DEAR JERRY: I have always been a Buddy Holly fan, especially since I was named after his hit, "Peggy Sue."
Part of Don McLean's "American Pie" seems to be a tribute of sorts to Buddy Holly, but what else is it about?
Peggy Sue Smith, Poulsbo, Wash.
DEAR PEGGY SUE: An appropriately timed question, with February 3rd being the 58th anniversary of the Day the Music Died.
Without mentioning him by name, "American Pie" makes clear references to Buddy Holly, but it is about so much more. It's a song of desires and discontentment.
In this 1971 number one hit, Don McLean is the voice of American rock and roll as it was in the 1950s, and the powerful effect it had on him.
His is the first person voice ("I"-"me"-"we") and spirit of 1950s music and culture, a conclusion based on this detailed analysis:
A long long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
I could make those people dance and maybe they'd be happy for a while
This is about music of the '50s, as Don remembers it. If he could revive it, people would surely dance and be happy.
But February made me shiver with every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside the day the music died
McLean, a newspaper carrier as a boy, recalls the news coverage of the 1959 plane crash that killed everyone on board, including Buddy Holly. Just five months before the tragedy, Holly married Maria Elena Santiago.
More than just a reference to Buddy Holly's passing, this laments the death of early rock and roll.
So bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing this will be the day that I die
More about the nifty '50s, and the good times.
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above, if the bible tells you so
Do you believe in rock and roll
Can music save your mortal soul
Then can you teach me how to dance real slow
Besides the Monotones' "Book of Love," 1950s music included many beautiful ballads, for slow dances. "Music saving your mortal soul" is probably about the darker side of the newer music.
I know that you're in love with him 'cause I saw you dancin' in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely teenage broncing buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died
School dances often took place in the gym, featuring plenty of rock and roll and rhythm and blues music. Alludes to Dion's "Lonely Teenager," and "A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)," by Marty Robbins.
Now for 10 years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone
But that's not how it used to be
The 10 years (1959-1969), when first generation rock and roll had somewhat lapsed from our consciousness, and was on its own. "Moss grows fat" suggests 1950s music seemed stagnant, and "not how it used to be."
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In a voice that came from you and me
The jester is Bob Dylan and the king is Elvis Presley. Dylan once performed for the Queen of England, wearing a leather jacket similar to one worn by James Dean. Although '60s music has taken over, it owes much to the '50s.
Oh, and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned
In the mid-'60s, while Presley was making one movie after another, Dylan became immensely popular. Then, there was "no verdict" as to whether Presley would reclaim his crown. With the '68 NBC-TV Special, and his return to live concerts, Elvis did exactly that.
While Lennon read a book on Marx, the quartet practiced in the park
And we sang dirges in the dark the day the music died
The Beatles (the "quartet") did some unpopular things, including reading a Karl Marx book. Meanwhile the spirit of the '50s still existed, even if in the dark, out of the mainstream.
Helter skelter in the summer swelter
The Byrds flew off with a fallout shelter
"Eight Miles High" and falling fast
They landed foul on the grass
"Helter Skelter" is a controversial Beatles' track. "Eight Miles High" is a drug-related hit by the Byrds. Drugs, including "grass," influenced much of the late '60s music.
The players tried for a forward pass, with the jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance
The "players" (artists of the 1950s and early '60s) tried to make a comeback, but, after a near fatal accident, the jester (Dylan) was still there. Their comeback attempt "never got the chance." "Half-time" air means in 1964 -- halfway between 1959 and 1969 -- the Beatles ("sergeants" as in Sgt. Pepper) exploded on the scene.
The players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died
First generation rock and rollers kept trying to make a comeback ("take the field") but few were successful. The marching band (British Invasion artists) refused to yield, and often occupied 25 percent of the U.S. charts.
Oh and there we were, all in one place
A generation lost in space, with no time left to start again
So come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick 'cause fire is the devil's only friend
And as I watched him on the stage, my hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell could break that Satan's spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night to light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight the day the music died
Many psychedelic music lovers were "all in one place" at the 1969 concert at Altamont, Calif. Most there were high ("lost in space"). In a huge brawl involving at least one motorcycle gang, a man was stabbed to death. The "angel born in Hell" may have been a Hell's Angel, who provided some measure of security at Altamont. Seeing this misery, Satan (Mick Jagger) would be "laughing with delight." "Jumping Jack Flash" is a Rolling Stones song (they headlined at Altamont). "No time left to start again" indicates things were totally out of control and that the innocence of the '50s would never return.
I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
The girl is Janis Joplin. When asked for some happy news, she smiles, but has no good news to give. Went looking for some live R&R, seemingly at the Fillmore West, but the "man there" (Bill Graham) was closing the Fillmore and said the music wouldn't play.
In the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
"Children screamed" refers to the '60s rioting. "The lovers cried and the poets dreamed" refers to the Viet Nam War, and the three men mentioned next:
And the three men I admired most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train to the coast
The day the music died
The three who caught the "last train" are John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Each man was a murder victim.
IZ ZAT SO? On the United Artists "American Pie" LP (UAS-5535), the complete track runs 8:30.
The 1971 "American Pie" retail single (UA-50856) contains Part I (4:11) on one side, backed with Part II (4:31).
At the same time, promotional copies of 50856 were made for radio stations. This pressing has "American Pie" (no "Side I" shown), in monaural, (4:21) on both sides, essentially providing two copies for repeated playing. This is likely the version everyone listening to AM radio heard.
Not until 1991 was there a single with the complete song (8:30) on one side of a 45. On the B-side is "Vincent" (EMI Cema 9100).