The day the music died

4 04 2010

“American Pie” is a folk/rock song written & recorded byDon McLean in 1971.  The single was a #1 hit for four weeks in the US in 1972.  The lyrics to “American Pie” have been the subject of curiosity and speculation for nearly 40 years.

First and foremost, “the day the music died” is a lyric referencing the dark February day in 1959 when a plane crash took the lives of three popular recording artists; Buddy Holly[1] ,Ritchie Valens[2] and The Big Bopper[3].  McLean was a young newspaper delivery boy at the time, hence the lyric “But February made me shiver with every paper I delivered.” “His widowed bride” referenced the young Mrs. Holly while “Bye, bye Miss American Bye” focused on the end of an era … the era of 50’s style rock & roll personified as a female as virginesque as American pie.  Of course, the boys at the bar are drinkin’ and singing “This will be the day that I die”, a lyric stolen from “That’ll be the day” by Holly.  Much of the lyrics are personal to McLean, referencing places such as “The Levee” from his youth and his feelings regarding the shift in the music industry from dancing to a more psychedelic scene.  Clearly, when listened to in detail, McLean is stating his contempt with what he felt was the end of heartfelt and meaningful music.  This includes 2 references to Bob Dylan; “moss grows fat on a rolling stone” is in reference to Dylan’s hit “Like a rolling stone” as McLean jabs at him that the music is stale and without meaning as well as describing Dylan as “the jester” twice in American Pie’s lyrics “When the jester sang for the king and queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean” (as Dylan wore a red jacket similar to Dean’s infamous red jacket in film) and “While the King was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown”. The king, of course, is Elvis Presley which again notates McLean’s disappointment in the trade of one legend for an up and coming legend, Bob Dylan.  It appears, a large portion of the song is poetic jabs at Dylan’s rise to fame as the voice of the people … a sentiment McLean was clearly not in agreement with and could also be another reason he felt the music died.

Following his not-so-well-disguised stabs at Bob Dylan, “American Pie” takes aim at The Beatles in lyrical references; “Helter Skelter in a summer swelter the birds flew off with a fall out shelter” and “While the sergents played a marching tune” where he seems to proclaim the Beatles were also part in the death of what he felt was music.

“Oh they were all in one place” is a reference to Woodstock (the famous open concert of 1969’s Summer of love) while “a generation lost in space” references the hippie subculture, a generation McLean felt had failed in life by alienating themselves from society and abused drugs so heavily that they were lost. He also mocks protests and protesters within the lyrics.

And in dissecting the song further, “American Pie” jabs at other 60’s rock legends; The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. McLean closes the song stating that the three men he admired most (Holly, Valens and The Big bopper) “caught the last train for the coast … the day the music died.”

So, who are these three guys that inspired Don McLean so much?

[1]Buddy Holly was born in 1936 in Lubbock, TX and learned to play the piano, fiddle and guitar at a very young age.  At age 5, he won a local talent show and in his early teens formed a country/bop band that gained popularity on local radio stations.  Holly was a rock pioneer who wrote his own material and used the studio for advanced techniques such as doubletracking; popularizing two guitars, bass and drums lineup.  Among these unique recordings were his most popular tunes “That’ll be the Day”, “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy”.  Ironically, his playful, mock-ingenuous singing and trademark “hiccup” has been a major influence on Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and numerous imitators.  In 1986 Holly was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and seven years later he was honored with his own postage stamp.  Holly is also honored in his home state with a yearly festival in his name and on Broadway in a long running musical titled “The Buddy Holly Story”.

[2]Richard Stephen Valenzuela was born in Pacoima, CA in 1941 to a family struggling financially while working on a plantation. Later he would change his name to Ritchie Valens for his musical career.  Valens was the original Latin rocker of the bebop 50’s music era.  He began playing guitar as a child and formed his own band in high school.  As the first Hispanic rock star, Valens signed with the Del-Fi record label at the young age of 16 and soon had a hit with “Come on Let’s Go”.  But, it was the pensive “Donna” (written about his high school sweetheart) that gave him a #2 hit in early 1959.  The flip side of the “Donna” LP bore the unforgettable “La Bamba” which was sung entirely in Spanish and boasted some fierce guitar work far ahead of the times as well as a thick electric bass sound which gave the tune more electric presence than previously known in rock and roll music.  His speedy success brought financial aid to his struggling family as he rose to stardom.  Unfortunately, Valens would face an untimely death only one year later at the tender age of 17.  He had just established himself as one of the most promising young talents in rock and roll.  In 1987 Luis Valdez, a fellow Latin American, produced and released the film “La Bamba”; a biographical story of Ritchie Valens life (including the plane crash with Holly and The Big Bopper).

[3]The Big Bopper was born Jiles Perry Richardson in 1930 in Sabine Pass, TX.  He was a radio disc jockey in Beaumont, TX during high school and throughout his life (excluding a 2 year period that he spent in the army as a radio communications instructor).  While in the army, he began writing songs and in 1957 sent a demo of original material to a Houston, TX record producer who later introduced him to Mercury Records.  This would begin his secondary career moonlighting as a pop star.  He cut two country & western singles under his birth name, J.P. Richardson and a novelty record called “The Purple People Eater meets the Witch Doctor” as The Big Bopper.  The flip side of this novelty hit was the rockabilly original called “Chantilly Lace”.  “Chantilly Lace” would become an international smash hit in 1958.  He followed the hit with two modest singles and developed a stage show based on his radio persona.  Buddy Holly, a longtime friend of Richardson, would invite Richardson to accompany him and Valens on a Midwestern tour in 1959.  It was on this tour that The Big Bopper, Holly and Valens would face their demise when their tour plane would fly into a snow storm between Iowa and North Dakota and crashed.  Richardson left little in the way of recordings.  As a song writer, however, he returned to the charts a year after his death with a song titled “Running Bear” that he’d written for Johnny Preston.

“The Winter Dance Party” was a tour that was set to cover 24 Midwestern cities in three weeks. A logistical problem with the tour was the amount of travel, as the distance between venues was not a priority when scheduling each performance. Adding to the disarray, the tour bus used to carry the musicians was ill-prepared for the weather; its heating system broke shortly after the tour began. Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch,  developed a severe case of frostbitten feet while on the bus and was taken to a local hospital. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa was never intended to be a stop on the tour, but promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the Surf Ballroom, and offered him the show. He accepted and the date of the show was set for February 2. By the time Buddy Holly arrived at the ballroom that evening, he was frustrated with the tour bus and told his bandmates they should try to charter a plane to get to the next stop on the tour, Moorhead, Minnesota.  Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, 21, a local pilot who worked for Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, Iowa.  A fee of $36 per passenger was charged for the single-engined 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza B35 (V-tail).
The Bonanza could seat three in addition to the pilot. Richardson had developed a case of the flu during the tour and asked one of Holly’s bandmates, Waylon Jennings, for his seat on the plane; Jennings agreed to give up the seat. When Holly learned that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, he said, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” This exchange of words, though made in jest at the time, haunted Jennings for the rest of his life. Ritchie Valens had never flown in a small plane before, and asked Holly’s remaining bandmate on the plane, Tommy Allsup, for his seat. Tommy said “I’ll flip ya for the remaining seat.” A DJ who was working the concert that night made the toss at the ballroom shortly before they departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss, and with it a seat on the plane that night.
Just after 1:00 am Central Time on February 3, the plane took off from Mason City Municipal Airport.  Around 1:05 the owner of Dwyer Flying Service saw the lights of the plane start to descend from the sky to the ground. The pilot was expected to file his flight plan once the plane was airborne, but never called the tower. Repeated attempts by Dwyer to contact him failed. By 3:30 AM, when Hector Airport in Fargo had not heard from Peterson, Dwyer contacted authorities and reported the aircraft missing.  Around 9:15 in the morning, Dwyer took off in another small plane to fly Peterson’s intended route. A short time later, he spotted the wreckage in a cornfield about five miles northwest of the airport. Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf Ballroom who drove the performers to the airport and witnessed the plane taking off, made the positive identification of the performers.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” can be heard here with lyrics included in the video:



25 responses

4 04 2010

It’s rather astounding that the simplistic three chord Rock& Roll that these entertainers rose to fame doing has had the influence or the staying power that it has. Having been around to see it when it was new(I’m 66), I was even surprised that it had a comeback as Oldies but Goodies ten years after the fact. I’m absolutely astounded at its still being played fifty years later. Much of its original popularity had to do with the introduction of High Fidelity recording technology. Recorded sound began to have dimension. Deep Bass sounds and tonal clarity that were previously not possible in records were now possible and this kind of music was well suited to it. Combining that with a new post war affluence that trickled down to youth, the right elements were in place for a new financial bonanza. These recordings were all profit. No big bands to pay and all that was required was a minimally talented kid with a guitar and a couple of studio musicians. This stuff was cheap to make, the kid was sent out on the road for months to promote the record and percentage wise was paid very little. There was kind of a romantic lore that sprung up around it and I guess that’s where the staying power comes from. Us old folks can look back on our teenage years by listening to those old songs and reminiscing. From a strictly music quality view, a lot of stuff from that period was pretty bad.

4 04 2010

Hello Donnie! Thanks for the very interesting and enlightening comment here. I enjoy this music, but I’m more a fan of the 60’s-80’s. Sounds to me like you’re a music man, do you play any instruments? Or, are you just a professional music fan? I enjoyed this read. I’m going to visit your page & see what you have over there!

6 04 2010
John Mueller

Hey Suz, nice article, good job. The photo you used of Buddy though is actually me and is a publicity shot from my show, Winter Dance Party. Just thought you’d like to know.
Cheers, John
Hello, John… you left this comment where I couldn’t reply. Just wanted to say, I am aware that the pic isn’t really Buddy… he wasn’t quite as handsome 🙂 It was just a good fit for the article as I explained in another comment… I’m new here, etc… Anyway, would love to learn more about your show though. I hope you return to see this reply and give me some more details. Thank you :)-Suz

3 02 2011
Leon (a.k.a. Fender) Gresham

As I am writing this comment its February 3, 2011. I thouroughly enjoy this article. There are many facts about that night that has not been correctly explained. The Pilot was Roger Peterson 21. certified to fly by VFR (Visual Flight Rule) He failed his IFR (Instrument Flight Rule) test in March 1958. suffering from vertigo (banking to the right with the nose slightly down) the very exact same thing occured on February 3, 1959. relying on instrument due to the lack of horizon.The Plane took off actually at 12:58 a.m. and is believed to have crashed at 1:03 a.m. 5 to 8 miles NW of the Dwyers flying service airport in Mason City, Iowa on the Albert Jules farm. The plane hit the ground right wing first snapping off with the plane summersaulting 3 or 4 times then sliding up against a barbed wire fence. From time of impact on the ground the plane traveled over 500 feet before stopping up against the barbed wire fence. I could go on but the rest may not be suitable for all readers. There are many variables involved in the crash, however NOT all the blame should go to Roger Peterson, its true he flew when he wasn’t certified to fly by IFR in inclimate weather but lets not forget there are many other people and occurrences that night might have played a part.
Feel free to contact me.
I Have way too much info to list in this comment box as I have a very large collection of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Big Bopper collection books, videos, documents, collectibles, 86 B&W and color 8 by 10 photos (including both B&W and color pics of the crash site), CDs, cassettes, record albums ect…. I also belong to a yahoo group devoted to Buddy Holly in which John Mueller is also a member of.
I welcome you or Mr. Mueller to contact me anytime for information on the night of February 2nd into February 3, 1959
I Love the site Suz! I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this site in the future on the V-35 Beechcraft Bonanza and its relation to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson).
Thanks Suz!!! )D

15 02 2011

Hello Leon, I received your post that you thought had disappeared. However, it was just that I hadn’t checked in to this account in quite some time so I hadn’t approved the post or been able to reply. Please forgive me. As you can see, I haven’t made a new post in a long time due to conflicting stuff going keeping me way too busy to write. I hate that because I do love to write & my favorite topic to write about is music. When I do so, I can only scratch the surface otherwise I would become an full time author writing unauthorized biographies without the pay!! Ha ha!
I thank you for the time you took to share this information with me and am interested in the facts. I would never want to post false information. Your response was kind and open rather than belittling. This piece has gotten me a lot of harassment from “know-it-alls” and frankly I was just trying to share something interesting about a major loss of some irreplaceable forces in the music industry. My passion is music. While the history does interest me, I can only swear to be 100% knowledgeable on the artists I follow more heavily. (Bands like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Aerosmith…etc…). Please feel free to read some of my other blogs involving music to see if you enjoy. As an enthusiast of this particular event, you may or may not be interested in the other blogs but I am hoping that you will be.
As for the information you have outside of this message you posted, I am curious if it is public or private knowledge and if private how you were able to acquire it?
Thank you for you response and interest.

4 04 2010
Keepin' It Real - Blog
4 04 2010

Suz, I wish I could remember what year it was, but I saw Don McLean perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. It was my first time at the Kennedy Center, and at the time I was hanging with a group of people who did sound and light for rock shows in this area. So, I got to sit on the stage while he sang. One of my fondest memories!

4 04 2010

Wow, Elaine, that’s really awesome. I feel I was robbed by being born too late. I’ve had some good times and seen some great concerts, but I know I missed out on the best and the generation that I should’ve been a part of. I envy this experience of yours! Hey! Thanks for checking out my new page. I really like it here.

4 04 2010
WebPickUps Blog » Blog Archive » 9 Months Later…
4 04 2010

I have always loved this song, and shared some of Mclean’s sentiments (not much of a Bob Dylan fan). Living for several years in Lubbock while in graduate school, I learned a lot about Buddy Holly and his legacy, though i had never heard of his music prior. it is clear that three young talents were taken much too soon, and a different kind of music came to the forefront. Some good, some not so much so (at least in my opinion)

4 04 2010

What a tragedy for sure, and it is with many young talents in this industry (though usually self inflicted). I’m not a big fan of change. The biggest movement in music history in my lifetime was the alternative music and Nirvana was at the forefront of that. I never saw what everyone else saw in them. I still don’t. I think they killed the music that I loved most. But, music is supposed to continuously grow & change… however, today it’s pretty awful if you ask me. Buddy Holly was great in many ways I thought. I’m not big on that era of music, but he’s one of the best.

5 04 2010

You are right. Today’s music is awful. I am sick and tired of buying CD’s only to find one good song. Record companies have ruined the biz. I do like some newer music (7 Mary Three, Staind, Live, Kid Rock, Three Doors Down, Alice in Chains) but most of it these days is crap. I just bought my tickets for Iron Maiden last week for their concert here in big D. I cannot help it, I have been a fan since the 80’s. They are great musicians, but more importantly, all of their songs tell a story, and are not just words thrown together for a rhyme. Anyway, happy Trails and have a good week.


5 04 2010

Didn’t see a reply button to your last remark, so I jumped up to this one. Just wanted to say WOOT!! IRON MAIDEN ROCK ON!!! How cool!!!! Enjoy!

4 04 2010
Mr Waldo

Great song, it does convey the loss and transition of an era quite well, it annoys me when they play the radio shortened version, a Chevy gets a mention, cant get more American than bow tie 😀

4 04 2010

Hell yes! I’m a Chevy girl 100%. I didn’t realize there was a short version? I hate when they do this to any song!!!

4 04 2010

Have you got any photos of Buddy Holly, instead of a man who is dressed up to look like Buddy Holly?

4 04 2010

I have tons of pictures of all of these artists, Mick. I am new to this website and I struggle with inserting the pictures here…etc… this seemed to be the easiest one to install. When I installed it, I didn’t even concern myself with anything other than the fit. Until you left this comment, I had no idea it was an imposter. Oh well, to me it’s still a cool looking picture and I’m not about to go through all that again just to change it. However, if you wish to see “real” pictures of Buddy Holly, send me your email address and I can mail you dozens so you too can enjoy my collection 🙂

4 04 2010

This was an interesting post, Suz!

4 04 2010

Thanks. This is something I wrote for a music column a while back. The online mag didn’t seem to take off the way everyone had hoped, so I have quite a few pieces I’d written for them that have never even been published (and a few that have). I’ll be posting them over here from time to time.

4 04 2010

And what else did Don Mclean write that he could be so pompous about Dylan etc?

5 04 2010

Hey hey, don’t even think I’m anti-Dylan. I LOVE Bob! I couldn’t agree with your response more, JZ! I was simply blogging about the song because I’m a music trivia buff and love all music (for the most part, there are some exceptions-lol). But yeah, I agree totally. Bob Dylan is a true genius in the history of music … some of the best lyrics ever written. Don McClean wrote a good song. I hear ya! If you like music, stick around … I post the occasional historical blog and you might dig it. I’m working on a piece about Miles Davis, do you like Miles?

5 04 2010

I don’t think that McClean was being critical of Dylan,the James Dean coat reference was followed by “in a voice that came from you and me” (which you omit).
Dylan was a huge Dean fan and his roots are deep in American folk and blues, the music of the masses therefore he is actually praising Dylan.
The “thorny crown” is simply the price you pay for fame.
Just my two pennyworth.
Thanks for the article.

6 04 2010

Hello Ian. I must’ve written this in a way that many people are misinterpreting. I wasn’t trying to focus on the anti-Dylan aspect as much as it came out, I was really focusing on the history behind the song. I agree the thorny crown is a reference in the price paid, Elvis “The King” being a prime example of one who paid the price. Now, as I told the gentleman above, I’m a huge Dylan fan as well as a fan of folk music … so don’t be mislead and believe that I am not. My taste is very eclectic and if you enjoy music be sure to stop by here regularly because, though I write about several topics, music is my favorite topic to write about and there will be much more music blogs in my future here. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

19 04 2010

Rick Springfield is awesome! I love his work and I’m a guy. Anyone who doesn’t want to admit it is in denial. Thanks for the great blog!

20 04 2010

Weird, I’m rather sure this comment is for a blog I wrote long after this one. I think you goofed up, my friend… but thanks for reading them both… I guess?

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