The Day the Music Died

The Day the Music Died, dubbed so by a lyric in the Don McLean song “American Pie”, is a reference to the deaths of rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959.  Pilot Roger Peterson was also killed.  (More from Wikipedia)



     Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,

     For rich repiner and household drudge!

     God pity them both! and pity us all,

     Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;

     For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

     The saddest are these:  “It might have been!” 


This famous quotation is taken from an 1856 poem by the American poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier; he is also the gentleman responsible for the line in a poem about Barbara Frietchie:  “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” 


At the top of the list of “might have been” in rock and roll has to be the crash on February 3, 1959 in an Iowa cornfield of a small airplane carrying three early rockers to their graves:  Buddy HollyRitchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.  The stories around this tragic event include those about several men who were not on the plane for one reason or another, most famously future country music star Waylon Jennings, who had recently joined Buddy Holly’s band after the break-up of his previous band the Crickets.  Also, Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts) couldn’t afford the $36 cost, so he also decided not to board the plane. 


By now, the parade of early deaths of beloved musicians is long indeed; I remember being affected by the senseless assassination of John Lennon on December 8, 1980 nearly as much as that of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963


Not a few of these losses have occurred in small airplane crashes:  Glenn MillerJohn DenverJim ReevesOtis ReddingJim CroceRick NelsonStevie Ray VaughanAaliyah, and three bandmembers in Lynyrd Skynyrd:  Ronnie van ZantStevie Gaines, and Cassie Gaines There is even a parallel to The Day the Music Died in country music, when Patsy ClineCowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins all died in a plane crash on March 5, 1963


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Still, in 1959, this kind of loss was a new experience (particularly for young people).  In his moving 1971 epic of the American landscape of the 1960’s, “American Pie”, Don McLean immortalized this event as “The Day the Music Died”.  Rich with imagery worthy of a Bob Dylan song, McLean has refused to discuss the meaning of the cryptic lyrics over the years, though the main theme is clearly the loss of innocence. 


In 2009 (on the 50th anniversary of the airplane crash), Don McLean wrote an editorial for that told of his learning of it the following morning:  “Buddy [Holly]’s death, for me, an impressionable 13-year-old, delivering papers, was an enormous tragedy.  The cover photo of the posthumously released [The] Buddy Holly Story and The Buddy Holly Story, Vol. 2, coupled with liner notes written by his widow, Maria [Santiago-Holly], created a sense of grief that lived inside of me, until I was able to exorcise it with the opening verse of ‘American Pie’.” 


But there is no shortage of interpretations from all quarters (I took a stab at it myself ages ago):  Bob Dylan is said to be the “jester”; the Beatles are evidently referenced in the line “sergeants played a marching tune”; and the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger in particular) seem to have a more central role in the tale – the fifth verse includes the lyric “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick / Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” (an obvious reference to the Rolling Stones hit “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), several mentions of Satan (“Sympathy for the Devil” is one of several times that the Stones toyed with Satanic imagery), and apparent veiled references to the horrific Altamont Speedway Free Concert that occurred on the heels of Woodstock on December 6, 1969, where the Rolling Stones were the featured act, and the Hells Angels motorcycle club provided security. 


As depicted in Gimme Shelter (I saw the film when it came to theatres in 1970, but I never want to see it again), one audience member, Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by several bikers after he pulled a gun – and yes, someone caught the incident on film.  Lead male singer Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out cold by a Hells Angel, and Mick Jagger was punched in the face by an unruly fan shortly after his arrival by helicopter.  It was a perfect storm where simply everything went wrong – the rain and the other privations at Woodstock were nothing compared to what occurred at Altamont.  


(June 2013/1)
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Items:    The Day the Music Died 
Last edited: March 22, 2021