The True Story Behind Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’
via Don McLean/YouTube
It Referenced Rockstars
Don McLean’s most popular composition, the album version of American Pie clocks in at almost nine minutes – making it the longest song to enter and top the US Billboard Hot 100 at the time of its release.
There have been several claims as to where he wrote it – staff at Caffè Lena in upstate Saratoga Springs, New York said he began working on the lyrics there while a bar on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs called Tin & Lint even marked the table where McLean reportedly wrote the song with a plaque.
The key feature of the track is the phrase “the day the music died” repeatedly sung all throughout. It’s perhaps one of the most popular lines in music and it refers to Buddy Holly’s death on February 3, 1959 after his plane crashed – the rock legend was killed along with Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. At the time of the accident, McLean was just 13 years old working as a paperboy.
McLean spoke about his admiration of Buddy Holly to SongFacts. He said, “I loved his music. When that whole crash happened, it was a real ache in my heart. So, I ended up bringing back all those memories of 1959 and the things that happened later.”
Speaking on the UK show Songbook, McLean further explained, “For some reason I wanted to write a big song about America and about politics, but I wanted to do it in a different wayAs I was fiddling around, I started singing this thing about the Buddy Holly crash, the thing that came out (singing), ‘Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.’… Buddy Holly’s death to me was a personal tragedy. As a child, I had no idea that nobody else felt that way much. I mean, I went to school and mentioned it and they said, ‘So what?’ So I carried this yearning and longing, if you will, this weird sadness that would overtake me when I would look at this album, The Buddy Holly Story, because that was my last Buddy record before he passed away.”
Aside from Holly, the lyrics also referenced Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and even the Altamont Free Concert.
The success of American Pie propelled McLean to global stardom. His original manuscript sold for $1.2 million at an auction in 2015.