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What is The Significance of the Phrase "The Day the Music Died?"

Updated on October 27, 2012

The phrase "the day the music died" first appeared in Don McLean's signature song "American Pie." Early in the song McLean sings ".. but February made me shiver, with every paper I'd deliver, bad news on the door step, I couldn't take one more step. 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." McLean is referring to the February 3, 1959 plane crash that took the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and their pilot Roger Peterson.

"That'll Be The Day" by Buddy Holly & His Crickets

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly was born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936 in Lubbock, Texas. His family always called him Buddy. He recorded his first song in 1949 at the age of 13. In 1955 he saw Elvis Presley perform. This influenced Holly to incorporate a rockabilly style into his music. He signed a contract with Decca Records in February of 1956 to form the band, The Crickets. In the contract, Decca Records mis-spelled his name as Holly instead of Holley. Buddy decided to stick with the mis-spelled version of his name and was then after known as Buddy Holly. On May 27, 1957 his first single, "That'll Be The Day," was released. In his short career Holly went on to write "Peggy Sue," and several other songs.

In June of 1958 Holly met Maria Elena Santiago. He asked heron a date and proposed to her that same evening. She said yes the next day and they were married two months later. Unfortunately, he died only six months after they were wed at the age of 22.

Buddy Holly set the standard for rock and roll. He was the first rock and roll musician to write, produce, and perform his own songs. Many artists including The Beatles, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Don McLean have been influenced by his work. Rolling Stone ranked Holly as number 13 in their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."

"La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens was born in Los Angeles, California on May 13, 1941. He was influence by mariachi music, R&B, and blues. Valens taught himself to sing and play guitar. In Junior High two planes crashed over the playground killing and injuring several students. Valens was not at school that day but the event gave him a fear of flying.

He signed a recording contract with Del-Fi on May 27, 1958. His most famous song is "La Bamba." He died on February 3, 1959 at the age of 17. He had only been a recording artist for eight months. Valens pioneered Latin Rock. He inspired many Latin musicians including Carlos Santana.

"Chantilly Lace" by The Big Bopper

The Big Bopper

J.P. Richardson was born on October 24, 1930 in Sabine Pass, Texas. Before becoming a recording artist Richardson married, had a child, was in the army for two years and worked at a radio station. After his stint in the army Richardson began to DJ an afternoon radio show. He chose to call himself "The Big Bopper" after the dance "The Bop". As a DJ, The Big Bopper broke the record for longest continuous on air broadcasting. He was on air for five days, two hours, and eight minutes. His only breaks were during five minute newscasts. During those five plus days he play 1,821 records.

The Big Bopper recorded his first song, "Chantilly Lace," in 1957. He was only 28 when he died. His second child, a son, was born two months after his death.

Plane Crash

The evening of February 2, 1959 a group of musicians including Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper, Waylon Jennings, Tommy Allsup, and Dion DiMucci were performing with a concert series called the Winter Dance Party Tour. That evenings concert was at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Buddy Holly had charted a plane to take him to the next location while the other musicians were taking a bus. Holly decided to charter the plane because he was unhappy with the buses heating system.

Dwyer Flying Service arranged the chartered flight. Roger Peterson agreed to fly the group to Moorhead, Minnesota, a three hour flight, even though he had had already worked all day.

The plane was small. It would only hold four people, including the pilot. The two remaining seats were decided by coin toss. Waylon Jennings was upset that he lost the coin toss so he said "I hope your damn plane crashes!". He has said that his statement has haunted him ever since.

The plane took off at approximately 1am,during a light snow,on its way from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota. The plane crashed three miles from the Iowa airport. According to reports the plane somersaulted several times, throwing the musicians from the plane. The Civil Aeronautics Board reported that the primary cause of the crash was pilot error. there was a new altitude indicator on the plan. Peterson would have needed to depend on it due to the bad weather. It is believed that he thought they were gaining altitude while they were actually descending.

Don McLean & American Pie

Don McLean was born on October 2, 1945. When the plane crashed in February of 1959, McLean was 13 years old. He debuted the song "American Pie" on March 14, 1971. It reached number one on the billboard charts.

Early in the song, McLean sings, "... But February made me shiver, with every paper I'd deliver, bad news on the door step, I couldn't take on more step. 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." When the plane crash occurred, McLean was only 13 years old and a paper boy. Considering that Holly was only married for 6 months, and pregnant at the time, it seems likely that McLean felt sorry for her.

For years McLean was silent about the meaning of the lyrics but in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash he said, "writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly's death." So, the lyric the day the music died is referring to Holly's death. But the song deals with more than that one event. On McClean's website, it explains,

"“American Pie” is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s. It was initially inspired by Don’s memories of being a paperboy in 1959 and learning of the death of Buddy Holly. “American Pie” presents an abstract story of McLean’s life from the mid-1950s until the end of the 1960s, and at the same time it represents the evolution of popular music and politics over these years, from the lightness of the 1950s to the darkness of the late 1960s, but metaphorically the song continues to evolve to the present time. It is not a nostalgia song. “American Pie” changes as America, itself, is changing."

American Pie by Don McLean


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    • Kimberly Vaughn profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberly Vaughn 

      5 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks Millionaire Tips!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      5 years ago from USA

      That was a sad day in history. It is a great song, and you have clearly explained how it is related to the plane crash. Voted up.

    • Kimberly Vaughn profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberly Vaughn 

      5 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks Connor! I think this song has to be sung on every road trip. I'm pretty sure it's a law!

    • connorj profile image

      John Connor 

      5 years ago from Altamonte Springs

      Dear Kimberly,

      I sang parts of this song most horribly in my family's car as my poor sister had to sit beside me as our family travelled for 2 days to reach Florida from the Toronto, Ontario vicinity. I love this classic! My sister learned to hate it... Thanks for the hstory of it; excellent work! The verdict is in, you win and the music survives...

    • Kimberly Vaughn profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberly Vaughn 

      5 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks Sherry! It was a very sad thing to loose so many talented people so young. I agree with you about American Pie. I have easily listened to that song over 100 times and noticed different things each time.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      The day the music died was indeed a sad day for music. I wonder what would have become of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly if they had been able to continue their budding careers.

      The complex lyrics of American Pie contain a lot of obscure imagery, I think I notice something different every time I hear it.

      I enjoyed reading this hub, voted up and shared.

    • Kimberly Vaughn profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberly Vaughn 

      6 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks Kate!

    • Kate Mc Bride profile image

      Kate McBride 

      6 years ago from Donegal Ireland

      This is a great hub on the background and history of a classic song. I really enjoyed reading it.Voted up and interesting. Thanks for sharing:-)

    • Kimberly Vaughn profile imageAUTHOR

      Kimberly Vaughn 

      6 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks adagio! I really enjoyed writing it.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very well done. Well researched and expertly written.


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