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The true meaning of American Pie

April 14, 2015

I read a few days ago that the original manuscript of Don McLean’s song America Pie was auctioned for $1.2 million dollars. Apparently the manuscript contains clues to the song’s real meaning. McLean himself has always been coy about what it actually means, famously quipping that “it means I’ll never have to work again”.

I’m going to make the bold claim that the song’s true meaning will never be discovered because it doesn’t have one. It’s just a string of images, some evocative, some not, containing some fairly random cultural references which sounded hip in 1971, and it rhymes quite cleverly, and it has a melancholy feel, and it sounds really good when sung by Don McLean. That’s it. Analysis of some of the phrases reveals that they are next-door to gibberish. For example, Can music save your mortal soul? But the point about souls is that, unlike bodies, they are supposed to be immortal. I don’t know what a mortal soul would be. Moss grows fat on a rolling stone. Isn’t the reverse supposed to be true? As for those fatuous lines The three men I admire the most, the Father Son and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train to the coast…

Come on. It doesn’t make sense. It’s nonsense. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of songs around at that time were nonsense. Look at I am the Walrus… But no, I don’t mean that. Don’t look at it. Songs like this aren’t supposed to be looked at. They’re supposed to be listened to. Or sung along with. That’s the best way to enjoy the nonsense.

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One Comment
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Exactly so. T S Eliot was once asked to explain the ‘meaning’ of the phrase ‘Three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’, to which he replied ‘it means, ‘Three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’.

    I remember the bombshell of hearing American Pie when I was 10, and its power, both musically and narratively, has stayed with me ever since.

    Just because a word, or a phrase, does not have comprehensible meaning in the everyday sense does not, of course, prevent it from forming an image which can have profound resonance in the unconscious or evoking a feeling which the listener experiences as deeply truthful, precisely as a piece of music or a surreal picture can have the same effect.

    One of the many things I love about the song is not just the mysterious quality of the individual images, but the way in which, disjunct as they are, they seem to hang together with their own logic.

    And further, the sheer length of the song at a time when two and a half minute singles were the norm, has its own eloquence and audacity.

    I would not lose a word of the song or a second of the music and was appalled – as I still am – when Madonna had the temerity to record a cut – down version. As you may readily appreciate, I simply refuse to have that version in the house.

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