The Day the Music Died: A Look Back

Why we make the pilgrimage to the past

Published in Far Out Magazine on Feb 3rd, 2020

The upper Midwest braces for another arctic winter this year. As it does, the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly (22), Richie Valens (17) and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (28) turns 61.

It’s widely regarded as ‘The Day the Music Died’, a phrase coined by Don McLean’s 1971 autobiographical song “American Pie”. McLean’s retrospective track is said to symbolize the end of American innocence. For McLean, this reaches back to his own experiences as a newspaper delivery boy. He was just 13 years old when the headlines ran.

McLean’s memories — and his song — color the American consciousness. The United States was on the cusp of radical social and political change and the music that would define the era was about to change with it.

Image courtesy of Rock Cellar Magazine

Outside of a few poignant references, “American Pie” doesn’t linger in the present. Instead, it stays lodged in the past, like a time-capsule lost to a bygone era, stuck on the loop of its infectious chorus. You know the one I’m referring to.

“American Pie” commemorates the purity of a moment in [both] Rock and Roll and in time. It’s illustrative of a generation on the verge of adulthood and revolution, before the revolution. It’s the coming of age tale that never comes of age.

The narrative from the night that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper lost their lives has been played and replayed. The three stars were on a flight that Holly chartered after a gig in Clear Lake, Iowa, a gig that was added at the last second to fill a vacancy in the Winter Party Dance Tour.

The Tour From Hell

The three week, 24 date tour, organized by General Artists Corp had zero regard for logistical planning. The tour zig-zagged across the upper Midwest, often backtracking over the previous day’s journey, all in reconditioned school busses.

Two-lane highways, 400-mile treks and -30º temperatures were standard. Holly historian Bill Griggs estimates that the musicians changed buses 5 different times before reaching Clear Lake.

The Winter Dance Party Tour”, 1959

The February 1st bus breakdown has received attention over the years as the final straw for Holly and his decision to charter the plane. Rolling Stone and The Star Tribune discuss it in detail. The tour was headed back through Minnesota on Highway 51 after a stop in Duluth.

The show finished at 11 pm — a show that Bob Dylan attended — and the band members loaded their equipment into the bus and set off.

Just 100 miles into the 440-mile journey, a piston punched a hole through the engine block and the bus stalled in the middle of the pitch-black highway. Band members took to burning newspapers in the aisles for warmth. Some jammed in tightly huddled circles in the back of the bus to pass the time.

Dion, of Dion and the Belmonts, recounts his experience for Rolling Stone:

“Buddy and I huddled together under a blanket, and just to pass the time, I’d tell him stories of the Bronx — about Ralphie Mooch, Frankie Yunk Yunk and Joe BB-Eyes — and he’d tell me stories about Baptists in Lubbock, Texas. One of the Belmonts had a bottle of scotch, so we’d all take a shot. We were laughin’, and to me it seemed like a field trip! I didn’t know 30 below zero.”

They waited for several hours before a trucker spotted the bus and alerted a local sheriff who then arranged four cars to rescue them.

They boarded another bus in Green Bay, Wisconsin to make the 340-mile trek to Clear Lake. When the heaters failed, they were forced to stop off in Prairie du Chien to repair them. They arrived in Clear Lake at 8 pm, just in time to take the stage at the Surf Ballroom.

It’s here where Holly asked the club manager to charter the plane.

Holly offered one of the seats in the 4-seat, single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft up to Dion, who balked at the $36 price tag. Crickets band members Tommy Allsup and Waylon Jennings were next up. Jennings handed over his seat to Richardson who was struggling with the flu.

When Holly caught word of this, he told Jennings, “I hope your ‘ol bus freezes up,” to which Jennings replied, “well, I hope your ‘ol plane crashes.” The remark haunted Jennings for the rest of his life.

In one of the most infamous moments in rock and roll lore, Valens and Allsup flipped a coin for the last seat on the plane; Allsup stayed behind and Valens went ahead to his death.

At 1 am, 21-year old pilot Roger Peterson set out of Clear Lake, Iowa for Fargo, North Dakota. Claire Suddath of Time Magazine observes:

The plane stayed in the sky for only a few minutes; no one is quite sure what went wrong. The best guess is that Peterson flew directly into the blizzard, lost visual reference and accidentally flew down instead of up. The four-passenger plane plowed into a nearby cornfield at over 170 mph, flipping over on itself and tossing the passengers into the air. Their bodies landed yards away from the wreckage and stayed there for ten hours as snowdrifts formed around them.

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa will celebrate the 61st anniversary of Holly, Valens and Richardson’s final performance like it does every year, by taking a trip back in time. The festivities stretch across 3 days, embracing the fashion and the music of the era, and include dance lessons, a sock hop, film screenings, and live music.

The Surf Ballroom’s 50th anniversary’s line-up featured Graham Nash, Bobby Vee (who was on the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour), and Los Lobos. Last year, sold-out crowds from 4 countries and 36 states joined Albert Lee, Chubby Checker, The Chiftons, and Johnny Tillotson to celebrate the 60th anniversary.

Sure enough, the festivities include a bus tour to the memorial site for $8. Last year the tour sold out weeks in advance.

It feels morbid to even consider visiting the cornfield that claimed the lives of the men that cold February morning. The ritual, in itself, speaks to a cultural fascination with death, to toe the void and take a long, hard look before turning back.

Moreover, it illustrates a desire to come to terms with death and, perhaps, pay tribute to a piece of ourselves that we lost long ago.

This year, as fans stand at the foot of the sculpture that resembles Holly’s black horn-rimmed glasses, they’ll undoubtedly reminisce about the story that began 61 years ago. As they retrace that narrative, I’m willing to bet they’ll pepper it with little pieces of their own lives and experiences. After all, that’s the real reason we make these kinds of pilgrimages, to find a little bit of ourselves in the rubble.

Andrew is a writer and musician. For conversations, collaborations, or to just say hi, you can email him at a.clark.writer[at]gmail[dot]com

Writer and musician based in London, UK.

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