The Day the Music Died

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Albert Lea, MN

A little over 50 years ago, early in the morning of February 3rd, 1959, a small plane crashed into a frozen field a few miles north of Clear Lake, IA. All four people aboard died. Besides the pilot, Roger Peterson, 21, they were all early pioneers and stars of the rock and roll movement in music that was beginning to take the country, and the world, by storm. They were Buddy Holly, 22, Ritchie Valens, 17, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, 28.

They were on a Midwest tour called the "Winter Dance Party" which was to include concerts in 24 Midwestern cities in about three weeks. Joining the three stars was Dion and the Belmonts, and various other band members. On February 1st, they performed in Green Bay, WI., and then bussed it over to their date the very next night at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake -- a distance of more than 300 miles. I wonder if they drove right through Beaver Dam en route?

Apparently all the travel by bus in the middle of a Midwest winter was taking a toll on the troupe, especially after the bus's heater broke down. A few of them decided to charter a small plane for the next leg of the trip, from Clear Lake to Moorhead, MN -- another 300+ mile trip -- in order to arrive early, get some good sleep, and prepare for the next event. As hatched, the plane trip was to include Buddy Holly and two members of his band "The Crickets" -- Waylon Jennings (yes, that Waylon Jennings) and Tommy Allsup. But, as fate would have it, Jennings gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson, who had developed a case of the flu, and because Valens had never flown in a small plane, Allsup agreed to flip a coin for the remaining seat. Valens won.

When Holly found out that Jennings gave up his seat on the plane he joked with Jennings, saying "I hope your old bus freezes up." In return, Jennings shot back "Well, I hope your old plane crashes." -- a statement that haunted Jennings the rest of his life.

After the Clear Lake Concert, about 1am the morning of February 3rd, the three boarded the small Beechcraft Bonanza (tail number N3794N) a few miles from Clear Lake at the Mason City airport. The weather was reported as light snow but conditions were, in fact, worsening. After the plane took off, the owner of the flying service that owned the plane watched it depart and, after just a short time, descend and disappear. The next morning the wreckage was discovered in a farm field about 5 miles from the airport. All aboard were killed on impact.

The official report of the accident cited poor weather conditions and pilot error as the cause.

Both their youth and the tremendous impact they had in the music business and with the minds of kids from the Baby Boom Generation made this accident much more important than it otherwise would have been. Don McLean, a singer/songwriter from New York, memorialized the event with his most famous song, "American Pie". He referred to it as "The Day the Music Died".

From The Day the Music Died

Saturday Dar and I made the pilgrimage to Clear Lake, IA., about 30 miles South of our camp. We first found the crash site and I was kinda' surprised at the steady stream of visitors. It's out in a farm field along a gravel road. The land owner has apparently conceded a strip of land about a half mile long to facilitate the flow of pilgrims, who would otherwise certainly trample crops while seeking out the shrine. At the point where the path begins along the road, there's a marker made of concrete and steel -- a depiction of Holly's famous horned rimmed glasses. The path follows a line fence about a half mile further into the field to the spot the wreckage came to rest. There's another small marker at that point, along with all kinds of offerings from the faithful -- framed poems and music, album covers, business cards, coins, a wallet containing gift cards (one can only assume they were all exhausted), and much more. I'm sure strong winds help keep the pile to a minimum.

From The Day the Music Died

The next stop was the Surf Ballroom just down the road in Clear Lake. Our GPS helped but was off by a block or two. At first it didn't appear to be open and there were very few cars parked nearby. But intrepid explorers usually find a way to their goal and before long we were inside. What a place! The original Surf Ballroom was built in 1933 and was one of the premier ballrooms of the Midwest. All the Big Bands and other famous musicians of the 30's and 40's performed here. In 1947 the ballroom caught fire and burnt down. The next year a replacement was built -- the one that's here and still active today. This is the place where the "Winter Dance Tour" performed on that night in 1959... on this very stage. The walls of the halls and gathering areas are all lined with autographed photos of the hundreds (or thousands?) of artists that have performed here over the years. It was fun just finding and recognizing names we hadn't thought about for ages. There are also displays of the newspaper story from that day in 1959, which included rather gruesome photos of the accident site. This place is loaded with memories and musical history.

From The Day the Music Died

On our drive home Dar found Don McLean's "American Pie" on our MP3 player. It was quite a day.



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