New Perspectives: A Senior Moment – “The Day the Music Died”

My grade 13 French composition class had just finished and I was at my locker putting on a heavy woolen jacket. It was time to head for home and a hot lunch. Moving quickly down the long marble-floored corridor at Downsview Collegiate, I overheard a cluster of other students sharing some terrible news: an overnight plane crash in Iowa had killed three of my favorite singers and their pilot. It was February 3, 1959—”the day the music died.” We were not familiar with death.

Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were in the midst of a bone-wearying series of musical performances across American mid-western states. “The Winter Dance Party Tour” had begun in January and already the singers and their entourage were tired of bus travel. The group decided to charter a light plane to fly from Mason City, Iowa, to their next gig in Minnesota. Around 1:00 a.m., the Cessna crashed into a snow covered corn field at Clear Lake, where they had just performed that evening.

Along that corridor, the girls especially were saddened by the loss of handsome Ritchie Valens, a teenager just like us, suddenly dead at only 17 years of age. His catchy, bouncy hit song “La Bamba” had topped the charts a year before. That same year, 1958, had seen the rise to rock & roll fame of twenty eight-year-old J.P. Richardson, much better known as The Big Bopper, with his smash single, “Chantilly Lace.”

My immediate sense of loss was focused on Buddy Holly, who died at 22. In 1957, Holly had burst on to the musical scene with two big hits, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Formerly with the Crickets, this country rock songster with the big guitar, black-rimmed glasses and ‘hiccuppy’ voice, was a great favorite of mine.

Of course, that plane crash wasn’t really the end of music. The now-iconic phrase was created for a 1971 film, American Pie, by the singer songwriter, Don McLean, who wanted to acknowledge the significance of that 1959 Iowa tragedy. (Wikipedia)

Until Bill Haley and then Elvis two years later, teens were generally content to listen to the soft, soothing voices made popular in the cultural world of adults … Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Doris Day or Nat King Cole. The three performers who were lost in Iowa belonged only to us, not the grown-ups (although they were also allowed to listen and enjoy our unique music.)

The fifties had brought us a father-figure, President “Ike” Eisenhower and a reliable, unruffled Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson. It was a time of high school and family security. In a few months however, we would be thrust into the turbulent 1960s and away at college or out into the work world. The sixties soon brought us Pierre Trudeau and his society-changing laws around abortion, divorce and gay rights and, beyond our borders, the charismatic J.F.K. arrived as President, then the Cuban Missile Crisis, three horrific assassinations, ongoing civil rights turmoil, deadly urban riots and Viet Nam.

Even the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s now seems uncomplicated and innocent. The next revolutionary decade saw popular music become British-international and more sophisticated with the Beatles and then more angry with the Rolling Stones.

In retrospect, on this 60th anniversary of the Clear Lake disaster, it now seems clear to me that February 3rd was not the day the music died , but rather it was a beginning of the loss of our adolescent innocence that we remember and mourn.