top of page

Goodbye to American Pie

Hit songs seem to come and go as often as a change in the weather, but there was this one song, in my youth, that was truly iconic and captured our love, thoughts, and imagination. It was 1971, and you could hardly go anywhere that you didn’t hear American Pie, by Don McLean. In fact, those who knew music could tell the really good radio stations from the wanna-bees by which version of the song they played, the 4-minute (4’11”) version, or the nearly 9-minute (8’42”) version. Back in those days, artists would usually release two versions of their songs; a short version for mainstream radio…you know the stations that play three songs, then ten commercials, and round out each hour talking endlessly. Or the true knowledgeable music stations that put the music and art above the love of profits. These stations always played the original uncut version. Anyway I regress😊!

It is likely you’ve heard this song, but if not, the song takes us through an ingenious emotional adventure of happy, sad, thought provoking, and fun times of our youth. The song helps us take our Chevy to the levee, takes us into outer space, and to the record store. It tells us about the jester, James Dean, and a marching band that refused to get the heck out of the way. It makes us wonder why Jack flash sat on a candlestick, why the church bells all were broken, and of course the truly sad message of what happened on the day the music died!

As Don McLean heads out on tour, we look back at this marvelous song and wonder what exactly were the things, McLean was telling us, or teasing us, to find out or ponder. In the 51 years since this song’s release, McLean has been asked countless times for the meaning behind all these references, and his answers have not been shared with anyone. One has to make their best guesses and there has certainly been a great deal of speculation done by fans of the song.

What did he mean when he asked; “Can music save your mortal soul?”. Was John Kennedy Jack flash? What did he mean about fire being the devils only friend? What was eight miles high and why was it falling fast? Wikipedia has a pretty good review on everything about the song and some of the speculated intended lyrical meanings, which can be found here: American Pie. By the way, this is a really good read!!! However, for my message, let’s focus on the reoccurring theme heard throughout the song.

That one refrain, that is referenced over and over, is “the day the music died.” It has been long believed, and finally confirmed, that this reference is to the February 3, 1959 plane crash that took the life of three up-and-coming musicians. This crash took the lives of Richie Valence, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, along with the pilot Roger Peterson.

It's quite the interesting story of how this event transpired, culminating in the legendary coin flip that saved one man, and sealed the fate of another.

The story goes like this. These artists were on a very poorly planned tour which zig-zagged them across mid-America, in an oddly laid out travel path that often had them traveling back and forth across the same towns and cities, often times doubling back passed towns where they had already performed. On one particular segment of the trip, Buddy Holly had gotten frustrated by the seemingly chaotic travel agenda and opted for a private flight versus more hours on a bus, traveling through the same towns and fields.

There is some debate on certain details, but based on most accounts, here’s how the events of that fatal flight came to be:

In November 1958, Buddy Holly had terminated his association with The Crickets, but still needed to go back on tour again because the Crickets' manager Norman Petty had apparently stolen money from him, and he wanted to raise funds to move to New York City to live with his new wife, María Elena Holly, who was pregnant.

For the start of the "Winter Dance Party" tour, Holly assembled a band consisting of Waylon Jennings (bass), Tommy Allsup (guitar), and Carl Bunch (drums), with the opening vocals of Frankie Sardo. The tour was set to cover twenty-four Midwestern cities in twenty-four days—there were no off days. New hit artist Ritchie Valens, "The Big Bopper" J. P. Richardson, and the vocal group Dion and the Belmonts joined the tour to promote their recordings.

The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959, with the performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2 being the eleventh of the twenty-four scheduled events. The amount of travel required soon became a serious problem. The distances between venues had not been properly considered when the performances were scheduled. As there were no off days, the bands had to travel most of each day, frequently for ten to twelve hours in freezing mid-winter temperatures. Most of the Interstate Highway System had not yet been built, so the routes between tour stops required far more driving time on narrow two-lane rural highways than on modern expressways.

The entire company of musicians traveled together in one bus, although the buses used for the tour were wholly inadequate, breaking down and being replaced frequently. The artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop, as no road crew assisted them. Adding to the disarray, the buses were not equipped for the harsh weather, which consisted of waist-deep snow in several areas and varying temperatures from 20 °F (−7 °C) to as low as −36 °F (−38 °C).

Later, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms and drummer Bunch was hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet after the tour bus stalled in the middle of the highway in subzero temperatures near Ironwood, Michigan. As Holly's group had been the backing band for all of the acts, Holly, Valens and DiMucci took turns playing drums for each other at the performances in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Clear Lake, Iowa, with Holly playing drums for Dion, Dion playing drums for Ritchie, and Ritchie playing drums for Holly.

On Monday, February 2, the tour arrived in Clear Lake, west of Mason City, having driven 350 miles (560 km) from the previous day's concert in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The town in northern Iowa had not been a scheduled stop; tour promoters hoped to fill the open date after one of their previous venues had cancelled. They called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom, Carroll Anderson, and offered him the show. Anderson accepted and they set the show for that night. By the time Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was frustrated with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next scheduled destination after Clear Lake was Moorhead, Minnesota, a 365-mile (590 km) drive north-northwest—and, as a reflection of the poor quality of the tour planning, a journey that would have taken them directly back through the two towns they had already played within the last week. No let-up after that was in sight, as the following day after having traveled from Iowa to Minnesota, they were scheduled to travel right back to Iowa, specifically almost directly south to Sioux City, a 325-mile (520 km) trip.

Holly chartered a plane to fly himself and his band to Fargo, North Dakota, which is adjacent to Moorhead. The rest of the party would have picked him up in Moorhead, saving him the journey in the bus and leaving him time to get some rest.

Anderson called Hubert Jerry Dwyer, owner of the Dwyer Flying Service in Mason City, to charter the plane to fly to Fargo's Hector Airport, the closest one to Moorhead. Flight arrangements were made with Roger Peterson, a 21-year-old local pilot described as a "young married man who built his life around flying".

The flying service charged a fee of $36 per passenger for the flight on the 1947 single-engine, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza (registration N3794N), which seated three passengers and the pilot. A popular misconception, originating from Don McLean's song about the crash, was that the plane was called American Pie; no record exists of any name ever having been given to N3794N.

The most widely accepted version of events was that Richardson had contracted the flu during the tour and asked Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was not going to fly, he said in jest: "Well, I hope your ol' bus freezes up." Jennings responded: "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes", a humorous but ill-fated response that haunted him for the rest of his life. Valens, who once had a fear of flying, asked Allsup for his seat on the plane. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Bob Hale, a disc jockey with Mason City's KRIB-AM, was emceeing the concert that night and flipped the coin in the ballroom's side-stage room shortly before the musicians departed for the airport. Valens won the coin toss for the seat on the flight. Valens is ominously said to have remarked, "That's the first time I've ever won anything in my life."

In contradiction to the testimony of Allsup and Jennings, Dion has since said that Holly approached him along with Valens and Richardson to join the flight, not Holly's bandmates. In a 2009 interview, Dion said that Holly called him, Valens, and Richardson into a vacant dressing room during Sardo's performance and said, "I've chartered a plane, we're the guys making the money [we should be the ones flying ahead]...the only problem is there are only two available seats." According to Dion, it was Valens, not Richardson, who had fallen ill, so Valens and Dion flipped a coin for the seat. In his interview, no mention is made of Jennings or Allsup being invited on the plane. Dion said he won the toss, but ultimately decided that since the $36 fare (equivalent to $330 in 2021) equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the indulgence.

After the show ended, Anderson drove Holly, Valens, and Richardson to nearby Mason City Municipal Airport, where the elevation is 1,214 feet (370 m). The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet (900 m) with sky obscured, visibility six miles (10 km), and winds from 20 to 30 mph (32 to 48 km/h). Although deteriorating weather was reported along the planned route, the weather briefings Peterson received failed to relay the information.

The plane took off normally from runway 17 at 12:55 am CST on Tuesday, February 3. Dwyer witnessed the southbound take-off from a platform outside the control tower. He was able to clearly see the aircraft's tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial 180 degree left turn to pass east of the airport, climbing to approximately 800 feet. After an additional left turn to a northwesterly heading, the tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared. Around 1:00 am, when Peterson failed to make the expected radio contact, repeated attempts to establish communication were made, at Dwyer's request, by the radio operator, but they were all unsuccessful.

Later that morning, Dwyer, having heard no word from Peterson since his departure, took off in another airplane to retrace Peterson's planned route. Within minutes, at around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than six miles northwest of the airport.

The Bonanza had impacted terrain at high speed, estimated to have been around 170 mph (270 km/h), banked steeply to the right and in a nose-down attitude. The right wing tip had struck the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet (160 m), before coming to rest against a wire. The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the fuselage and lay near the plane's wreckage. Richardson's body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield, while Peterson's body was entangled in the wreckage. With the rest of the entourage enroute to Minnesota, Anderson, who had driven the party to the airport and witnessed the plane's takeoff, had to identify the bodies of the musicians. County coroner Ralph Smiley certified that all four victims died instantly.

María Elena Holly learned of her husband's death via a television news report. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to "psychological trauma". Holly's mother, on hearing the news on the radio at home in Lubbock, Texas, screamed and collapsed. Within months of Holly's death, official protocols were implemented to ensure that the names of victims of traumatic incidents are not released by authorities until after their families have been notified.

This tragic event certainly changed the landscape of music in 1959. The loss of four lives and three great performers has gone down in history and touched many lives quite profoundly. It certainly impacted a young Don McLean.

McLean was age 13 – when he first read/ heard of the crash, while he was folding newspapers for his paper route on the morning of February 4, 1959 (hence the line "February made me shiver/with every paper I'd deliver"), McLean has generally avoided responding to direct questions about the song's lyrics; he has said: "They're beyond analysis. They're poetry." He also stated in an editorial published in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (who are alluded to in the final verse in a comparison with the Christian Holy Trinity), that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly's death and that he considers the song to be "a big song ... that summed up the world known as America". McLean dedicated the American Pie album to his musical idol, Buddy Holly.

It should be noted, that at the time of it’s release, American Pie was the longest running song (8’42”) to ever hit the top 100 charts. Due to its exceptional length, it was initially released as a two-sided 7-inch single. "American Pie" has been described as "one of the most successful and debated songs of the 20th century".

In 2017, McLean's original recording was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant". To mark the 50th anniversary of the song, McLean is scheduled to perform a 35-date tour through Europe, starting in Wales and ending in Austria, in 2022.

In case you were wondering, Don McLean’s current tour comes to the Midwest in April and May 2022 with a stop at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis on May 1.

4 views0 comments
bottom of page