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American Pie

Song: American Pie

Songwriter: Don McLean

Singer: Don McLean

A long, long time ago...

You just know you're in for a cracking story. Don McLean's epic ballad of the American Dream turning sour has been dissected more than most by listener's eagerly trying to figure it all out.

But, of course, American Pie is a lot more than popular music's answer to Ulysses – for one thing, it's one of the ultimate sing-along party pieces. McLean knew what he was doing, and used one of the oldest tricks in the book of traditional songwriting: keep your audience's attention by alternating storytelling verses they can listen to, with a catchy chorus that everyone can join in with. It works for Whiskey In The Jar and The Wild Rover, and it works for American Pie.

McLean emphasises this point by repeatedly introducing the chorus with such phrases as

We started singing...

And he was singing...

In case you weren't paying attention, that's your cue. He might as well have said “All together now...”

Also worth mentioning is the way McLean frames his song with a slower rubato tempo in the first and last verses. This helps break the monotony of such a long song (especially since it has a repetitive verse-chorus structure), and the slower final verse acts as a marker that he's about to wrap things up with that last boozy-sounding chorus. It's a simple enough device, but not one that you hear much these days, where the click-track is king (and songs may even be written to a click-track, perish the thought).

Consider also how McLean alters the vocal melody verse by verse, to better reflect the lyrics, and to keep the momentum going.

As for what it all means, my reading is that it's a potted history of popular music, from the death of Buddy Holly (“The day the music died”), through Dylan (“the jester”), the Beatles (“the sergeant's”, “the quartet”) to the diabolical Rolling Stones (“Jack Flash”).

But I always preferred Don McLean's own answer when asked what American Pie meant: “It means I never have to work again.”


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