One hour after midnight on February 2-3, 1959, a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza B35 took off in a heavy snowstorm from the airport in Mason City, Iowa, bound for Moorhead, Minnesota. Passengers - apart from the pilot - were three great rock and roll stars:Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. A few minutes later, the helicopter fell and crashed into the ground at a speed of 270 km/h.
The investigation attributed the crash to human error and bad weather, while the dead plunged the orphaned US music scene into mourning. 12 years later, New York composer Don McLean wrote "American Pie", a song - a tribute to the tragic "day the music died". The strange thing is that there is not a single direct reference to the three dead musicians, although the entire - eponymous - album is dedicated to Buddy Holly, McLean's teenage idol.
The composer himself never gave an explanation for his lyrics, saying that "they are not subject to analysis, since they are poetry". Anyway, "American Pie" is one of the most special songs in folk music and for fifty years it held a unique record:it was the longest - 8'42" - Number 1 in the history of the American chart (it broke it in 2021 (Taylor Swift's 10 minute and 13 second "All too well") But let's start from the beginning.
THE CHRONICLE OF THE TRAGEDY
In November 1958, Buddy Holly ended his collaboration with the Crickets (the group that had accompanied him in his recordings and live performances until then) and organized a tour called "The Winter Dance Party" in the Midwestern States of the USA, which would last three weeks. He would be joined by musicians Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar) and Carl Bunch (drums). Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Dion DiMucci, the latter with his band, the Belmonts.
Holly signed with the General Artists Corporation, a concert and tour company, because he knew that a tour of Europe was in her immediate plans and he did not want to miss such an opportunity. He urgently needed money, on the one hand because the Crickets' manager, Norman Petty, had "emptied" the band's coffers with various scams, and on the other hand, because he wanted to move to New York with his wife, Maria Helena, who was pregnant.
The tour started on January 23, 1959, but the distances between the places where they would play, were too long and the movements very difficult in the winter. The problem was made even bigger because GAC's design was the worst possible. Instead of organizing the series of concerts at close distances from each other, he forced the musicians to travel hundreds of kilometers every day to distant destinations, leaving no time for any real rest.
Here we should add that the road network in the vast area of the Central Western States was mostly wretched country roads, which turned every trip (from 500 to 700 kilometers every day, lasting ten to twelve hours each) into a real nightmare. And of course there were no days off, since GAC had arranged a concert in a different city every day. There was also no support staff at all, which meant that the musicians unloaded, set up, set up and reloaded all the equipment themselves at each live.
The transportation was done with old buses (mainly modified old school buses), which were constantly breaking down, typical of which is the fact that in the first eleven days of the tour, they had to change five! Another big problem was the rudimentary heating inside the buses, at a time when the temperatures outside ranged from -6 to -38 degrees Celsius! As a result, most of the members caught the flu, while Holly's drummer, Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite!
On February 2nd the band arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa, to play at the local Surf Ballroom. Buddy Holly, exhausted from suffering and the deep winter, decided to charter a private plane to take him from Iowa to his next destination, Moorhead, Minnesota. It was a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza B35, to be flown by 21-year-old Roger Peterson, who, however, was not trained to fly aircraft on an IFR basis, which would prove fatal due to the fog, blizzard and very limited visibility.
THE SHARING OF JOY
There were four seats on the plane. The two of them were captured by the pilot and Buddy Holly. In the other two, it was luck (and bad luck) that played its part. Jennings, who was due to fly on the plane, became furious when he learned that the ticket cost 36 dollars (about 250 euros in today's money). He found it too expensive and immediately agreed to give up his seat to Richardson, who had the flu and wanted to avoid the long bus journey.
When Holly was told Jennings wouldn't be flying with him, he joked, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up," only to elicit the response from his bassist, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes" A phrase that has since haunted Jennings for the rest of his life...
At the same time, Valens, who was noticeably aerophobic, begged Allsup to give him his own slot, and Holly's guitarist agreed to play her crown - letters. It was Bob Hale, a local DJ who had introduced the concert at the Surf Ballroom, who flipped the coin, with Valens taking the seat from Allsup and saying immediately after:"This is the first time in my life that I won something". The Beechcraft Bonanza B35 had now found "victims" and the squadron's doom clock began to count down. Once the live was over, the foursome headed to the Mason City airport.
THE CRASH AND DEATH
Roger Peterson took off the helicopter at 12:55 a.m. from Runway 17 in heavy snow and high winds. It was now Tuesday, February 3, and a few minutes after take-off the pilot lost his orientation, unable to understand what altitude he was at, after the plane's specific instrument malfunctioned.
Unable to see a fixed bright object in the blizzard to use as a reference point, Peterson maintained - incorrectly - a slight descent angle, causing the aircraft to crash into a field shortly afterwards at 270 kilometers per hour. The Beechcraft Bonanza B35 hit the ground first with the right wing and then dragged through the snow for about 160 meters before coming to rest next to a wire fence.
The next morning, airline owner Hubert Dwyer, who had been trying in vain for hours to radio Roger Peterson, reported the aircraft missing to authorities and took a Cessna 180 to fly over the Beechcraft's supposed path Bonanza B35 and do reconnaissance. A little later, at 9.35, he located the wreckage, about ten kilometers northwest of the airport.
The bodies of Holly and Valens were next to the plane, while that of the Big Bopper had been thrown over the fence into a neighboring property. The pilot's body was the only one found inside the plane. The forensic examination spoke of the instant death of all four passengers upon impact with the ground, while the investigation into the causes of the accident assigned responsibility both to the pilot's human error and to a malfunction of the aircraft's instruments.
AFTER THE TRAGEDY
Holly's pregnant wife, Maria Helena (married to him only six months ago), learned of his new accident on television. A little later she miscarried, and she didn't even attend the funeral. Since then, it has been decided in the USA, after air tragedies, not to allow the names of the dead to be mentioned in mass media, before their families have been informed first. Holly's mother collapsed and was hospitalized.
Despite the tragedy, "The Winter Dance Party" tour continued. 15-year-old Bobby Vee (later a teen idol in the early 60s) replaced Holly on vocals for the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota, and for the rest of the tour, for the next two weeks, it was Jennings who took over role of lead singer. At the same time, the funerals of the four victims took place, Holly and Richardson in Texas, Valens in California and Peterson in Iowa.
THE THREE STARS
The first song written about the tragic event was Tommy Dee's "Three Stars" (1959). Soon after it was recorded by Eddie Cochran, who a year later (in April 1960) was killed in a car accident on his way to an airport. Twelve years later, in 1971, it was Don McLean's turn to write the masterpiece "American Pie", which became known as "The day the music died", which symbolized for the composer the loss of the innocence of the first generation of rock and roll.
McLean's song became so identified with the Mason City crash that the event itself has since been referred to simply by these words, i.e. "The day the music died". Before we get to the amazing lyrics of "American Pie", let's first see who the three unfortunate passengers of the Beechcraft Bonanza B35 were on that snowy night of February 3rd, 1959, exactly 63 years ago today.
BUDDY HOLLY (1936-1959)
Charles Hardin Holley was born in 1936 in Texas and was one of the most important performers, composers and virtuosos of rock and roll. In his short recording career, he managed to "marry" country with rhythm &blues in a unique way, creating the foundations of the "twelve-meter madness" that swept the USA in the following decade with rock and roll. He influenced major artists of the 60s and beyond, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Don McLean and many others. He released 3 LPs, the most important being the second titled "Buddy Holly". His biggest hits were "That'll be the day" and "Peggy Sue".
* Video:"Peggy Sue" - Buddy Holly (1957)
RICHIE VALENS (1941-1959)
Richard Steven Valenzuela, of Mexican origin, was born in 1941 in California and was the pioneer of chicano rock, influencing artists such as Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and many others. He adapted classic Latin musical forms and rhythms to the modern demands of rock and roll and rhythmic ballads. His recording career lasted only 8 months and released 2 LPs, the most important of which was the first titled "Ritchie Valens", which contained his big hits "La Bamba" and "Donna".
* Video:"La Bamba" - Ritchie Valens (1959)
J.P. "THE BIG BOPPER" RICHARDSON (1930-1959)
Jiles Perry Richardson Jr was born in 1930 in Texas and was a disc jockey, composer and performer of country and rock and roll, as well as one of the pioneers of rockabilly. He began his career as a radio DJ and in 1957, after seeing college students doing a dance they called "the Bop", adopted the moniker The Big Bopper. In May 1957 he broke the record for continuous stay in a radio studio, playing 1821 records in five days, two hours and eight minutes! His biggest hits were "Chantilly Lace" and "White Lightning", while in 1958 he became the first artist to make a video clip.
* Video:"Chantilly Lace" - The Big Bopper (1958)
"AMERICAN PIE" (1971)
In November 1971, New York composer Don McLean's LP "American Pie" was released. The eponymous song of the record is definitely one of the masterpieces of folk music and refers to the death of the three of the fatal flight. "American Pie" is part autobiography and part history of America in the 1950s and 1960s. The original inspiration came from 14-year-old Don's memories of working as a newsboy in 1959 when he learned of the death of his great idol, Buddy Holly.
The lyrics present an abstract story of Don McLean's life from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, while also narrating the evolution of music and politics over the years, though through his symbolism, the song continues to evolve to this day. According to McLean himself, this is not a nostalgia song. "American Pie" is changing, as America itself is changing.
As we wrote at the beginning of the text, McLean, despite the fact that he dedicated the entire LP "American Pie" to Buddy Holly, never gave an explanation for his lyrics, saying that "they are not subject to analysis, since they are poetry". There are countless symbolisms and references that have been "deciphered" over the years. Let's see the main "hidden" points of the song by first pressing "play" on the video below.
* Video:"American Pie" - Don McLean (1971)
A long, long time ago
(the song was written 12 years after the accident)
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance
And maybe they'd be happy for a while.
But February made me shiver,
with every paper I'd deliver
(the accident happened on February 3rd and Don McLean learned about it from the front pages of the newspapers he sold as a newsboy)
Bad news on the doorstep,
I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried,
when I read about his widowed bride
(reference to Holly's widow, Maria Helena)
But something touched me deep inside,
the day the music died
So bye bye Miss American Pie,
(Miss American Pie is rock and roll music, according to another version, it is the change of time after half of the 50s in the USA)
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
(Chevy, pet name of Chevrolet, one of the symbols of the middle class in the US at the time)
but the levee was dry.
(The Levee was McLean's favorite bar in New Rochelle, New York, which closed)
Them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye
(Rye is another New York neighborhood McLean used to go with his friends when the Levee closed)
Singin' "this will be the day that I'll die,
this will be the day that I'll die".
(reference to Buddy Holly's song, "That'll be the day", which contains the line "That'll be the day when I die")
Did you write the book of love and do you have faith in God, above?
("Book of Love", 1958 hit by the Monotones)
If the Bible tells you so
(reference to the song "The Bible tells me so", a 1955 hit by Don Cornell)
Now, do you believe in Rock and Roll? Can music save your mortal soul?
(reference to the Lovin' Spoonful's 1965 hit, "Do you believe in magic?")
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you're in love with him,
cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
(a reference to "sock hop", the habit of Buddy Holly-era dancers to take off their shoes and dance in their socks)
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely, teenage broncin' buck
with a pink carnation and a pickup truck,
(reference to "A white sport coat and a pink carnation", a 1957 hit by Marty Robbins)
But I knew I was out of luck
the day the music died
I started singin', bye bye Miss American Pie...
Now, for ten years we've been on our own
and moss grows fat on a rollin' stone,
(reference to the song "Like a rolling stone", Bob Dylan's first big hit in 1965)
but that's not how it used to be
When the Jester sang for the king and queen
(the jester is Bob Dylan, the king is Elvis Presley, the queen is Connie Francis)
in a coat he borrowed from James Dean
(James Dean's raincoat is a reference to the movie Rebel Without a Cause, in a scene where Dean lends his raincoat to a guy who is later shot and killed)
In a voice that came from you and me
(reference to folk music)
Oh, and while the King was looking down,
the Jester stole his thorny crown
(the fall of Elvis Presley and the rise of Bob Dylan)
The courtroom was adjourned,
no verdict was returned
(reference to the "Chicago 7" trial)
And, while Lenin read a book on Marx,
(Lenin is John Lennon, heavily influenced by Marxist theory)
the quartet practiced in the park,
(a reference to the Weavers band, who were blacklisted by McCarthyism)
and we sang dirges in the dark
the day the music died
(the dirges are obituaries and of course the reference is to the death of the three)
We were singin', bye bye Miss American Pie…
Helter Skelter in the summer swelter
(a reference to the Beatles song, "Helter Skelter" from the "White album", which "inspired" Charles Manson to commit the murders of Sharon Tate &Rosemary LaBianca)
the birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight Miles High and falling fast,
(reference to the Byrds' 1966 hit "Eight Miles High" from the LP "The Fifth Dimension", which was censored due to its lyrics that - allegedly - encouraged drug use)
it landed foul on the grass , the players tried for a forward pass
with the Jester on the sidelines in a cast
(referring to the accident Bob Dylan had on July 29, 1966 with his motorcycle, Triumph 55, which kept him in the hospital for nine months)
Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume
(a reference to the 1968 Democratic Convention and the tear gas used by the police to break up demonstrations)
while the Sergeants played a marching tune
(αναφορά στο LP "Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" των Beatles)
We all got up to dance,
oh, but we never got the chance
(αναφορά στην τελευταία συναυλία των Beatles στο Candlestick Park τον Αύγουστο του 1966, η οποία διήρκεσε μόλις 33 λεπτά)
'Cause the players tried to take the field,
the marching band refused to yield
(αναφορά στην "παντοκρατορία" των Beatles στη μουσική σκηνή των 60ties)
Do you recall what was revealed
(η διάλυση των Beatles)
the day the music died?
We started singin', bye bye Miss American Pie…
And, there we were, all in one place,
(το τριήμερο του Woodstock τον Αύγουστο του 1969)
a generation Lost in Space
(αναφορά στη γενιά των hippies)
With no time left to start again
So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
(αναφορά στον Mick Jagger από το "Jumpin' Jack Flash" που κυκλοφόρησε τον Μάη του ’68)
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,
(αναφορά στη χρήση της ηρωίνης, που στην νεοϋρκέζικη αργκό λεγόταν Jack Flash)
'cause fire is the Devil's only friend
(αναφορά στο "Sympathy for the devil" των Rolling Stones)
And, as I watched him on the stage
my hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
could break that Satan’s spell
And, as the flames climbed high into the night
to light the sacrificial rite,
(αναφορά στη συναυλία των Rolling Stones στο Altamont Speedway τον Δεκέμβριο του 1969, όταν οι Hell's Angels που εκτελούσαν χρέη περιφρούρησης, μαχαίρωσαν μέχρι θανάτου τον Meredith Hunter)
I saw Satan laughing with delight
(ο Σατανάς είναι ο Mick Jagger)
the day the music died
He was singin', bye bye Miss American Pie…
I met a girl who sang the blues,
(η Janis Joplin)
and I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled and turned away
(ο θάνατος της Joplin από υπερβολική δόση ηρωίνης στις 4 Οκτωβρίου του 1970)
I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before,
(αναφορά στα δισκάδικα των 60s, όταν οι πελάτες μπορούσαν να ακούσουν έναν δίσκο ιδιωτικά μέσα σε ένα μικρό booth πριν τον αγοράσουν)
But the man there said the music wouldn't play.
(αναφορά στον ιστορικό χώρο συναυλιών Fillmore West στο Σαν Φρανσίσκο, ο οποίος έκλεισε τον Ιούλιο του 1971, την εποχή δηλαδή που ο McLean έγραφε το "American Pie")
And in the streets the children screamed,
(αναφορά στις διαδηλώσεις των "παιδιών των λουλουδιών" και στη βίαιη καταστολή από τις αστυνομικές δυνάμεις, κυρίως στο Berkeley το 1969 και το 1970)
the lovers cried, and the poets dreamed,
but not a word was spoken,
the church bells all were broken.
(οι σπασμένες καμπάνες είναι οι τρεις νεκροί που δεν μπορούν πλέον να φτιάξουν μουσική)
And the three men I admire most:
the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost,
(εδώ υπάρχουν δυο εκδοχές. Είτε πρόκειται για τους Holly, Valens και Big Bopper, είτε για τους JFK, Martin Luther King και Bobby Kennedy)
They caught the last train for the coast
the day the music died
And they were singin', bye bye Miss American Pie…