Fifty years ago, Don McLean released his immortal song “American Pie.” Fifty years on, it is one of the most iconic songs of Americana as well as being a universally recognized song of poetic and music glory. There is something about the tune, the lyrics, and the progression that captures us and moves us into a realm of its own. Additionally, McLean has been reluctant to give any explicit explanation of the song and its meaning—though we can now more readily realize the extensive allegory and allusions that carry the song forward. Nonetheless, it isn’t so much the allegory and allusions that move us as the simplicity and pathological power of the song in of itself.
Life is an epic. We all intuitively know this. Which is why we probably have a penchant for epics. There is something about the artistry of epic that moves us and stays with us as we move from birth, adolescence, adulthood, to decline and death.
We all know that “the day the music died” refers to the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.), and Ritchie Valens (The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). But the opening lyrics, solemn and somber as they are, echoes of an elderly individual reminiscing on his life. As such, the song begins as a wisdom ballad with a sage looking back on his time spent on earth and reflecting on the moments that moved his life. The song begins, then, in solemnity and sadness before, suddenly, shifting into an upbeat and energetic folk beat with that immortal brief guitar riff shifting the song from its opening to its meteoric middle. Lyrically the song is still carrying a somber meaning, but it is drowned out by the seemingly optimistic melody accompanying it.
Part of the genius of “American Pie” is how it captures the very pathos of the human condition. The lyrics are, upon close reflection, sad. The accompanying music, however, upbeat, optimistic, and with a near spirit of carefree happiness—a sort of youthful innocence when one does just want to “g[e]t up to dance”—overwhelms us and makes us hum and dance along with the tune. It simultaneously captures sorrow and happiness, suffering and ecstasy, hope and dejection. In other words, the lyrical genius of Don Mclean along with its moving melody captures the totality of the human condition. The lyrics and the melody tell a story. And stories are what make us human. Although written to capture a certain slice of American history, the story, lyrics, and melody move with a spirit of universality which has endured for fifty years and will endure another fifty years.
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