Music | July 19, 2022 12:23 pm

Don McLean Debunks Long-Held Interpretation of “American Pie” Lyrics

It turns out "the jester" mentioned in the iconic track is not, in fact, Bob Dylan

Don McLean performs at the Ryman Auditorium on May 12, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Don McLean performs at the Ryman Auditorium on May 12, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Getty Images

It’s been a little over 50 years since Don McLean released his nearly-nine-minute epic “American Pie,” and the song and the musician are both subjects of a new documentary called, fittingly, The Day the Music Died. In addition to a look at McLean’s early life and the profound impact that the 1959 airplane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson (and, of course, inspired the track) had on him, the documentary features the very first line-by-line deconstruction of the song’s lyrics.

“I told Don, ‘It’s time for you to reveal what 50 years of journalists have wanted to know,’” producer Spencer Proffer told The Guardian. “This film was a concerted effort to raise the curtain.”

As anyone who’s ever heard it surely already knows, “American Pie” is packed to the gills with pop cultural and historical references, and there’s been debate for decades over McLean’s intended meaning of certain lines. One commonly held theory is that “the jester” referenced multiple times in the song is Bob Dylan.

“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” is believed to be a reference to the jacket Dylan wore on the cover of 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and the way it resembles the coat the actor wore in Rebel Without a Cause. A reference to “the jester on the sidelines in a cast” was generally interpreted to be a nod to Dylan’s infamous 1966 motorcycle accident that forced him to cancel all his public appearances while he recuperated.

“While the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown” is often interpreted to be about Elvis Presley, the “King” of rock ‘n’ roll being usurped by Dylan in popularity and relevance, signifying the larger cultural shift from the ’50s to the ’60s.

But in the new documentary, McLean insists that Elvis isn’t the “King” he is referring to, Dylan is not the “jester” and Janis Joplin is not “the girl who sang the blues” referenced in his lyrics.

“As I’ve told people, you’re gonna call Elvis the King?” he said recently. “The King in my song has a thorny crown. And only Jesus had a thorny crown. I think I was very clear about that. There’s a lot of reasons why I don’t turn this into a board game. Because it’s not. It’s an impressionistic piece.”