The day the music died – or lived forever

Fifty-four years ago today was The Day the Music Died, according to lovers of early rock and roll and the lyrics of the iconic song, “American Pie,” by Don McLean. Early in the morning of Sunday, February 3, 1959, a small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (J.T. Richardson), crashed in a snowstorm soon after taking off. The musicians had played at Clear Lake, Iowa, that night and were on the way to Moorhead, Minnesota. They were part of a Midwestern tour called the Winter Dance Party.

buddyhollyHolly died at 22 after only a few years of performing, but his 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. He 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.*

Contrary to McLean’s lyrics, the music didn’t die that night in 1959. In fact, Holly’s music took on a new life, inspired 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.” (Clapton, 2007, Broadway Books.) 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, on January 31. People of a certain age will tell you they remember where they were when they heard that Buddy Holly had been killed in a plane crash.

220px-Don_McLean_-_American_PieMcLean’s song was 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. One of the best known lines 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.”

Try this Super Bowl Day activity if football bores you:  See one of the exegeses that has been made of the line-by-line meaning of “American Pie,” such as The Octopus’s Garden at  My favorite story about the song is from Chicago radio station WCFL’s Bob Dearborn, who analyzed the song for listeners in 1972. His story and his analysis are online here (The station is now sports radio WMVP.)

So get out your Buddy Holly and the Crickets CD and join me in listening to a little “Peggy Sue,” “Look at Me” and “That’ll Be the Day.”

For more on Holly, especially the influence of his music after 1959, see Buddy Holly by Dave Laing in the Icons of Pop Music Series published by Indiana University, 2010.

Other music notes ….

* A shoutout to my friend Steve the Scrivener for suggesting I listen to Gaslight Anthem’s CD, The ’59 Sound. Nice punk sound. They do rock. I particularly liked the Springsteen references in “High Lonesome” and “Meet Me by the River’s Edge.”

My other new CD is the Lumineers’ self-titled debut album. They’re a folk rock band with great songs, intriguing melodies, percussion and lyrics. My favorite tracks are “Dead Sea” and their hit single “Ho Hey.” Like Gaslight Anthem, they’re from New Jersey. The Lumineers now are based in Denver.