About the Songwriter

 

Introduction, continued

The same cannot be said of the 1960s. Just as the fifties was an era of great optimism and consensus, the sixties became its antithesis, as the black and white values of the status quo embraced by the previous generation—the sense of the "essential goodness" of American society—no longer rang true. Emerging from the civil rights issues that had been simmering since World War II, and spurred on further by an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, this generation's dissatisfaction with American culture grew markedly more pronounced, as many of the assumptions about the society we were born into were called into question:

...the civil rights and antiwar and countercultural and woman's and the rest of that decade's movements forced upon us central issues for Western civilization—fundamental questions of value, fundamental divides of culture, fundamental debates about the nature of the good life.

From The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin

The rules were changing. And so was the music. As American values were shifting through this period, a corresponding shift can be observed in rock 'n' roll, as it moved away from the exuberant simplicity of the 1950s to the more literate and politically charged subject matter of the 1960s. And as the music reflected these changes it also became symbolic of them, producing a defining musical figure at each major turning point: Bob Dylan at the more cerebral beginnings of the radical sixties, the Beatles during its more idealistic middle period, and the Rolling Stones closer to its anarchic end.

So even though American Pie appears to chronicle the course of rock 'n' roll, it is not, as is sometimes suggested, a mere catalogue of musical events. In using the cast of rock 'n' roll players from the 1960s and setting them against the backdrop of Buddy Holly's death, they become polarized—metaphors for the clash of values occurring in America at this time: Holly as the symbol of the happier innocence of the fifties, the rest as symbolic of the sixties growing unrest and fragmentation. And as each verse sums up chronological periods in time—the late 1950s, 1963-66, 1966-68, 1969, 1970—another blow against the happier innocence of another era is registered: another day the music dies.

•   •   •

The song can be divided into roughly 5 sections: the prologue (verse 1), which looks back from the early seventies and introduces the catalyst for the story about to unfold; Act 1 (verse 2), which, along with the chorus and verse 1, establishes the 1950s as the reference point for the rest of the song; Act II (verses 3 & 4), in which the story builds on the growing conflicts of the 1960s; Act III (verse 5), the apocalyptic climax of the story; and the epilogue (verse 6), the song's coda.

 

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