There’s stuff in that song which I think too many people overlook when they listen to it. Here’s my interpretation of it:
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
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while.
Here he’s talking about the old Rock-n-Roll, with its ethos and the context it came from. Obviously it’s Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper, but I’m sure it’s also a reference to the times.
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.
Here it’s talking about the plane that crashed. There’s also the context of what else was going on, as Elvis Presley was drafted and well on his way to irrelevance (a trip which would last until the late sixties), Jerry Lee Lewis had been knocked down for the count for marrying an exceedingly young cousin, Little Richard went into gospel and the pop world was quickly falling back under the control of the Brill Building writers. The widowed bride is obviously a reference to Miss Holley, but it could also refer to what could have been had the old fifties Rock-n-Roll scene hadn’t been dismantled/destroyed the way it was.
Chorus: So bye-bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
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.”
The Chorus. Basically he went from some of the good stuff (water, as the levee is by the river) but there was nothing there (the levee was dry, so is the river) but there’s people out there getting drunk and debauched by poisonous substitutes (good old boys were drinkin’ Whiskey and Rye). Note this, as the chorus will slowly become more and more true).
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 ‘n roll,
Can music save your mortal soul,
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
A conflict is set up in the second verse (or first verse, if you assume the quiet first part is the introduction): The old way of life, or the newfangled stuff. God or Music? Control and fulfillment, or Freedom and moments of ecstasy?
Well, 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.
And the Rock-n-Roll side is winning! With the singer’s POV watching. Note that he recognizes the allure of “the new…”
I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck,
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.
…and he knows that he’s lost her. And that the music is about to change, and not necessarily for the better. Especially since he’s already got some of the accouterments that would normally lead to success (the pickup truck), and that’s already failing him.
I started singin’,
And with this iteration of the chorus, we get the idea that maybe people would rather drink the Whiskey and Rye instead of the water. After all, it gets you buzzed and changes your views of reality in ways that aren’t exactly unwanted by many.
Now for ten years we’ve been on our own
And moss grows fat on a Rollin’ Stone,
But that’s not how it used to be.
Now the lyric singer’s looking back from the present. When people no longer dance to their music, but sit and listen quietly. And the various supports that the kids depended on to grow up no longer were there, or there strong enough to be of use.
When the jester sang for the king and queen,
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me,
Bob Dylan. Singing in England, in the folk idiom. Which he was already growing tired of. Obviously on the same side as the singer of the lyrics at this moment.
Oh, and while the king was looking down,
The jester stole his thorny crown.
The courtroom was adjourned;
No verdict was returned.
Dylan went electric. Turncoated his fans, all who kept showing up and wanting him to return to the way things were (listen to the “Royal Albert Hall Concert,”). And, as it turned out, Dylan would himself end up suffering for embracing the Rock-n-Roll sound (more on that later).
And while Lennon read a book of Marx,
The quartet practiced in the park,
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day the music died.
Now, the British invasion. Bands from England who had embraced the Rock-n-Roll Ethos were coming over and selling out stadiums, while the folkies played in smaller and smaller venues and being forgotten for the most part.
We were singing,
More like “We were mourning and talking about things gone wrong, but no one was listening to us but instead embracing the newfound decay.” Chevys were beginning to be replaced by VWs, the first in what would be a long line of foreign-built items to replace American built items (although THAT wouldn’t become a concern outside of the cities that built the automobiles UNTIL NAFTA and the Chinese trade agreements of the Clinton Nineties).
Helter Skelter in a summer swelter.
The birds flew off from a fallout shelter,
Eight miles high and falling fast.
It landed foul on the grass.
The players tried for a forward pass,
With the jester on the sidelines in a cast.
And now zooming through the years. Helter Skelter probably refers to the Civil Rights marches and activities in the early and mid-sixties, which would degenerate into the Riots in the late sixties. Birds, fallout shelter and Eight Miles High refer to the group The Birds, with the “It landed foul on the grass” referring to their lack of hits after “Eight Miles High.”
“The Players” refers to the advancing state of recording, as suddenly bands were able to records songs over a period of time (instead of right there) and trying out different ways and things. Four tracks meant there was no need for people to be all together; one could record (and record over) what was done by specific members as it could all be done separately. Bypass the erase mechanism, and one could pile sound on sound, making something fuller than before.
And as for the Jester? Dylan’s motorbike’s breaks lock up at an inopportune time. He’s out for the count (which is satisfying from the lyricist’s POV).
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While the sergeants played a marching tune.
We all got up to dance, Oh, but we never got the chance!
`cause the players tried to take the field;
The marching band refused to yield.
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died?
Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and what came out of the speakers could almost not be called Rock-n-Roll anymore. Indeed, it was at this point that the term “Rock” was created. Think of it: Forty minutes of sounds that were meant to be listened in one setting. You couldn’t dance to it; you had to sit and read the lyric sheet (and get high). And so the death of music meant the death of songs to dance to.
It also works as a reference to the Vietnam War and the fight against it; and since it was generally the working class peoples who fought against the Vietnam war (it was their kids who were being sacrificed to it), one can see the Marching Band as the sound of the Press singing the praises of the war and the players as those who were FIGHTING the war.
Parallel explanations. Both of which can be true.
We started singing,
People are now doubting the government and all forms of authority. Even School was being doubted – the home schooling movement starts here! As does the Tea Party movement and Howard Jarvis inspired Tax Revolt, Reagan’s “The Government Is The Problem,” the distrust of the Catholic Church (not necessarily undeserved, just starting here), Disco, Divorce and many of the ills that now plague us.
Oh, and there we were all in one place,
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again.
Welcome to Altamont. This whole verse happens at that venue, during the infamous concert. And the drugs are beginning to have their effect, as the high of pot and insights of LSD were becoming a spaced-out zombification of the crowd.
So come on: Jack be nimble, Jack be quick!
Jack flash sat on a candlestick
Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.
And Mick Jagger is about to burn out the remaining light of the sixties.
Oh, 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.
The author’s feeling his impotence here. Everything he had fought against was about to become transcendent! (although the writer seems to have misread what was going on, as Jagger was feeling rather IMPOTENT at that moment. Everything was out of his control for once).
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
And the sacrifice has been made. Satan laughs, the sixties are OVER!
Granted, the Hell’s Angels were acting in good faith, however able they were at that time, at the time. High on alcohol and going overboard on good intent, they responded to a perceived threat and killed (a high, angry and armed) Meredith Hunter. The lyricist, however, sees the Stones as taking on the mantle which had been held by Elvis, Dylan and the Beatles through the sacrifice of an innocent victim (I’ll give the lyricist a pass on not knowing the circumstances; it actually drives home the point to do so.).
He was singing,
And now the (satanic) system takes over the singing. Driving to the levee to view what they have done/kept up. And the good old boys are his henchmen, sustaining themselves with what would be poisonous to the rest of us, all the while mocking those who go there for other reasons.
(To drive home the point, Charlie Manson’s Helter Skelter murders (not done by him, may I add) happened before Woodstock. Makes me wonder whether Woodstock was more an attempt to put a polish on the hippie generation in response to the murder.)
Of course, the mainstream would come to learn how to co-opt and kill off every counter-mainstream movement that would develop. It would take time (I now think of the eighties as a golden era in music in that the mainstream had no real idea on how to handle those of us who didn’t want to deal with them), but now it’s almost impossible to avoid them.
After the chorus, the music slows down. This is the coda section, the present day (1971).
I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.
And now…the old singers he knew and loved are now silenced, replaced by the bastard grandsons and granddaughters of the people that replaced his singers.
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.
Buddy Holly’s music was (supposedly) originally placed on 78 rpm records, which were now not made nor playable. Which is a bit of bullcrap, as record players were able to play at 78 rpms until well into the eighties, when CDs and Cassettes were replacing them as the format of choice. I remember this well, as I HAD an LP player able to play 78 (and even remember that my parents owned an LP player that played 16 rpm, for good measure).
More to the point, the radio stations had abandoned his music. So had the record stores (and even the ability to try an LP out was lost in the early seventies). His music had disappeared from the consciousness of the world, and nobody cared.
(Note that the song was released before American Graffiti. One wonders what he thought about the movie and everything that came after it, in relation to the 50’s nostalgia)
And 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.
Meanwhile, of course, life goes on. Kids are as they were, love is won and lost and poems are written. However, the voice has lost its resonance, as the foundation was lost. The God of the Bible was left for strange Gods (or none, or in many instances left for money and comforts), and the voices suffered.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
And, since the people were leaving God, God decided to leave the people. And because of the Trinitarian nature of the Christian God (three different aspects, none of which are exclusive to the other at any time), it’s written as three separate people EVEN THOUGH it’s understood as a single God.
And they were singing,
Chorus (and repeat)
More a finishing ode, although one can hear within the chorus why God would leave the people.
One would wonder what the lyricist would think about the singer-songwriter movement of the seventies, and of the Fundamentalist Christian movement that’s had its effect on the political landscape all these years.