Don McLean – American Pie (1971) (Video) (Lyrics)
(Written February 6, 2023)
This Day in History – The Day The Music Died
The Day The Music Died (Earlier Blog Post – Documentary)
What can I say about Don McLean’s American Pie that hasn’t already been said? Not much, actually. Yet, that song is so ingrained in my love of music, my childhood, and more. It can safely be called Americana at this point – a modern American folk song in the best sense of the term.
I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard the song, but I have always loved it and could deeply visualize the lyrics. For whatever reason, I imagined the high school gym as the same high school gym where I’d watched my dad play old man basketball countless times as a preschooler – his alma mater – Arenac Eastern High School in Twining, MI. I think it has something to do with how rural the setting appears to be in the song. Sadly, Arenac Eastern High School no longer exists. The building, now a community center, still sits among acres of farm land and a tiny village. When I think of the quintessential rural American high school, Arenac Eastern immediately comes to mind. It has always felt like stepping back in time and into my family history.
Whatever the case may be, I do know that I had the lyrics practically memorized by 4th grade. Mrs. Currie, my 4th grade teacher and my first teacher at Standish Elementary, used the lyrics to teach us the terms “levee” and “dirge.” In fact, at this point, I can’t listen to the song without thinking about 4th grade and Mrs. Currie. None of the kids were getting it. She then began to sing the song, basically saying “Come on! You know the song.” Except, they didn’t. As I remember it, I was the only kid who knew the song and lyrics – at least well enough for the purposes of her vocabulary lesson. It was funny, irrelevant, and frankly, kind of summed up that school year.
Years later, as a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity, with a bit of caution and specific directions from the regular classroom teacher, to show high school Spanish students the movie La Bamba. After the movie, I had just enough time to explain the term “the day the music died” and the lyrics to American Pie. They left singing Oh Donna, moved by the true story, which completely took me by surprise. It also happened to cement it in my memory.
I’m glad that I had the opportunity to explain the lyrics to American Pie and help them make the connection. I may have known the song longer than I care to remember, but it wasn’t all that long ago that I learned that the lyrics referenced a true tragedy, much less the death of Buddy Holly, JP Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens. I suppose that is the true tragedy of American Pie: What if they had lived?
The musical legacy of Buddy Holly, of course, is staggering. Modern pop and rock music would not have evolved in quite the same way without him and the Crickets. He inspired the Beatles to write their own music, among countless others. In fact, it could be said that Buddy Holly was one of the main influences of what became known as the British invasion. JP Richardson (the Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens were just getting started. Again, what if?
If nothing else, American Pie taught me that lyrics can indeed be a form of poetry.