What Do the Lyrics to "American Pie" Mean?

Interpreting the Most Famous Chorus in Rock 'n' Roll

Don McLean
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A true classic in rock 'n' roll music, Don McLean's "American Pie" song is one of the best-known songs in America. The song was released in 1971 and it includes some rather cryptic lyrics that have been interpreted in many different ways.

One thing's for sure, the chorus of this tune is one that many of us have memorized word-for-word. You may not be able to keep up with the verses of the song, but you know right when it's time to sing "So bye, bye, Miss American Pie."

McLean is a brilliant songwriter and the way that he played with words while writing such a catchy, instantly memorable song is a true feat of creativity. What does it all mean, though? We're going to tear the chorus apart line by line and find out (or try to, at least).

So bye, bye, Miss American Pie

Contrary to popular legend, "American Pie" was not the name of the plane that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson went down in on February 3, 1959, in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was a single-engine chartered plane and would therefore only have a number as identification. In this case, it was N3794N.

In McClean's own words: "The growing urban legend that "American Pie" was the name of Buddy Holly's plane the night it crashed, killing him, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, is untrue. I created the term."

Nonetheless, the site of the crash is marked by a roadside memorial to this day and it's a popular stop for fans.

Every February at the Surf Ballroom where they played their last songs, you can catch one of the biggest tribute concerts of the year.

The other popular myth surrounding the phrase is that the singer dated a Miss American contestant. This would have been an impressive feat indeed at the age of thirteen!

In any event, this urban legend fails to explain why McLean would use such a relationship to describe the tragedy.

Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry

Most students of the song see these lines as merely another metaphor for the death of the American dream. A Chevy was a very popular car among youth. The levee, for towns that had them, was a popular gathering place for teens who wanted to hang out without adult supervision.

And them good old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
Singin' "This'll be the day that I die."
"This'll be the day that I die."

This is clearly a play on the phrase "That'll be the day that I die," made popular by Buddy Holly's hit recording "That'll Be The Day." There's no evidence that "them good old boys"—Holly and Richardson were both born in Texas, which may have prompted the phrase—were drinking whiskey or rye the night of the crash.

An alternate theory holds that, since rye is a kind of whiskey, McLean is actually singing "drinking whiskey in rye." Ths singer's home was New Rochelle, which did indeed feature a bar called "The Levee." Allegedly, this bar shut down or "went dry," causing patrons to drive across the river to Rye, New York.