Don McLean explains why he won't reveal the meaning of "American Pie"

American Pie meaning
American Pie meaning 03:15

NEW YORK -- For 45 years now, Don McLean has been singing “American Pie.”

“Have you ever thought to yourself how many times you’ve played this song?” CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod asked McLean.

“Lots of times,” he replied.

Don McLean CBS News

For nearly as long, people have been trying to pin him down on its meaning.

“But what was the song about?” Axelrod asked.

“The song is about an American dream of some sort,” McLean said.

Audio Gallery: David Bowie, Barbra Streisand among additions to National Recording Registry
Audio Gallery: David Bowie, Barbra Streisand among additions to National Recording Registry

Set against the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, “American Pie” was an 8-and-a-half minute consideration of the decade that followed.

“So they couldn’t put the whole thing on a single, so they came out with a two-sided single. And the whole thing just was always different, because of the kind of song it was, the length of the song, and it entertained people, I think, on a number of levels,” McLean said.

The most enduring level is McLean’s collection of lyrics, a long list of opaque allusions to the bold-face names of the 1960’s.

“There was a lot of stuff going on in the song,” McLean said.

While there have been college courses taught on the lyrics of “American Pie,” the man who constructed the song wants nothing to do with its deconstruction.

“But the quartet practicing in the park, that’s not the Beatles?” Axelrod asked.

“No,” McLean replied.

“Oh Don, there’s a lot of people who are gonna be heartbroken,” Axelrod said.

“It might be,” McLean said.

He won’t admit the meaning, he says, because that would pervert the poetry. 

“So, if I sit here and say to you, ‘Is the jester Bob Dylan?’” Axelrod said.

“Then I come and strangle you,” McLean joked.

Excerpt from "American Pie"

Don McLean will be singing this song the rest of his life. But that doesn’t mean he has to clear up any questions about “the day the music died.” For him, that’s the reason the song will live forever.