Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2003 / 27 Tishrei, 5764

Jeff Elder

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Consumer Reports

'American Pie' explained; Why are tennis balls seamed like baseballs?; more | Q: I know Don McLean's 1971 hit song "American Pie" is based on the death of Buddy Holly in a plane crash. I recognize some of the song's other references. Can you explain more of them? - Melissa Henderson

A: Melissa, I'll go there! I'll gladly go there. "American Pie" is one of my all-time favorites. It came out when I was 8, and while I understood none of the references then, I loved the song's poignant poetry.

You're right that the song is about the death of Holly. "The day the music died" is Feb. 3, 1959, when Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) were killed in a plane crash after a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.

McLean has always said the song is about Holly, but never elaborated on the rest of the lyrics, preferring to let listeners interpret on their own. The Web site has a breakdown of logical interpretations formed by critics and fans over the past 32 years.

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Here are a few highlights:

  • "February made me shiver with every paper I delivered" is said to refer to the fact that McLean was a paperboy when Holly died. He learned about the plane crash when he cut into his stack of papers and saw the lead story.

  • "The jester" is probably Bob Dylan. The lyrics refer to him wearing "a coat he borrowed from James Dean," and being "on the sidelines in a cast."

    Dylan wore a red jacket similar to Dean's on the cover of "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan" album, and was in a motorcycle accident in 1966 that sidelined him for most of that year.

  • "No angel born in hell could break that Satan's spell" probably refers to the Altamont Speedway concert in 1969. While the Rolling Stones were playing, a fan was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell's Angels who was hired for security.

  • "The sergeants played a marching tune" is likely a reference to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.

  • "I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away" is probably about Janis Joplin. She died of a drug overdose in 1970.

    There are MANY other references to decode in "American Pie." You can check out more at

Here are a couple of other interesting facts about McLean's epic tune:

  • In 1971, a singer named Lori Leiberman saw McLean perform "American Pie" in Los Angeles. She was so moved that she wrote a poem that became the basis for her song "Killing Me Softly With His Song," which was a huge hit for Roberta Flack in 1973.

  • Contrary to rumors, the plane that crashed was not named the "American Pie." McLean made up the name.

The site gives the history, trivia and lyrics behind thousands of songs, by artists from Eddie Cantor to the Beatles to Fifty Cent. Here are some fun facts we found there:

  • Wild Thing" was written by Chip Taylor, the brother of actor Jon Voight and the uncle of Angelina Jolie.

  • Before he was a famous bluesman, B.B. King used to play "The Thrill is Gone," as a Memphis DJ, spinning the Roy Hawkins' 1951 original on the air.

  • The Box Tops' "The Letter" ("Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane") was the last No. 1 hit to be shorter than two minutes in length. (It was 1 minute, 58 seconds.)

  • The theme from the 1971 movie "Shaft" won an Oscar for Best Song for Isaac Hayes, the first African American to win an Oscar in a composer category.

Q: Why are tennis balls seamed like baseballs? - Paul Schadt

A: Paul, the answer is money.

The folks at Penn sporting goods tell us they can make tennis balls with no seams, but it's much more expensive. See, the seams help to bond the cover (made of nylon, wool and cotton felt) to the rubber ball inside. Applying the felt cover without the seams is much more difficult and expensive.

The spin and "feel" of the ball would also be affected. The "fluff" or height of the felt affects the aerodynamics of the ball, and the seams influence this.


On lefties:

1. What lefty's most famous formula shows that a small particle of matter is the equivalent of an enormous quantity of energy?

2. What great lefty writer and humorist said, "Our newspapers are abused. We are told that they are irreverent, coarse, vulgar, ribald. I hope they will remain irreverent."

3. What lefty drew Binky the bunny in a popular underground comic strip?

4. What left-handed actress was born Oct. 28, 1967, in Georgia, the daughter of a vacuum salesman and a church secretary?


1. Albert Einstein
2. Mark Twain
3. Matt Groening
4. Julia Roberts

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Jeff Elder is a columnist for The Charlotte Observer. Comment or try to stump him by clicking here.


10/14/03: Origins of comic strips and hush puppies; a college football quiz; dogs that don't bark
09/24/03: Why do snooze alarms go off every 9 minutes?
09/17/03: Glad You Asked: Fun with college football
09/09/03: What's so great about Wiffle Ball?
09/03/03: What kinda wine goes best with heartache?; What did people do before alarm clocks were invented?; which has more caffeine: coffee or tea?
08/26/03: These inventors were just toying with us
08/12/03: Why do wheels appear to turn backward on film?; showdown over high noon
08/07/03: Wood'n you know it? Money doesn't grow on trees; all we are is dust in the wind
08/05/03: Where have you gone, Calvin, Opus and Cow?; fine feathered friend pecking on itself
07/31/03: How a dashing hero became a notorious traitor
07/29/03: Little red caboose rolling outta sight; From my 'I'll be a monkey's uncle' file
07/24/03: Road scholar: A lesson on asphalt; when identical twins marry
07/23/03: The sweet science of Life Savers' sparks; how do Pop Rocks work? ripping newspaper

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