Buddy Holly was 22 years old when he died in a plane crash 60 years ago this week. Ritchie Valens was 17, and Jiles Perry Richardson Jr. (the Big Bopper) was 28 when the incident took their lives as well.
Though its notes are now familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of American rock-and-roll music, the story remains a tragic one. Everyone on board was there by chance: Richardson took Waylon Jennings’s spot on the plane because Jennings had the flu; Valens won a coin toss with Tommy Allsup for his seat; and Holly wanted to get to Moorhead, Minn., early to do the band’s laundry in preparation for a show. Wintry conditions brought the plane down near Clear Lake, Iowa. The crash killed everyone on board, including pilot Roger Peterson.
It is always difficult to determine the impact of death on culture. These days, songs by the recently deceased shoot to the top of streaming services as fans dole their grief out on social media. These moments generally dissipate as the next Big News Item breaks. And even though he was a pioneering figure in early rock-and-roll, it’s entirely possible that might have happened to Holly — and his bandmates — too.
But that crash is seared into the American consciousness thanks to the most popular eight-and-a-half minute song that drunk people like to sing at karaoke, that poetic Wikipedia article on the history of early rock-and-roll: “American Pie” by Don McLean. It is, after all, one of at least two songs that wouldn’t exist if not for that fateful crash (the other being Weezer’s hit “Buddy Holly”).
McLean still speaks wistfully about the infamous accident, painting vivid pictures in a recent interview with The Washington Post of a youth spent making ends meet as a paperboy and by cutting lawns with a “cast-iron lawn mower” for 50 cents a pop while “beginning to play the guitar.”
He was 13 years old in 1959 and, “at that point in my life, I don’t think I’d seen a five-dollar bill, certainly never a 10,” McLean said.
According to the musician, that was the reason he couldn’t afford many records, so he only owned three: two by Holly and one by the Everly Brothers.
He speaks of learning about the plane crash almost lyrically, slowly and meticulously recounting the detail of cutting through the cardboard in which fresh newspapers were wrapped to load them “into your newsboy canvas bag."
“On that day, I remember cutting those papers open and seeing that story. And I was in absolute shock, because I sort of communed with Buddy Holly. He was my guy,” McLean said. “And the newspaper didn’t even mention his name. It said ‘Three rock-and-rollers killed in plane crash.’ That’s how insignificant that music was to the general population that days.”
“It was a serious country,” he added. “And the stuff we focused on, the ’57 Chevy’s, the hula-hoops, the rock-and-roll: that stuff was thought of as candy for children.”
It’s difficult not to wonder if by creating the song “American Pie,” McLean single-handedly elevated a moment that would have been lost — or at least dulled — to the annals of pop music history into “the day the music died,” something we collectively “remember.”
McLean made it his quest to learn as much about Holly as he could, even though at the time “there was nothing available on anybody… You couldn’t find anything.” He hung out with musicians such as Pete Seeger and his beloved Everly brothers, learning more about Holly’s life as he worked on his own folk music career. But when he learned the infamous laundry detail that contributed to Holly’s death, that was it. Wow. Now I had a real person, after all these years."
“I was up in my little room in a gatehouse in Cold Spring, New York, on the Hudson, and out of nowhere came this ‘a long, long time ago,’ right to ‘the day the music died,’ and I ran for my tape recorder and sang the whole thing. And I said, ‘what the heck was that?’" McLean said. “It was like a genie came out of a bottle. And I said, ‘This was so special, I’m not going to rush at all. I’m going to take my time and I’m going to let the song speak to me. I’m not going to try to call it what it is. I want it to tell me what it is.’”
While the creation story behind a song about rock-and-roll myth sure sounds like a rock-and-roll myth — the idea of one of rock music’s most popular songs suddenly appearing in one’s head might taste sweet but is a little tough to swallow — it’s an intoxicating one that rock fans want to believe; it makes the whole enterprise feel bigger and more important than it is. And perhaps that’s the most telling thing about that crash. Some wonder if Holly, a groundbreaking musician, would have tried his hand at folk music and affected the groundswell in Greenwich Village, and others wonder if his career would have been so long and varied that he would have performed with modern musicians such as Jack White. Maybe he would have cut a track with Rihanna and Kanye West, a la Paul McCartney.
But legacies get complicated with time. The crash left space for mythologizing, and McLean dutifully served as author to the myth that is now forever preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”