• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Refrains of Music

Lyrics and meaning.

February 19, 2015

What is the relationship between the circumference of a Jack-o-Lantern and the diameter of that Jack-o-Lantern? Pumpkin Pie.

These are the kind of math jokes that have my husband reminding me not to quit my day job. It is, however, what came to mind recently when I learned that the original draft of the song “American Pie” is being put up for auction. Since I live in Cleveland, the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there is a good chance that I will someday get to see the original notes in person

Every once in a while, as she listens to commercial radio, my daughter will ask me; “mom, what is your favorite song?” In an effort to remind her that music exists that speaks more to the essence of what it means to be human than songs that contain the words “wiggle, wiggle, wiggle”, I always answer with by saying “Beethoven’s ninth symphony.” I must admit that I always forget about the song “American Pie” in answering her, which ranks high in my list of favorite songs, and is more along the lines of what she is asking about.

I was in grammar school when I first heard that song played on the bus on the way to school, and I actually believe that my parents were telling me the truth when I asked them what the words meant and they said they did not know. It was only later that I learned that the lyrics had hidden meanings, meanings that described the events unfolding around me as I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As I learned history, I started to understand what some of those lyrics meant. However, I, like most people, remain in the dark about the true meaning of some of them. Like many fans, I await whatever information might come from the auction of the original draft of that song. I especially wonder exactly who the “three men I admire most” were, as that line of music immediately came to mind in the midst of past moments of existential angst that made me wonder if God had indeed taken the last train to the coast.

In my senior year of college, a classmate played the entire song as part of a senior talent night, and, as I listened, I looked around at my assembled classmates and realized that the people assembled there had been (very young) eyewitnesses to the history alluded to in the song. My parents tell the story of picking me up at my grandparents’ house one November day where I had been playing on the floor in front of a black and white TV. As they came to collect their daughter, my frantic grandmother greet her at the door with the words “they shot him! They shot him!” She was, of course, talking about the shots that killed President Kennedy. Of course, I had no realization of what had just happened, nor do I have any memories of the further assassinations that followed quite quickly, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Robert Kennedy. However, I remain a lifelong admirer both of these icons, and years later, I often use a quote from Robert Kennedy in my Economics classes, as he said some wise things about way we put a numeric value on the output of our countries, saying that it measured everything except that which is most important.

At my first “homecoming” reunion in college, the song was again played in its entirety, a choice of music that seemed very appropriate. Looking back, I suppose that if anyone was to ever make a film about my life, the song “American Pie” would be part of the music in the background. And, so, I ask my readers, what songs make up the musical background to your lives?


Wishing my readers some relief from the “Big Chill” that has gripped this county. I especially hope that my former neighbors from Boston stay safe and heed the advice of the mayor of that city.


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