Years ago I had this English teacher (from UK) who asked us to translate American Pie to Swedish. A quite difficult task of course :). Anyhow, he told us that "Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry" meant I drove my Chevrolet to the movie theatre but the film was dull. Anyone else who has heard this?

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    Nope, never heard that interpretation. Not sure where it would stem from, either. The words are actually “Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry”. A levee is kind of a dike, except along a river instead of the sea, so it’s a place you’d normally expect to be wet. If you find the levee dry, that usually means the river has run dry as well, which fits rather nicely with the rest of the lyrics: the whole song gives off a kind of ‘ghost-town’ feeling of things lost. Sep 20, 2015 at 21:00
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    Janus has it right. I think your teacher was completely off base on that one.
    – Jim
    Sep 20, 2015 at 21:10
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    @user662852 - When you say "contemporary", I presume you're thinking of the Led Zeppelin song "When The Levee Breaks" (and, I presume, you mean "contemporary to Don McLean".) But that song was a reworking/homage/ripoff (depending whom you listen to) of a song first recorded in 1929, in reference to a flood that happened in 1927.
    – MT_Head
    Sep 20, 2015 at 23:57
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is asking for an interpretation of song lyrics.
    – choster
    Sep 21, 2015 at 16:50
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    Wow, you really stepped in it here. You should be aware that no one has ever been able to agree on the meaning of the lyrics to American Pie, most likely because they're literally a bunch of meaningless word salad. When someone asked Don McLean in an interview what the lyrics mean, he answered surprisingly candidly that they mean "I'll never have to work again." Sep 21, 2015 at 17:12

4 Answers 4


It's "levee." Levy is somebody else. "American Pie" is Don McLean's song about the change from the (supposedly) golden era of 1950s America through the turbulent 1960s as reflected in pop music. A levee is a quay or a dike along a river to control flooding, in any case, a place where you'd expect to find water. But in the song, the water is missing. This is likely an allusion to the 1950s variety show featuring music of those years and hosted by singer Dinah Shore. During the program, she sang a song to accompany a Chevrolet car commercial. The song rhymed "Chevy" with "levee." To take a look and a listen click here. In the song, those times symbolized by Dinah Shore and the contemporary music are gone like the missing water that's left the levee dry.

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    Oh man, the memories. In Vietnam, the troops would sing, "See the DMZ, from your APC, America is sending you to Nam." Sep 20, 2015 at 21:16
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    Considering the black roots of American music, the song's nostalgia for the 1950s is quite ironic as that era was the beginning of the last stand of American apartheid. The Little Rock crisis happened smack in the middle of the run of the Dinah Shore Show.
    – deadrat
    Sep 20, 2015 at 21:26
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    Nostalgia is strongest for things that didn't really exist. Sep 20, 2015 at 21:40
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    I thought it was more specifically about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Sep 21, 2015 at 17:59
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    @DarrelHoffman The three stages of human understanding: 1. Not realizing it's really about Buddy Holly. 2. Realizing it's really about Buddy Holly. 3. Realizing it's not really about Buddy Holly. Sep 21, 2015 at 18:16

Speaking as an American who is roughly contemporaneous with Don McLean, I'm afraid you were the victim of a British teacher who had no concept of 1950's US culture. Except, perhaps, what he'd read in the magazines.

The first verses of "American Pie", that is, the verses preceding the second chorus, place the singer as a high-school student in the US south. (This despite the fact that McLean himself went to prep school in New York.) He has a paper route, he drives a pickup, he goes to dances in the high school gym. He knows a bunch of "good ole boys" and drives to a levee. As Wikipedia points out, US use of "levee" is pretty much restricted to the Midwest and Deep South, and "good ole boys" refines the location. It's not actually clear what "the levee was dry" means, but part of American Pie's charm is its ability to mash up phrases and keep going. An entirely reasonable interpretation (hampered by the fact that McLean grew up entirely in the Northeast) is that the local teenagers would get together out on some levee to party and get drunk, although that's such universal behavior that McLean should have had no trouble visualizing it.

The next "ten years", of course, were the '60s, and the less said about that the better.

Finally, I draw a complete blank on any connection between "levy" and movie theaters. An uncharitable suspicion is that your teacher confused "levy" with "marquee".

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    I disagree that "US use of "levee" is pretty much restricted to the Midwest and Deep South. Where do you get that? You link to Wikipedia, but I see nothing on that page that supports this claim. That page makes clear that levee is used for both rivers and low-lying coastal areas. And it even shows two (!) pictures of levees (labeled as such!) near Sacramento, California. Restricted to the Midwest and Deep South? No sir. (The rest of your answer is OK.)
    – Drew
    Sep 21, 2015 at 1:17
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    I've never quite cracked the lyrics to this song. "The levee was dry" might be taken to mean that no one has any booze there, but in the next breath we hear "them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye". As to a levee being dry of water, that would be the normal case, so there's no reason for the "but". (There's probably a web site somewhere dedicated to analyzing this song.)
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 21, 2015 at 2:49
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    FWIW, I blame this on the teacher rather than the teacher's nationality, because as a Brit myself the quote seems quite clear to me!! Sep 21, 2015 at 18:16
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    For reasons no one really understands, people like to hang out near a body of water, especially one that's moving in some way. It's just fun. People don't like hanging out near a muddy rut where water used to be nearly as much. It's just depressing. Thus, the narrator drove his pickup to the water to hang out with his buddies, and have innocent good times like he used to do. But when he got there there was no water, and all his friends had switched to hard liquor. It just sucked. Which reminded him of America after Vietnam in a lot of ways. Sep 21, 2015 at 18:27
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    Another thing which might be misunderstood is the "good old boys" line. In southern vernacular, this does NOT imply that those people are his friends, or known to him, or good in any way. A "good ol' boy" is slang for a traditional, conservative, rural person. Example: "I made a joke about the president last night and got beat up by some good ol' boys!"
    – Graham
    Sep 23, 2015 at 13:40

Other than the correction of the word "levee" (not 'levy', like taxes), everyone's interpretation of the song is just that, their interpretation of the song.

Don McLean has never given an interpretation of the whole song - just allusions to the general meaning. Here's one place recently: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/08/don-mclean-american-pie_n_7024486.html


I attended a fabulous outdoor concert near Boston many years ago. Don McLean appeared along with many other artists. He told his audience that many people ask him about the meaning of his best-known song. He said, "It means I don't have to work very hard any more."

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