The first line in the song "A long, long time ago" (McLean) suggests a feeling of timelessness, which is often used in mythic stories and events. This line also refers to the narrator's (presumably McLean) youth, before he was a well-known musician. The following lines describe McLean's desire to bring joy to people through music and dance. "And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they'd be happy for a while" (McLean). Music is often used symbolically as a connector with the universal and with the cosmos. "Music with its different harmonies, tones, tempi and instruments is a means of identifying with the life of the cosmos with all its fullness" (Chevalier 688). Dance can also be seen as a manifestation of the spirit and of life (272-273). During the time that McLean was a youth, dance was seen as a serious sign of affection, to a greater and more meaningful extent than it would later. Dance is a constant theme in the song, and as it progresses it is diminished to a more trivial role, to McLean's dismay.
The next section dramatically alters the tone of the song from upbeat " music used to make me smile" (McLean) to somber "But February made me shiver" (McLean). Symbolically, cold weather deteriorates both physically and spiritually whomever it engulfs, showing McLean's changing physical and emotional state. The verse continues with references to a newspaper on a doorstep which bears bad news for the narrator McLean. Paper is an archetype of fragility and of the timeless part of an individual (Chevalier 735). Thus, the bad news of the newspaper reflects the fragility of the good mood of the first verse. Also, the doorstep on which the newspaper rests suggests to a gateway. "Gateways symbolize the scene passing from one state to another, from one world to another, from the known to the unknown, from light to darkness" (422). On top of this, McLean is unable to take a step, symbolizing an end to any forward progression. Progression is also an important theme in the song, usually to describe society during the decade following 1959. The abundance of transcendent imagery in this verse complements the change of American music and society following the "day the music died", referenced in the next section.
"I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride" (McLean). This line references those killed on February 3rd 1959 by taking mention of their wives. Tears are an obvious symbol of grief and death (Chevalier 977), and here make allude to the sorrow felt not only by McLean, but by the entire American society. Widows are often used in reference in the search for their dead husband, and is also a synonym for the gallows and guillotine (1109). This symbol represents the grief felt by those who lived during this time, and their search for peace. These symbols combined with the next line " something touched me deep inside, the day the music died" (McLean) represents to sorrow and the search for reason felt by society following the deaths of the three musicians.
The "American Pie" of the first line of the refrain may symbolize American society itself. "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie" (McLean). The words bye, bye...