The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Photo credit: Far Out Magazine.

“Music and rhythm find their way to the secret places of a man’s soul.” – Plato

“Just let me hear some of that Rock ‘n’ Roll music, any old way you use it.  Its got a back beat you can’t lose it, any old time you choose it. Gotta be Rock ‘n” Roll music if you wanna dance with me.” – Chuck Berry

“Drums and rhythm got a hold on me too, I got the rockin pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu.” – Huey “Piano” Smith

“Just take those old records off the shelf, I’ll sit and listen to ‘em by myself. Today’s music a’int got the same soul, I like that old time Rock ‘n’ Roll – Bob Seger

            What follows is, of course, just one person’s opinion. Don McLean’s “American Pie” is a brilliant, beautiful, even poetic lyric and a riveting way to demarcatea period of American cultural history. But what do those lyrics mean? Aside from the clear and direct referencing to the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, their meaning has been debated (often hotly!) and argued about.  McLean himself has been incredible tight-lipped about their meaning. For a long time when he was asked what they meant, he would simply say they mean I never have to work again. When his original manuscript was to be auctioned in 2015, he said he would comment more fully but all he said was that I thought American society was changing and not for the better. American society? Well….  But what about the cryptic “the day the music died?”

Don McLean “American Pie” lyrics

            I’m a few years older than McLean so I was there then. I was also a musician – a drummer.  In fact, on the night of Holly’s plane crash I was playing Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” behind /with my good friend Bob Bowles – a guitarist. I actually thought about playing drums for a living. But a prof once asked me if I liked to eat regularly and sleep inside? Before I could answer he said if you do then forget those drums and go to grad school. So I did. My friend Bowles on the other hand, graduated high school, put our hometown in his rearview mirror and headed to Detroit, became Robert “Boogie” Bowles and the most important session guitarist in Motown history. (Look it up.) Anyway, by early 59, we (my friends and I) already had serious misgivings about what was happening to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Robert Boogie Bowles

My contention here is that Rock ‘n’ Roll is a very specific kind of music. The term quickly became general and kind of synonymous with “popular” or “Rock.” Big Joe turner said that “Rhythm and Blues” had a baby and they called it Rock ‘n’ Roll. Originally the term had nothing to do with music. It was a descriptive term for amorous activity. (“my baby rocks me with a steady roll.”) In early R’N’R the sexual context was paramount, sometimes coded but still paramount. Even my old man realized that Hank Ballard’s “twist” was not about dancing. And this music was driven and powered by what came to be called backbeat – used most prominently by  R’N’R greatest drummer – Earl Palmer.

            So what happened? In retrospect, some of the changes were inevitable. The Payola scandals, big corporations buying out, pushing out small independent labels, legal problems, contractual difficulties, military service, car accidents, stupid moral and ethical decisions (Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13 year old cousin!), musicians trying to record for multiple companies. The music did not really die, it just seemed as if it did – and some like me, Chuck Willis and Don McLean refused to hang up their Rock ‘n’ Roll shoes!

American Pie lyrics, by Don McLean.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nice going, Page; great personal tie-in. Over the years McLean has left a number of “bread-crumb” hints as to the song’s lyrics & meaning, but only hints (though they do seem to make sense). The one item that stands out to me is that McLean REALLY disliked 1960s “hippie rock” and Mick Jagger-at-Altamont in particular.

  2. When I was 8 “American Pie” was among my favorite songs (also including “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Robert Janet and “Rockin’ Robin” by the Jackson 5). I liked it especially because you had to turn the 45 over to hear the whole song. The music critic Robert Christgau makes a distinction between “rock and roll”–the rhythm and blues-based music from the 1950s–and “rock,” the white dominated music of bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who etc. (and then extended into what I call the “Dark Days” of bands like Styx, Kansas, Rush and the like). Then rock went to war with Disco in the 1970s, because disco had reaffirmed the primacy of black people in its creation. As a kid I didn’t know what it meant (The Jester stole his thorny crown?) but I did know about the plane crash–I took it as a general statement of anger and loss (levee’s dry. Father-Son-Holy Ghost leaving for the Coast). I still have the 45…times change, of course, and I lack a turntable on which to play it..and now teachers look for other ways to eat regularly. Now if you can tell me what the hell is going on in “Desolation Row” I’d appreciate it.
    Thank you for the remarks, Professor Page.

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