing their skills with the wide-ranging mix of rock and pop records that either arrived in the mail or were brought in by station staffers from their own collections.

And as I sat there, listening to the music and the idle chatter, the jock in the practice studio put on Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which was then in its third week at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. A couple of people groaned, likely because the record was already so familiar. But then, as happened every time the song was played, the speculation began as to what it was all about.

McLean’s main inspiration for the song was, of course, the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, in an Iowa plane crash during the first week of February 1959. But the lyrics of the record can also be deciphered as being a plaint of how far from the basics of rock ’n’ roll the popular music and the music business had gotten since 1959. And as we sat in the lounge and the record – already familiar but nowhere near as iconic as it would become – rolled past, we discussed the levee and the fallout shelter, the jester and his cast, the fiery devil, the last train for the coast and the girl who sang the blues.

Next week, it will be fifty years since the Beechcraft Bonanza carrying the three musicians – and pilot Roger Peterson – crashed on the Albert Juhl farm just north of Clear Lake, Iowa. What startles me when I stop to think about it is that McLean’s song was released thirty-seven years ago, meaning that the song’s creation is roughly three times more distant now than the events of 1959 were when McLean wrote about them in 1970.

Back then, as we tried to deconstruct McLean’s tightly coded history of rock ’n’ roll, we were joining in a pastime shared by, I imagine, millions. As Wikipedia notes:

“The song’s lyrics are the subject of much curiosity. Although McLean dedicated the American Pie album to Buddy Holly, none of the singers in the airplane crash are identified by name in the song itself. When asked what ‘American Pie’ meant, McLean replied, ‘It means I never have to work again.’ Later, he more seriously stated ‘You will find many “interpretations” of my lyrics but none of them by me… 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.’ McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song, except to acknowledge that he did first learn about Buddy Holly’s death while folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 4th, 1959 (referenced in the song with the line ‘with every paper I deliver’). Despite this, many fans of McLean, amongst others, have attempted an interpretation; at the time of the song’s original release in late 1971, many American AM & FM rock radio stations released printed interpretations and some devoted entire shows discussing and debating the song’s lyrics, resulting in both controversy and intense listener interest in the song.”

As to McLean never having to work again, that’s likely true. But it’s also true that he’s kept on writing, recording and performing. He’s continued to release music, with new releases and retrospectives listed through 2008 at All-Music Guide. It’s true that he’s never quite commanded the attention of the listening public the way he did in the early months of 1972, but really, who could have expected it to happen twice?

(Websites with interpretations of McLean’s lyrics are easy to find; just Google. There are, I guess, some references in the song whose meanings are generally agreed upon, such as “the jester” being a reference to Bob Dylan. But there are interpretations that one should take with a large seasoning of salt. One such example is the inference that “American Pie” refers either to McLean’s dating a Miss America candidate in 1959 or to the name of the plane that crashed. In 1959, McLean would have turned fourteen, a trifle young to have dated a beauty queen. As to the airplane’s name, a few years ago, I called the current incarnation of the Dwyer Flying Service, now based in the Twin Cities, and asked about the plane’s name. The woman I spoke to – unfortunately, I did not record her name – told me that the company had never named its planes, and the tale of the plane’s being called “American Pie” came from the imagination of one or more interpreters of the song’s lyrics.)

Despite writing about it, I won’t post “American Pie” today. Here’s a look elsewhere in that week’s chart:

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, January 29, 1972)

“Never Been To Spain” by Three Dog Night, Dunhill/ABC4299 (No. 8 )

“Don’t Say You Don’t Remember” by Beverly Bremers, Scepter 12315 (No. 33)

“Son of Shaft” by the Bar-Kays, Volt 4073 (No. 55)

“Softly Whispering I Love You” by the English Congregation, Atco 6865 (No. 61)

“Move ’Em Out” by Delaney & Bonnie, Atco 6866 (No. 70)

“Standing In For Jody” by Johnnie Taylor, Stax 0114 (No. 94)

The Three Dog Night tune isn’t necessarily one of my favorites, though it’s not bad. And I generally don’t post in these selections records that were as high in the charts as “Never Been To Spain” was during this week in 1972. (It peaked at No. 5 for two weeks in early February.) But I couldn’t help it. A little more than two years after this chart came out, during a month-long spring break spent wandering Western Europe, I spent part of an afternoon on a train just south of the French-Spanish border. Now, for whatever reason, the Spanish rail system at the time was abysmally slow. The train crawled along, taking almost three hours to cover the hundred or so miles to Barcelona, where I could have a shower and a hot meal, both of which I needed badly. And as the train crawled, I shared the small compartment with three college girls from somewhere else – I have forgotten exactly where – in the American Midwest. That would have been fine, actually delightful, had the three of them not been inspired by our crossing the border from France to sing a twenty-minute rendition of “Never Been To Spain.”

“Don’t Say You Don’t Remember” is one of those ready-made bits of romantic regret that pop up from time to time on the charts and on the radio. A sweet slice of pop, the record has a killer hook in the title phrase and some nicely done horn accents throughout. The record was still on its way up at the end of January, reaching No. 15 during the last week of February.

The Bar-Kays of “Son of Shaft” were the rebuilt group put together by original members Ben Cauley and James Alexander after four members of the group were killed in December 1967 in the Madison, Wisconsin, plane crash that also killed Otis Redding. “Son of Shaft” – which All-Music Guide calls “a good-humored goof” on Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft” – reached the Top Ten on the R&B chart, the first Bar-Kays single to do so since “Soul Finger” in 1967. On the pop chart, the single peaked at No. 53 three weeks into February.

Here’s what All-Music Guide has to say about the English Congregation and “Softly Whispering I Love You,” which peaked at No. 29 in early March:

“The English Congregation was a short-lived outfit that achieved one-hit wonder status in the United States. Formed in Britain as simply the Congregation, they amended their name in early 1972 for U.S. releases, presumably to avoid confusion with the then-popular Mike Curb Congregation. Their sole moment in the sun came in early spring 1972 with ‘Softly Whispering I Love You,’ a track written by noted songwriting team Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway (who originally recorded it in 1967 under their David and Jonathan moniker). The merging of sweeping orchestration and choir with lead singer Brian Keith’s Levi Stubbs-like declamatory vocal produced a memorable number 29 hit, but no subsequent hit singles or albums followed. Keith went on to provide studio vocals on numerous projects, none of which sold in significant amounts.”

“Move ’Em Out” might very well have been the last single released by Delaney & Bonnie. (Does anyone know?) In the autumn of 1971, “Only You Know And I Know” had reached No. 20. “Move ‘Em Out,” also pulled from the couple’s final album, D&B Together, peaked at No. 59 two weeks in February.

Johnnie Taylor’s “Standing In For Jody” is a nice piece of Stax R&B in which Taylor bemoans his status as his woman’s second man. It’s a follow-up to Taylor’s 1971 single, “Jody’s Got Your Girl And Gone,” which went to No. 26. But the character of Jody as a woman-stealer pre-dated Taylor’s hit by many years. The Urban Dictionary notes:

“In the Marines, a ‘Jody’ is a generalized term meaning: any man who stays home while everyone else goes to war. He gets to enjoy all the things the Marines are missing, more specifically the Marine’s girlfriend back at home while the Marine is away on active duty. The reason that they’re called Jody specifically dates back to black soldiers in WWII. They took a character from old blues songs named Joe the Grinder (or Joe D. Grinder) who would steal the ladies of inmates and soldiers, and clipped his name to Jody.”

In a second citation, the Urban Dictionary cites a marching cadence used in military training:

Ain’t no use in goin’ home,
Jody’s got your girl and gone.
Ain’t no use in goin’ back,
Jody’s got your Cadillac,
Ain’t no use in feeling blue,
Jody’s took your checkbook too.

(A third citation at the Urban Dictionary lays the origin of the term “Jody” on Taylor’s 1971 song, but clearly the usage predates the song by many years.)

Edited slightly on archival posting.

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