Working Manuscript to Don McLean’s Oft-Debated ‘American Pie’ Lyrics up for Auction

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie; took my lyrics to the auction hoping someone would buy.

On April 7, 2015, Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inductee Don McLean will say “bye-bye” to the working manuscript and typed notes for his iconic 1971 hit “American Pie.” The 16 pages comprised of 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text is expected to bring between $1 million and $1.5 million at Christie’s. The work may be viewed there between April 2-6 at the auction house’s New York gallery at 20 Rockefeller Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The 16-page working manuscript for Don McLean’s hit “American Pie,” comprised of 237 lines hand-written lines and 26 lines of typed text is expected to bring between $1 million and $1.5 million at Christie’s when the work goes up for auction on April 7.

The 16-page working manuscript for Don McLean’s hit “American Pie,” comprised of 237 lines hand-written lines and 26 lines of typed text is expected to bring between $1 million and $1.5 million at Christie’s when the work goes up for auction on April 7.

McLean’s song has become an American classic. It achieved #1 status on billboard in 1972, the longest pop song to achieve that rank: it runs for 8 minutes and 36 seconds and takes up both sides of a standard 45 RPM record. In an era when most pop songs were between 2-3 minutes long, it’s surprising that “American Pie” got any airplay at all. Most radio stations played only the “A” side of his release. I suppose deejays were motivated by the catchy phrase “took my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.”

One of the manuscript pages for “American Pie” with some lyrics that didn’t make the final cut, reading in part: “And there I stood alone and afraid / I knelt to my knees and there I prayed / and I promised to give all I had to give / maybe he could make it live again / he promised I would live once more …”

One of the manuscript pages for “American Pie” with some lyrics that didn’t make the final cut, reading in part: “And there I stood alone and afraid / I knelt to my knees and there I prayed / and I promised to give all I had to give / maybe he could make it live again / he promised I would live once more …”

In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts voted “American Pie” No. 5 in a poll of the “365 Songs of The Century.” To place this ranking in context, the remaining top five songs included “Over the Rainbow” from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz;” “White Christmas,” from the movie of the same name; Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Respect,” written by Otis Redding and performed by Aretha Franklin.

in 2014, the manuscript to Bob Dlyan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for $2 million at Sotheby’s.

The sometimes cryptic lyrics of “American Pie” have spawned countless attempts at interpreting the “true meaning” of the lyrics. Even commentator Glenn Beck has logged in on the subject, politicizing the lyrics to fit with events that hadn’t even happened when McLean wrote the song. There are dozens of websites offering their take on the lyrics. One of my favorite interpretations is found at songfacts.com (perhaps, because I came of age in this period, these explanations make sense to me).

McLean himself has been accused of ignoring the interpretations of “American Pie.” On his personal website, McLean takes issue with this accusation: “All interpretations start on the premise that Don McLean never talks about the song and has never provided insight into the meaning of the lyrics. In fact, Don McLean has spent 30 years doing little else but talk about American Pie!”

According to McLean, American Pie was “initially inspired by his memories of the death of Buddy Holly in 1959, (the song) is autobiographical and presents an abstract story of Don McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until when he wrote (it) in the late 1960s. It is almost entirely symbolized by the evolution of popular music over these years and represents a change from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s.”

Though some analysts believe that the $1 million auction estimate is high, the cultural impact of McLean’s song should not be underestimated. Historic auction results show that items with wide cultural recognition often bring high prices. “American Pie” has been covered by the likes of Tori Amos and Garth Brooks, among many other international superstars. The song was a #1 hit for Madonna in 2000. The song title, “American Pie,” was licensed by McLean for a four-movie series (that had nothing at all to do with the song; the song wasn’t even in the movies): “American Pie,” “American Pie 2,” “American Wedding” and “American Reunion.” The song’s place in American culture is secure.

That McLean would auction his famous lyrics isn’t surprising. In an industry known for musicians who mismanage their portfolios and finances, Don McLean is famous for his financial acumen. With a degree in Business Administration from New York’s Iona College, McLean was never taken in by weak promises made by record companies and music promoters. In a 2001 interview on Bankrate.com titled “The Way Don McLean’s Music Thrives,” McLean states: “I never signed any bad agreements with management, because I read the agreements and knew what they meant, and I also held out for my publishing.” Publishing control has been a boon for McLean. He says: “I wound up owning these wonderful songs, so it’s turned out great. And ‘American Pie’ is certainly the star of the show, but all these songs make money.”

It’s estimated that McLean has made $8 million in royalties from his publishing rights and licensing. When asked by Bankrate’s Larry Getlin “Has American Pie set you for life?” McLean responded: “No. Actually, if I were to sell that song today, it would be worth in the tens of millions of dollars probably. Copyrights are very valuable.”

Perhaps the next auction we see from Mr. McLean will be for his copyrights.


Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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