American Pie is one of the most debatable songs released in the history of the 20th century. Written by Don McLean and released in 1971, American Pie’s elegiac composition had become a staple of American music shortly after its release. Three decades later the song still remains all the more relevant and holds multiple timeless interpretations of society. American Pie was not just a hit that came out of nowhere. The hit single starts with reference to one of the biggest tragedy’s’ in music history. A plane crash that killed the biggest stars of American rock & roll in the late 50s, The Winter Dance Party Tragedy. Whom were the men lost in the accident? How did they inspire Mclean, and what other subliminal messages were left for us to decipher in the 8-minute American hit single?
February third, 1959, is a day that ended in tragedy for the biggest names of the music business of the late 50s. Buddy Holly of the Crickets, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper. The three were rock & roll’s greatest stars.
Buddy Holly had music that would lift you up off your seat and fill you with joy, Richie Valens was a young rising star who seemed to come out of nowhere with some of history’s most timeless hits, and The Big Bopper’s humorous and fun folk music made for the perfect winter tour destined for the three stars to partake in.
The Winter Dance Party was a three-week tour through the heart of the west. Buddy Holly and the gang would set out on a bus tour through the most freezing part of America in the coldest months of the year.
No one would have thought that such a great spirited winter tour could end in such tragedy. In honor of the integrity of rock & roll, we will first look into the lives lost, and the young dreams ripped away from America, on “The Day the Music Died.”
Rock & roll came into the music scene in 1954 with Bill Haley & the Comets, and Elvis Presley. It was a fusion of white country swing and black rhythm and blues that ignited teen spirit across America.
Buddy Holly was inspired by the style of Elvis and was in disbelief by the energy he was able to bring on to the television. It was that inspiration that would guide Buddy’s Career of being a singing star.
Buddy Holly was born on September seventh, 1936 in Levett Texas. The young Buddy Holly lived for music and by the mid-1950s was already starting to become a teenage rock & roll prodigy who was very anxious to make his mark.
Buddy Holly’s brother Travis Holley is quoted on “Behind the Music” as saying that Buddy became very impatient with regards to other young men his age breaking into the music scene, seeing as that Buddy knew that he was “better” then they were.
Buddy Holly formed a band with his friends Jerry Alison, Nickie Sullivan, and Joe B Molding, the three called themselves “The Crickets.” The group came together in 1957, and before the end of the year, Buddy Holly would become a star.
By September 1957, their song “That’ll be the Day” referencing John Wayne became the number three song in America. Months later The Crickets scored another big hit with a song named for drummer Gerry Alison’s girlfriend, Peggy Sue Gerron.
The band would go on to take their two hits to play on tour with some of rock & rolls biggest names of the time, Chuck Berry, Fast Domino, and Eddie Cochran. The tour was long and grueling, and by the time it was over, Nickie Sullivan had quit the Crickets saying that the tour took more out of him than anything he has ever done in his entire life.
Travis Holly says, of Holly in regards to his lack of being able to sit back and enjoy saying “he acted like he didn’t have enough time to do what he wanted to do, I don’t know if he thought his life would be cut shorter, or his career would be cut shorter.”
Buddy Holly’s career started coming to a standstill as he was beginning to lose his winning streak of making it to the top three spots on the charts, although he had a lot of money in publishing rights, he had no cash in his pocket.
Buddy decided that going on tour would be the best way to make some extra cash. According to Don McLean, he was “Forced” to go on a tour he did not really want to go on, in the worst season of the year in order to take care of his family.
As Buddy Holly’s popularity was starting to fall back in the charts, two new rising stars would begin to make their way into the limelight. Richie Valens and the Big Bopper.
The two young stars were loved and adored by America and had their own unique styles that would bode well with Holly on tour.
The Big Bopper was the stage name of musician J.P. Richardson, a Bowmont Texas disk jockey who had a love for music and a talent for very funny ad-libs, and a great ability to write songs.
Born Jiles Perry Richardson on October twelfth, 1930. He was the eldest son of an oil field worker and grew up very poor.
A big motivation for going into the music industry came from Bopper’s history of poverty, in the 1950s he was working on the radio, but still not making ends meet, so he decided to take on the performance industry as well. He was a big man with a great sense of humor.
His songs like “The Witch Docter,” and “The Purple People Eater,” made no sense but a lot of money. His songs were making money and hitting the top of the charts. The last thing left to do was to tour and promote the album, so on that December of 1958, Bopper was booked for the Winter Dance Party Tour.
At just 17 years old Ritchie Valens was the youngest star on the Winter Dance Part tour. It would be the high point of the career of a young star who was just starting to take off. Richie Valens was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13th, 1931 in California.
His father passed away when he was only ten years old, leaving his family in poverty. Valens had started playing the guitar as a young boy, and by the time he was already in his teens, he had a fan base.
Valens energy on stage attracted the attention of record producer Bob Keen. Who said that Richard was a kind of “bull like” guy standing up there with his guitar on an old beat up amp and was just really “cooked” with stage presence.
When Bob had signed Richard, he had wanted to avoid using his true last name for fear of bigotry to his Latin roots, so he had changed his stage name to Richie Valens.
Valens released his first record “Come on Let’s Go” by summer of 58. By that autumn that year It had reached 47 on the top 100 charts. His biggest hit would come next, a song dedicated to his beast girl called “Donna,”
on the other side of the record, the timeless single “La Bamba” had teens dancing with joy across America. Just seven months after his discovery in the music business, Valens was booked to tour with the Winter Dance Party.
The Winter Dance Part was a three-week jaunt through the heart of the Midwest, in the part of America that literally freezes over during February. Richie Valens, the Big Bopper, Frankie Sardo, Deon, and the Bellmonts, and Buddy Holly. Along with three new sidekicks Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Charlie Bunch.
Buddy Holly had put together his band just weeks before the tour and told Waylon Jennings that he had two weeks to learn to play bass. Little did they know that thi would be the least of their problems and how cold of a winter they would endure.
According to Tommy Allsup, the winter was “cold, cold,” and he could not wrap his mind around who in their right mind would want to book a tour in such cold weather. The tour bus had frozen up many times going down the road, and 40 degrees below freezing temperatures.
It was so bad that the drummer’s feet froze on the bus and were frostbit. The team of artists was scheduled to endure this torture for a 21-day tour.
On the 11th day of the tour, the band after already going back an fourth around the region in the frigid cold weather had been booked to play in Clear Water, Iowa. The Big Bopper by then had been running a fever, and the whole band was becoming tired.
Buddy, had scheduled for a small charter plane to take him in his band to Fargo North Dakota with him after the show. Buddy had was desperate to get ahead, and maybe “do some laundry” before his next gig.
When the band had arrived at the surf ballroom, a line had stretched all the way down the street, parents and children were pouring in to buy tickets, and the whole venue had instantly filled up. The Winter Dance Party was the biggest tour to ever arrive in the small town in Northeast Iowa. No one had ever seen stars so prominent in their entire life.
The Big Bopper came out and opened to do his classic telephone “Hello Baby” routine, and had the crowd laughing. Then came Richie Valens to play Donna, and then came Buddy Holly. Although they had not known it yet, it would be the last night they would all be together.
Once the curtain came down, it would be Buddy, Waylon, and Tommy, who were supposed to get on a flight to Fargo North Dakota. However, The Big Bopper was still very ill and made a deal with Waylon Jennings to switch places on the plane.
Tommie had run into Richie Valens, and the two had done a coin toss to decide who would be the third man to get on the small plane. It would be the last time they saw each other.
It had been just past midnight, as the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Richie Valens climbed into the three seats of the small four-seater beach craft bonanza plane, shortly after takeoff, the plane had disappeared into the night and crashed.
The cause of the flight was listed as “Pilot Error” but many suspects it was the extreme snowstorm that hit the plane shortly after takeoff that had taken it down. All four passengers had died instantly, marking the end of an era. Decades later it would inspire an Anthem that pays tribute to the three musicians and pays homage to American culture.
Many were worried that the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens would spell out the death of rock & roll, there was not really any young musicians that could compare to them, Elvis was in the army, and Bob Dylan was only catering to the folk side of the genre.
It was not until the Beatles touched down in the United States, that anyone would get a taste of that same rock & roll Fever, and just as the summer of love had come to a close, and the 70s were beginning, Don McLean released American Pie, his anthem and ode, to the past 20 years of rock & roll, and how he saw the state of the union.
Don McLean’s American Pie was his nostalgic shout out to his childhood in the 1950s. In his first verse, “A long, long time ago” refers to the 1950s that seemed like forever ago because of all of the turmoil during the 60s.
“I can still remember how that music used to make me smile” Mclean’s favorite music came from the 50s, “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while.” A significant dream for Mclean at the time was to be a musician.
“But February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”
Don McLean was a huge fan of Buddy Holly as a child, he looked up and admired Buddy, and wanted to be just like him. At the time of the crash, McLean was a paperboy and said he had shown up early that morning to pick up the papers for his rout and ended up feeling like he had been punched in the gut.
“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.” These few lyrics at the end of the first verse shocked Americans around the country and brought them to tears.
It had already been more than a decade since the crash, yet it still held a place in the hearts of many Americans. McLean opened with what he saw as the ironic beginning of rock & roll after a tragic end to it’s for fathers.
“Did you write the book of love, and do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so? Now, do you believe in rock & roll?”
McLean pays his respects here to the writing of “The book of Love” a song written by the Monotones in 68, and “The Bible Tells Me So” by Don Cornell.
He then goes on to give more tribute to the dancing and love culture he had experienced as a boy dancing in the gym listening to the songs like the “Book of Love,” and “A White Sport Coat.”
However, he is singing this verse very ironically and almost sarcastically considering the institutionalized racism and disenfranchisement in American culture at that time.
McLean then jumps a year forward in time to mention 1969. “Now, for ten years we’ve been on our own and moss grows fat on a rolling stone but, that’s not how it used to be.”
Don is saying that the “simple days” of a high school dance and bible studies have been replaced with complex figures and power struggles that guide the evolution of music over the next decade.
“When the jester sang for the king and queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean, and a voice that came from you and me.” The “jester” lyric is the figure that dominates this verse. Many believe the jester to be a reference to Bob Dylan. The jester’s Bob Dylan.
The king is Peter Seger, and the queen is Joan Baez. These were the two big names in folk at the time the early ’60’s). During the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Dylan was honored to play his own set and then combine with these two legends to sing his song “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
“Oh, and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown, the courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned.” These are verses with a bit of a biblical allegory to them.
The crown of thorns is what Jesus of Nazareth wore on his crucifixion in the second testament. McLean was referring to Elvis Presley losing his crown to Bob Dylan.
“And while Lennon read a book of Marx” This is about the Beatles music becoming political. Songs like “Revolution” (1968) (which actually mentions Chairman Mao) were much different than “Love Me Do” (1963). Many American adults thought the Beatles were bad for the American youth, especially after Lennon’s remark in 1966 about Christianity saying “Christianity will go.
It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right, and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first: rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”
“The quartet practiced in the park, and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.” The quartet was the Beatles practicing in Candlestick Park, the place of their last concert.
A dirge is a funeral song. These songs were for the Kennedy’s (John and Robert) and Martin Luther King, all who died in the mid-’60s.
“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter, the birds flew off with a fallout shelter, eight miles high, and falling fast.” Helter Skelter is an obvious reference to the Manson murders of 1969.
The Byrd’s were a popular folk-rock group. One of the members the Byrds had been arrested for possession of marijuana, and a fallout shelter was another name for a rehab program.
“It landed foul on the grass, the players tried a forward pass, with the jester on the sidelines in a cast.”
Jester in the cast is another reference to the shift in politics from Bob Dylan during the mid-60s. In 1966 Dylan got into a motorcycle accident and wound up on the sidelines for a while wearing a cast.
“Now the half-time air was sweet perfume, while sergeants played a marching tune. We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance.” This is a clear homage to the Beatles Sargent Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band album that came at the same time Dylan was on hiatus.
The verse also carries a double meaning referencing the young soldiers sent to Vietnam who did not get a chance to live.
“Do you recall what was revealed the day that music died?” He then closes the verse by giving you a second perspective to what happened Buddy Holly, the day the plane crashed. Holly was forced along with the rest of his crew into a situation they did not want to be in, the corporate machine who sent them on a winter nightmare.
Shining a light on what lied between the surface. Just like the reality behind the facade of the happy, peaceful music of the 60s.
Two years after Woodstock, The Altamont Speedway Festival was launched in an attempt to recapture the experience of the summer of love. The concert turned out to be a disaster, and the massive crowd was drunken and disorderly.
So, too were the Hells Angels Biker gang who were for some reason hired for security. The lyrics “…so come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick” (a reference to Stones song “Jumpin Jack,) because fire is the devil’s only friend.”
The Altamont Music Festival was notable for McLean to reference, if the February plane crash was the physical representation of the day that music died, Altamont was a metaphoric death of peaceful musical society.
The fans in Altamont were exercising privilege, violence and substance abuse over one another, and it was complete havoc.
“I met a girl who sang the blues, and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.”
The girl who sang the blues was at the time the late Janice Joplin, whom the rock & roll community admired very much. With Morrison, Hendrix, and Joplin, and many more, rock and roll seemed to be losing a different beloved star every day, and something needed to be said about it.
“And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast. The day the music died.” Just like this article, the song starts with the mention of the Winter Dance Festival tragedy and ends with it as well.
The father, son, and holy ghost reference to the crash again. The Father being The Big Bopper, the son being Richie Valens, and the holy ghost being Buddy Holly. Their last train for the coast references the coast being paradise, and the train being the plane on the day the three men perished.
The one last chorus is the final chorus and goes like all the rest, in an almost condescending consistent manner each time it is sang, the chorus disguises itself as wishing for the return of the good old days, even though there were never any good old days, there was always bad, and there was always good to humor the bad.
Young boys are drinking knowing they can die one day, and the levy being dried of its resources, we are saying goodbye to the American pie illusion, and accepting reality for what it is.