As the 1960s come to a close, we find the narrator nostalgic for the music of his youth and the simple, joyous spirit it once brought him. He then turns his attention to a seminal event—the death of some key figure in music history—that shattered his joy. It is well known by now that Buddy Holly is this individual, having died in a plane crash in February of 1959.
• • •
Though this is by far the simplest verse in American Pie, it is nonetheless a crucial one (along with verse 2), as it sets up the drama that is about to unfold. The narrator here is nostalgic for a simpler and more optimistic kind of music—a music that can make people smile, and that could help them forget their troubles—and a music that very much represents the happier optimism of the 1950s in America. He also identifies Buddy Holly by the month of his death (February) and the “widowed bride” he left behind. As the embodiment of this music, Holly’s passing had a profound effect on him: as it will become clearer in the next verse, this music and the simple innocence and optimism of it has its corollary in the psychology of America in the fifties, so that the day the music died becomes the day the innocence and optimism died—blow number one. Holly’s death was a watershed for him, and is the pivot around which the song will turn.
The Long Goodbye
A primary key to understanding American Pie can be found here in the chorus, as the theme of America’s lost innocence is most clearly stated.
• • •
So bye bye, Miss American Pie
“Miss American Pie”* is “as American as apple pie,” so the saying goes; she could also be a synthesis of this symbol and the beauty queen Miss America. Either way, her name evokes a simpler time in American life when these icons held more meaning. She is the America of a passing era, and he is bidding her farewell.
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
“Drove my Chevy to the levee” alludes to a drive “along a levee” mentioned in a series of popular 1950s Chevrolet television commercials sung by Dinah Shore:
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA,
America’s the greatest land of all
On a highway or a road along a levee…
life is completer in a Chevy
So make a date today to see the USA
And see it in your Chevrolet
and which serves as a signpost to that era—just as the Chevrolet itself is a familiar icon of 1950s America. Also, given that a drive to a levee carries the suggestion of romance in a car, we can almost see him on a date here. But the date is over, the levee is dry—someone he once loved has betrayed him; something that once gave him sustenance has evaporated.
And just for the record:
Levee \Lev”ee\, n. [F. lev[‘e]e, fr. lever to raise. An embankment to prevent inundation; as, the levees along the Mississippi; sometimes, the steep bank of a river. [U. S] Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
• • •
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.”
The bottles are raised to the good old days, as “them good old boys”* of Lubbock, Texas mourn the death of their favorite son, Buddy Holly; these figures could also symbolize a more naïve view of the world. But most significantly, “This’ll be the day that I die” is a rewording of the line ”’Cause that’ll be the day when I die” from the chorus of Holly’s hit That’ll be the Day, in which the singer fears the worst should his love leave him: for the narrator, his love has left him, and this is McLean’s way of both mourning the death of that music and way of life, and pointing to Holly as his symbol of it.
• • •
You say you’re gonna leave
You know it’s a lie
Cause that’ll be the day when I die.
*The original inspiration for the chorus of American Pie may well have come from a little known incident that is purported to have occurred in McLean’s youth: A bar called The Levee in his hometown of New Rochelle, NY had closed during McLean’s early adult years, forcing him and his drinking buddies across the river to Rye, N.Y. for refreshments. “Drove my Chevy to the Levee but the Levee was dry” would then take on a more prosaic meaning, as “them good old boys” would be drinking whiskey in Rye. I have chosen to go with a more symbolic interpretation of the chorus, but this idea seems to fit too, albeit on a much more personal level.