The Day the Music Died
Feb 03, 2021
I'm always fascinated by how creative people come up with their ideas.
Plots for stories and novels, film scripts, song lyrics.
Although I know that sometimes inspiration appears to come from nowhere, and characters and music just appear in ones head or even dreams, at other times the idea might come from nature, real life characters, and even news stories.
And today I'm thinking about one of the best known rock and roll songs ever recorded ... American Pie written and recorded by Don McLean. It was inspired by an event which shocked the world on this day in 1959.
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
So bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey 'n rye
Singin' this'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die
On February 3rd 1959 some of the biggest stars of the time, performers we now recognise as pioneers of American rock and roll, were killed in a plane crash.
Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were on a national tour with a host of other musicians - what was dubbed the Winter Dance Party tour. They had been on the road since January 23rd, travelling from city to city and venue to venue in draughty and unreliable buses. It was all turning a bit disastrous, everyone was exhausted, morale was low and drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalised with frostbite in his toes - caused by the freezing conditions on the bus!
The next stop on the tour was Clear Lake in Iowa and Buddy Holly, who had organised the Dance Party, decided to charter a four seater aeroplane so that after the Clear Lake concert, they could fly to the next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota.
For Holly and two of his friends this would mean they could rest before the next show. But who to take?
Holly had gathered around him a band of fantastic musicians including Carl Bunch on drums, Waylon Jennings on electric bass and Tommy Allsup on guitar.
Jennings was to have a seat in the plane, but he gave up his place to J. P. Richardson (aka the Big Bopper), who had the flu. Allsup flipped a coin for the third seat and he lost to Ritchie Valens.
So it was that Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper were the trio who took their seats on that plane. Shortly after take off, just before 1am on February 3rd, the aircraft crashed into a cornfield.
When the news broke, the nation and certainly the world of entertainment and music went into mourning. Three of the biggest stars and the brightest talent had been lost. Buddy Holly was 22. Valens even younger ... just 17. And although Richardson was one of the older members of the band, he was only aged 28 on that fateful day.
Don McLean has revealed that he first heard about Buddy Holly's death on the morning of February 4th, from the newspaper headlines. The songwriter was then a 13-year-old and he was folding the papers ready for his newspaper route. Hence the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver..."
Years ago, to mark a big birthday, I was treated to a night out at the theatre in Pretoria in South Africa with my brother and sister-in-law and enjoyed the musical 'Buddy', based on Holly's life and untimely death. The musical is around 30 years old, but it was a couple of decades before its creation, in autumn 1971, and 12 years after the fateful crash, that Don McLean released his iconic album 'American Pie' from which comes the single of the same name.
On January 15th 1972 it reached number one in the US Billboard charts and it stayed there for four weeks. The song also topped the charts in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In the UK, the single reached number 2, where it stayed for 3 weeks on its original 1971 release. The song gained more popularity and a new audience when it was re-issued two decades later, in 1991. It was also listed as Number 5 in the Recording Industry Association of America Songs of the Century project and in 2017, the original recording of McLean's 'American Pie' was chosen by the American Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry, being cited as "culturally, historically, or artistically significant"
As I said at the start, it's interesting where people get their ideas for genius, but I've always been more than intrigued by this song, not just because it mentions the events of February 3rd 1959, but also because it appears to have hidden references to other events and characters which influenced American culture.
Over the years, experts have endlessly unpicked and prevaricated over 'American Pie' and it's lyrics, trying to unravel it, especially the references which don't appear to relate specifically to that plane crash.
Don McLean consistently kept silent, but eventually, when the original manuscript of the song went up for auction in New York in 2015, he finally revealed the meaning of his lyrics,
He told us that it's a 'morality song' really ... it's not just about the loss suffered on that day, but its key theme is the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation which the Feb 3 1959 events epitomise. Apparently, we now know, there are mentions of Elvis Presley ("the king") and Bob Dylan ("the jester"), and McLean also confirmed that the song culminates with a description of the death of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old African American who was killed at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert. That controversial death and subsequent murder trial happened ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
Today, I remember 'The Day the Music Died', which is how, thanks to McLean's song, Feb 3rd 1959 will forever be remembered. And I think about and give thanks for the many talented people who have entertained us down the years and have left creative legacies in music, prose and poetry. Some have made a tremendous impact on our lives and on the world. Others not so much, admittedly, but we can't have it all.
Oh and by the way, that 'American Pie' original manuscript sold for $1.2 million! Well-deserved I would say, for a song that pays tribute to those who have gone before and given us so much.