The day the music died

Surf Ballroom 4-25-14
Inside the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa. From the left, Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

Thus were the musings of John Greenleaf Whittier in his 1856 poem, “Maud Muller.”

They came to mind today as I read again the stories surrounding this date in 1959 and its sad events memorialized by another poet, Don McLean, in the song “American Pie” as “the day the music died.”

Approximately 1 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1959, a Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft crashed about five miles after leaving the municipal airport in Mason City, Iowa. Dying in the crash were the pilot and three rising stars of rock ’n’ roll – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

They are depicted above in a photo I took a couple of years ago at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where they gave their last performance hours earlier. From the left are Valens, 17 years old; Holly, 22; and Richardson, 28. The pilot, Roger Peterson, was an experienced flyer but only 21.

“It might have been.” Need I say more?

Buddy Holly, even at such a young age, had considerable influence on music for decades. One can find references that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Elton John all claim to have been affected by his work. Undoubtedly, so did a hundred others.

Ritchie Valens had only been recording for eight months but already had a big hit with “La Bamba.” He’s considered a forefather of the Chicano rock movement,

The Big Bopper might have been the old man in the group, at 28, but he had just begun recording with his hit “Chantilly Lace” making its debut the previous summer. He started out as a disc jockey and eventually wrote songs, including “White Lightning” for George Jones and “Running Bear” for Johnny Preston.

And don’t forget the pilot. While the Civil Aeronautics Board determined the probable cause of the crash was an “unwise decision” based on deficiencies in his weather briefing, he left behind a widow and a promising air career. I cannot help but wonder if he took a chance he normally would not have because of who his passengers were.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

Those even brighter burn shorter still.

3 thoughts on “The day the music died”

  1. Funny you should mention John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Maud Muller.” My mother and I recently had a conversation about this poem. I googled it and read the entire poem to her. We both cried. She remembered most of it by heart. In her day memorizing poetry was mandatory in school. What brought about this conversation: Her second husband, my step-father, had called her. He was in the hospital, suffering from a really severe case of pneumonia. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, always had and always will. After seventeen years of marriage they divorced (in the 1970s). This was the love of her life. I’m happy to report he recovered and is home, but they had their “what might have been” conversation.


    1. Thanks for sharing the story. I hope their later-in-life revelation sates a bit of the regret.
      While I was aware of the line from the poem, I did not know the story until I read the poem yesterday. I’m not exactly a poetry guy, but he tells the tale so vividly and in such a brief fashion that I find it amazing. Whittier also wrote one of my favorite poems, one that I’ve almost had memorized since the fifth grade, “In School Days.” The story is somewhat similar, I think, but I saw it a little differently when I read it again yesterday. It’s open for interpretation, I believe, that maybe they did spend their days together but the number of years was too short.
      Here’s another. One of my favorite songs is Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” It’s very much a Maud Muller tale.


      1. Yes! Don’t know why I never got back to read your reply to my reply. But, yes. Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” is wonderful. Love that song!


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