New documentary explores the stories behind Don McLean’s iconic hit American Pie

American record producer Spencer Proffer still remembers when he first heard the song American Pie more than 50 years ago.

“I realized this was something that was an epic work — and because I was very socially, politically motivated and that country was divided back then … it really struck a chord,” he told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho.

The song was the creative product of singer-songwriter Don McLean. When it was first released in 1971, the full song ran eight minutes and 42 seconds. 

Initially, radio stations only played half of the song because the entire piece couldn’t fit on one side of a 45 RPM record. “But it got such great reaction on radio, a couple of stations had the gumption to play the whole thing — and it exploded,” Proffer said.

American Pie is the subject of Proffer’s latest documentary, The Day The Music Died. In it, Proffer explores the meaning behind McLean’s song — and McLean himself opens up about the 1959 plane crash that killed musician Buddy Holly, to which the song refers.

The documentary premiered July 19 on streaming service Paramount+.

Proffer spoke to Coelho about American Pie, McLean and Holly’s connection, and the divisiveness in the United States at the time. Here’s part of their conversation.

What was it about the song that struck you so strongly? 

Personally, there were different images, visual images in words. There were different subject matters. The curiosity abounded when I wondered, who was the jester? Because Bob Dylan was a big deal at the time, he was called the jester. Who was the king? Elvis had just resurfaced after his fantastic comeback special. 

There was marching, and I remembered marching for civil rights and I didn’t know if that’s what he meant. I knew that there was a lot of divisiveness in America and I thought maybe there’s some element to that in the form of a great campfire song with a fantastic melody. 

So it just struck me as a work of art … and it really gave me goosebumps when I heard.

We just heard a clip from the documentary where Ed Freeman, who produced the original song, called it a eulogy for a dream that did not take place. What was happening in America and how did the song … cut through that?

What I believe was happening, because I was there, was a lot of protests, a lot of marching against the war. There was a lot of duplicity. Just years earlier, in ’68, [late U.S. senator Robert] Kennedy was assassinated. Martin Luther King was assassinated. 

When you speak of death and you speak of the resurrection of discovery, of what that means, Buddy Holly actually was a poet. And when he, unfortunately, passed away in a plane crash, it really touched Don. And he felt alone because that was the day the music died, in a sense, to him. 

The rebirth became what he alluded to in the song, that we can all be reborn, we could all have dreams, hopes and aspirations for a better world, and I think that song speaks to all of that.

McLean performs American Pie for its 50th anniversary at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. This is where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper performed on Feb. 3, 1959. The deaths of the three men partially inspired American Pie. (Morling Manor Music Corp)

You’re making me think of the lyrics, “This will be the day that I die.” That’s a direct tribute, then, to Buddy Holly, isn’t it?

It’s a direct tribute to us all. Buddy was just the propeller for the thought. But, you know, when music dies, we all we die with it because music is a tapestry that is woven [into] all of our lives. 

But, yeah, the trigger point was when Buddy Holly lost his life, when he was such a seminal figure in regional music in America. That was the beginning of the next chapter and Don wanted to keep it going indefinitely. 

What Don did in his own brilliance is he decided this would be the time to reveal what he really meant, and my job was to give him the platform to do it. 

You’ve been speaking about how the song was inspired by the tragic death of Buddy Holly — also Ritchie Valens [and] J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson — all in 1959. Young musicians in their prime on this big tour. What did Don McLean tell you about what those deaths, what that moment, meant to him?

What he told me it meant to him was … it jarred him emotionally and it gave him an inspiration to kind of chronicle not only what feelings he had as a result, but the song isn’t about them. It’s just a jumping-off point. 

The song is about America. The song is about the world. That’s why we have a Spanish language cover of it. We have Jade Bird, who’s a fantastic new Americana artist from England who has done a new version that’s been released as a single to cross-promote [the film], bring attention to the film for the younger generation, because as a young girl growing up in England, the song touched her as well. 

McLean, right, meets Connie Valens, sister of singer Ritchie Valens, backstage at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. (Morling Manor Music Corp)

So this is more than just about Buddy Holly. There’s a separate Buddy Holly movie being made, funny enough, by a dear friend of mine who produced the Ray Charles movie. That’s not this. This is not a movie about Buddy Holly. This is a movie about the song past, present and future.

The making of this film is clearly such a passion project for you. Why do you think this song still resonates with you today?

It’s timeless to me because the melody and the music [are] timeless, and the lyrics are just an epic tale. It’s like a poem that doesn’t stop. The best of Robert Frost, the best of Shakespeare, are all embodied in the ways that Don McLean wrote his poem called American Pie.

It’s different times now than the moment when American Pie was written, but right now we’re living in a moment of tension and division and so many moments of fear. Do you think that that makes the song relevant all over again?

It makes it relevant. It makes it timeless. It’s reflective of what happened then, what’s happening now. It’s all the same. We’re all on the same planet. 

I think that the poignance and the timing of Paramount+ and Viacom embracing Don, mine and [manager Kirt Webster’s] vision to bring this to the world today is just serendipitous timing. 

The song applies today, but it applies timelessly through the decades.

Produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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