Taste the Catholic Morsels in American Pie

You don’t hear a lot of references to Catholicism in today’s music, at least not positive ones. But, in 1971 Don McLean released the album American Pie and its title track became one of the most creative goodbyes the world has ever experienced. It also was seasoned with several morsels of Catholicism that the songwriter drew from his Catholic upbringing.

One can argue there are more or less than seven references to Catholicism in the song. But, given the fact he was raised Catholic, I don’t think these are just references to some obscure spirituality. The first time it dawned on me that there was a Catholic reference in the song was probably 10 years after it was released. I heard it on the radio and the lyrics hit me between the eyes as Catholic:

‘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”

There aren’t many lyrics today talking about the trinity or mentioning the Bible and that was true in the 1980’s as well. You can listen to the song and get some of the references to the era it was written about – the 1960s, but most of the Catholic references are veiled. Fortunately, I ran across a great article on Catholic Pop;  it inspired me and clued me into the magic behind these lyrics. The song isn’t just about the ‘day the music died’ which is Feb. 3, 1959, the day that a plane crashed in Iowa killing Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper. The song is about the end of the innocence of the 1950s and the rise of political and social strife in the 1960s. Much of McLean’s personal sense of loss was due to the fact that he loved the fun, dance-until-you-drop tunes of 50’s rock and roll. The three men that died that day were some of the most popular still playing that style at the time. And with Elvis in the Army, they were crucial to its future. When they died, his favorite kind of music did too. Elvis gets a plug too, by the way, as the King who gets his thorny crown stolen by the Jester (Mick Jagger). That thorny crown isn’t foreign to Catholics either, as we know who wore it best.

McLean felt like the 1950s innocence was reflected in its music and when the 1960s rolled around it became obvious that innocence was taking it on the chin. With one blow after another in popular songs by rockers like Mick Jagger, America was being pummeled by violent images and mentions of the devil and demons. In the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger sings:

“Please allow me to introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

I’ve been around for a long, long year

Stole many a man’s soul to waste

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ

Had his moment of doubt and pain”

That’s a not too subtle claim to being the devil that Jagger makes there and McLean pretty much agrees with him later on by pointing out that Jagger and other performers like him are attempting to extinguish the light of Catholicism. While the Rolling Stones performed in Altamont, Calif., their security team, none other than Hell’s Angels members, beat up several people attending the show. One innocent man died. That spurred McLean to write about Jagger’s performance:

“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”

If that weren’t enough of an indictment, the next verse takes it up a notch. I read this verse as if Jack Flash sitting on a candlestick had doused the light of Christ. Later the concert got out of hand and the Rolling Stones had to be helicoptered out of the venue. The scene morphed into a sacrifice of the man who died at the show, with Jagger laughing as the helicopter climbed into the night.

“So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

Jack Flash sat on a candlestick

‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

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”

McLean was not a big fan of the Rolling Stones. As other bands began to turn more toward darkness and devil worship, whether in reality or to sell albums, the music scene lost its innocence and exuberance. Before long, with the spiritual sounds of decency in music fading fast, young people became despondent and yearned to hear something from God, something that rang true, but He had already been silenced.

“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”

After that, once America had resigned to the barrage of audio sludge on the airwaves that extols greed, cheap sex and all things unholy, he ties up the song with his imagined, to McLean the inevitable, departure of God.

“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 they were singing

“Bye, bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye

Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die

This’ll be the day that I die”

Lucky for us, God won’t abandon us to be carried away by the evil clutches of society – not unless we put our hands out and ask for the handcuffs.

Take a listen to the classic here: American Pie



2 Replies to “Taste the Catholic Morsels in American Pie”

  1. Great article!! I grew up in the 50’s and it certainly was a time of innocence. Sadly, I am doubtful that we will ever experience a time of innocence like that again, but then, all things are possible through God.

  2. Very interesting article. I have always been curious about the messages song writers wove into their lyrics. I generally do not fully understand many of the references until someone takes the time to summarize it for other fans in this manner. Thanks for sharing this insight.

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