Don McLean admitted he didn’t fully understand the success of his 1971 song “American Pie,” but said it might stem from the fact that it’s partly a children’s song.
While he referred to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper – the tragedy came to be known as “the day the music died” – McLean said his principal inspiration was another shocking moment that took place four years later.
On the latest edition of The Big Interview on AXS TV, host Dan Rather asked about the song having become a “cultural flash point” about “what was perceived to be the decline of America.” “Well, I was seeing that,” McLean replied. “To me, when [President] Kennedy was killed, all bets were off. It was a much bigger event than 9/11, which was a huge event. It was the beginning of Americans being in doubt about what they believed in and who they were. That was huge.”
He argued that an “anything goes philosophy” had established itself over the years, to the point that the U.S. lived in a state of “decadence” today. “Civility has disappeared,” he noted. “I’m a crazy guy. I can be a hundred different people, but I like civility.”
Watch Don McLean and Dan Rather on ‘The Big Interview’
McLean couldn’t provide a straight answer when asked to explain the song’s continued popularity over the past 49 years. “I don’t know. There are so many aspects to it,” he reflected. “You’ll see different parts of it used all over. People use it for parodies, kids sing it, children grow up with it because on a certain level it’s a children’s song.”
He noted that “it’s one of these sort of mythical-type folk songs. The poetry is a little bit obscure, but it’s not completely unknowable — it’s pretty understandable. It’s meant to be, because it’s really a dream.”
Listen to Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’