About the Songwriter


Verse 3, continued

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

Following on the previous reference, the Jester here is commonly associated with Bob Dylan, and who is further identified by the James Dean coat he wears on the cover of his late 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan—the setting of which also intentionally plays off of the Dean persona, as seen in the photograph below. This also dates the opening of this verse close to the year 1964—a significant year, following as it did the assassination of John Kennedy, and considered by some the year the radical sixties began. Dean is best remembered as A Rebel Without A Cause in the film of the same name—an image of alienated youth and rebellion that fits with Dylan's role in the music of this period. The "voice that came from you and me" further identifies him—not only did his music work on a more literate and introspective level than anything attempted before in rock 'n' roll music, but it was also sung with (and I'm being charitable here) a distinctly unpolished voice. But most importantly, his was the voice of his generation—our voice—as much of his more popular work of this period were songs of protest, putting him at the political forefront of this increasingly rebellious generation. And finally, the Jester is a trickster figure in mythology, serving to advise royal authority through undermining it—certainly a role that Dylan seemed to fill. So Dylan heralded a new order emerging in popular music, and by analogy, the promise of a new order in the culture at large.

The King is a title commonly given to Elvis Presley—the "King of Rock 'n' Roll"—who dominated and epitomized rock and roll up to this point in time. The Queen, though a few names have been suggested for her (Connie Francis, Aretha Franklin), is more likely a figurehead here, as there was no corresponding "Queen of Rock 'n' Roll" at this particular time. What seems most likely here is that the image of a royal court is being suggested—the Jester having gone before the court of rock 'n' roll to challenge its dominion by Presley. And as the "music" in American Pie is synonymous with the culture of America, a similar challenge is confronting the country, as the younger generation challenges the assumptions of the older order it grew up with. This notion is amplified further in the next lines.

And while the King was looking down
The jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No verdict was returned

Presley, as the former voice of a more benign kind of alienation and rebellion to the youth of the 1950s, had by this time become somewhat old news, as this generation anointed Dylan their new spokesman. But even as the poet was in the vanguard of the developing shift away from rock 'n' roll's earlier, simpler thematic roots, the jury was still out on the outcome of America's emerging cultural revolution—no verdict was returned. As Dylan emerges as rock 'n roll's new spiritual leader, the thorny crown is an apt symbol; this is perhaps too a picture of the price of fame.

  Another interpretation is also suggested at this point in the song, as the King and Queen can now be seen as President John F. Kennedy and the First Lady, with Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (who even bears a minor physical likeness to Bob Dylan) taking over the role of the court Jester. President Kennedy’s idealism and wit, the First Couple’s youthful vigor and good looks, and the popularity of the Broadway play “Camelot” during these early years of the 1960s inspired the media and the public alike to romanticize the Kennedy presidency as a model of King Arthur’s court. President Kennedy’s assassination in the fall of 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald could then be seen as the Jester stealing the King’s crown, figuratively robbing him of his authority, but perhaps even going so far as to suggest the crown of the president’s head being blown off by Oswald’s bullet. The "no verdict was returned" would then be referring to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the president’s murder, followed at the end of this verse by the "dirges in the dark" of his national mourning. But even more than the sobering reality of his murder, Kennedy’s death dealt a harsh blow to the nation’s morale, severing the old postwar innocence and optimism and replacing it with a growing cynicism towards American culture and government. With this interpretation, however, the music as the metaphor of change briefly collapses in the song. What is most likely here is that McLean chose these lines to reverberate off other historical events of the period—a tactic we'll encounter again as the song unfolds. But either way, the world the narrator once knew is changing.

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