It was 57 years ago, early in the morning of Sunday, Feb. 3, 1959, when a small plane crashed in a snowstorm soon after taking off from Clear Lake, Iowa. A few hours earlier, Buddy Holly had been performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake.
Holly, by then a successful performer at 22, had hired the small plane after frustration with long journeys on cold, uncomfortable tour buses. The pilot apparently was not qualified to fly on instruments and the plane crashed soon after takeoff, killing all aboard.
If you’re traveling around Clear Lake, near Mason City in north central Iowa, you can stop and see the memorial marking the crash site as well as the nearby signpost made up of a giant pair of black-framed glasses like those Holly wore.
Holly’s work has influenced many musicians including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Many people had heard Buddy Holly and the Crickets by then; they had made several records and performed in Europe as well as across the US. Holly was one of the first performers to write and perform his own music, which reflected country and rockabilly music as well as R&B. His hiccupy vocal style and the rhythms of early rock and roll still are infectious. And the Crickets’ lineup of two guitars, bass and drums became the template for many small rock bands—and some high profile ones such as U2 and The Gaslight Anthem.
The phrase “the day the music died” comes from the Don McLean song, “American Pie,” released 12 years after the plane crash. Although superficially it may sound like just a great rock song, every phrase has meaning in the lore of rock and roll and has inspired line-by-line exegeses, just like a Shakespearean text. Here’s one from rock jock Bob Dearborn at the defunct Chicago radio station WCFL (1926-1987) and another one from a UK writer.
One of the best known verses is: “Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, Singing ‘This’ll be the day that I die, This’ll be the day that I die.’” The first part is said to be a metaphor for the death of the American dream; the latter is adapted from Holly’s song “That’ll Be The Day.”
Of course, the music didn’t die that night in 1959. In fact, Holly’s music took on a new life, inspiring many musicians and scholars. Holly’s death was devastating to many musicians and fans at the time. In his autobiography, Eric Clapton, who was 13 at the time, says, “I remember walking into the school playground … and the place was like a graveyard, and no one could speak, they were in such shock. Of all the music heroes of the time, he (Holly) was the most accessible and he was the real thing.” The Beatles are said to have named their band in homage to the Crickets’ bug-themed name. Bob Dylan tells (in an award-acceptance speech) of seeing Buddy Holly play in Duluth just a few days before his death, on January 31.
Don McLean’s original working manuscript for “American Pie” sold for $1.2 million at Christies’ auction rooms, New York, in April 2015, making it the third highest auction price achieved for an American literary manuscript.
Parts of this essay are excerpted from “The Day the Music Died—or Lived Forever” published three years ago on my blog, nancybishopsjournal.com.