February 3rd, 1959: The Day the Music Died

Almost everyone knows the song by heart. “So, bye, bye Miss American Pie.” In the popular song by Don McLean, “American Pie,” refers to a sad day in our nation’s history – February 3rd, 1959. On this day, rock-n-roll singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson died in a plane crash. Soon, the day would be known as “the day the music died, because of these musicians’ impact on the world.

The three singers were with their bands on the “Winter Dance Party” tour in the Midwest. Holly chose to charter a plane to their next venue. Sick with the flu, Richardson decided to go for comfortable travel and swapped places with country singer Waylon Jennings. Along with it being winter, weather conditions were poor and caused the pilot to lose control of the aircraft. Everyone on board died when the plane crashed into a cornfield. Since that day, the singers have been remembered through various films and songs, including the song “American Pie.”

As mentioned above, Don McLean was inspired by this day to write the classic tune from Holly’s death. When Holly died, McLean was only 13 years old and already a Buddy Holly fan. Once McLean called Holly’s death a “personal tragedy,” because of his deep connection with the singer. In fact, the original back cover of the album states “Dedicated to Buddy Holly.” During an interview on the UK show, Songbook,McLean stated “that for some reason I wanted to write a big song about America and about politics, but I wanted to do it in a different way. As I was fiddling around, I started singing this thing about the Buddy Holly crash. Then, the lyrics ‘Long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile,’” just came out.

Even though Holly is the biggest influence, the song “American Pie” is filled with references to pop culture and famous celebrities, including the ones below. However, McLean hasn’t disclosed who else is remembered by the song’s lyrics, but listeners have made guesses as to what lyric is talking about who.

  • The Beatles Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Bandalbum is said to have influenced McLean and the lyrics “sergeants played a marching tune.” The songs on the Beatles’ album stand for a darker, more hostile time in music and politics during the 1960s.
  • “When the jester stole his thorny crown, in a coat he borrowed from James Dean,” is probably referring to Bob Dylan. The songwriter and singer is said to have stolen Elvis Presley’s place as the number one performer and wore a red jacket, similar to James Dean’s jacket, on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. Lastly, the next lyric “and a voice that came from you and me” is often said to be referring to Dylan’s folk style of singing.
  • The 1960s peace marches are alluded to in “and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.”
  • “Eight miles high and falling fast” is likely discussing The Byrds’ hit “Eight Miles High.”
  • The death of Janis Joplin in 1970 is quoted in the line “I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news.”
  • The 1958 hit by the Monotones, “Book of Love,” was described in “did you write the book of love?”
  • Lastly, but definitely not all, some say the line “and moss grows fat on our rolling stone” is credited to Mick Jagger’s concert appearance or Buddy Holly’s “Early in the Morning” song.

Every time people listen to the song, they will discover something different in the lyrics. But, one thing is for certain, that Buddy Holly was the inspiration for the beloved song,  “American Pie.”


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