Photo of a vintage microphone

The day the music died: How Don McLean’s “American Pie” immortalized a tragedy 

So, bye-bye, miss American pie…” 

While chances are you’ve sung along to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” you may be less familiar with the radio hit’s somber inspiration. Referenced in the lyrics as “the day the music died,” McLean’s 1971 song was paying homage to Feb. 3, 1959—the day pop music idols Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson, Jr. (“The Big Bopper”) were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. 

AJ Kluth

The sudden and tragic loss of these young rockstars became a foundational event in the contemporary American pop culture mythos, largely due to McLean’s song. The song’s fame is also related to the ‘50s nostalgia that’s been an American mainstream phenomenon since the 1970s, according to AJ Kluth, lecturer in the Department of Music at Case Western Reserve University.

In honor of tomorrow (Feb. 3) being “The Day the Music Died Day,” The Daily sat down with Kluth to learn more about the tragic event and those involved. Kluth is a musicologist with interdisciplinary interests in music and philosophy. 

“‘American Pie’ stands as an urtext of popular culture,” Kluth explained. “It spins an almost nine-minute story that juxtaposes feelings of teenage enthusiasm and invincibility with tragedy; interrupting a world defined by youthful pleasures and drama—homecoming, football, partying with friends—with the sober knowledge of time passing, Cold War-era paranoia, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality.

“Whether you lived through the events of McLean’s narrative or are just trying to piece together your own narrative of [the] United States’ cultural history,” Kluth continued, “the song remains a wistful musical invitation to inhabit an imagined time of American innocence.”

Read on to learn Kluth’s insights about the three musicians killed and McLean’s song—and why it’s still relevant today. 

1. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson left unique marks that helped shape the future of the music industry.

Buddy Holly was a clean-cut 22-year-old Texan who grew up on gospel and country music but embraced the burgeoning rock and roll sound. Love songs like “That’ll Be the Day” (1957) and “Peggy Sue” (1957), influenced as they were by R&B and the blues, earned him international attention and a growing fan base. Holly was the first artist inducted into Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

Hailing from the Los Angeles area, Ritchie Valens was only 17 when the plane went down. Valens (nee Valenzuela) is often hailed as a progenitor of the Chicano Rock movement as he mixed Mexican-American culture with rock and roll. For example, his hit song “La Bamba” (1958) was an adaptation of a Mexican folk song in the centuries-old son jarocho style out of Veracruz. His version’s popularity with listeners outside the Chicano community connected people across cultural boundaries. Valens had recently dropped out of high school due to the demands of his growing career.

Another Texan, J.P. Richardson was the most senior of the young musicians at the age of 28. Already a father, radio DJ, and veteran, he took the professional name “The Big Bopper” and had rockabilly hits such as “Chantilly Lace” (1958) and “Big Bopper’s Wedding” (1958). The Bopper’s songs could be bawdy and—just as many pop hits are today—many of his songs were flirty, implicitly about sex and relationships or conversely, jokingly saying out loud what a listener might not dare.

2. The three musicians and their respective bands were touring together when the accident occurred. 

The group was halfway through a (poorly planned) 24-day tour through the Midwest called the “Winter Dance Party.” With up to 400 miles between venues, the musicians were growing weary of the long, frigid drives between shows on a bus that repeatedly broke down. The grueling tour schedule is unfortunately similar to that many touring artists experience to this day.

Holly chose to charter a plane after the Iowa stop in Clear Lake rather than sit through the long bus ride to the next date. He booked a pilot for the trip who—it turned out—was under-trained for weather conditions. Holly and Valens were initially scheduled to take the plane along with a guitar player on the tour, Waylon Jennings. Not originally going to take the flight, The Big Bopper traded places with Jennings last minute. Tragically, the plane crashed in a farm field killing all four passengers on impact. Despite the deadly crash, the tour itself continued with the other musicians on the Winter Dance Party tour soldiering on for the remaining dates. 

3. Don McLean’s song brought the impact of the accident back into the public eye.

It was Don McLean’s song “American Pie” that, more than a decade after the event, memorialized the plane crash as a great loss to American popular music, but moreover as a generational symbol of collective “loss of innocence” in the American imaginary. The song’s ability to spark collective consciousness is one we’ve seen among others in the decades to follow.

Placed as it is next to other persons, events, and symbols, the song uses the deaths of these artists to paint a picture of the economic and cultural boom that occasioned 50s popular culture—as well as the following counterculture of the 1960s that grappled with perceived shortcomings of mainstream culture through dreams of peace and love rather than war (Vietnam) and the maintenance of U.S. hegemony around the world.

Other explicit and implicit allusions in the text of the song include references to Bob Dylan, Elvis, The Monotones (“The Book of Love” (1957)), The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” (1966), the violent deaths of JFK (1963) and MLK (1968), the Manson murders (1969), the moon landing (1969) and space race, the Cold War, and atomic paranoia.

4. “American Pie” is nostalgic of simpler times for many Americans, especially the Baby Boomer generation. 

At the end of the last verse of McLean’s song, even God (“The father, son, and the holy ghost…” – McLean was raised Catholic) has become disillusioned and split town. All that’s left to do is dream of what used to be and, if we have the courage, to start again. We might call this motivation a kind of “nostalgia,” which, it’s helpful to remember, is a compound word derived from the Ancient Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (pain). 

This feeling might orient the listener to a real or imagined context of safety or fullness, with a starting point like the mythic “simpler times” of 1950s America. In fact, memorials for Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper can still be found all over the Midwest where they’d performed, and various tribute bands performing as the lost teen idols still tour as versions of “The Winter Dance Party,” bringing a ‘50s rock nostalgia experience all over the world. Thanks to McLean’s song, “The Day the Music Died” has effectively become part of our collective memory; one of those stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to make sense of being alive.

The people and events described in “American Pie” are great examples of how nostalgia can work in popular music to build our meaningful worlds. A few other examples of songs that invite us into nostalgic worlds to different degrees of seriousness and specificity include those on the below Spotify playlist.*

*Editor’s note: The songs in the included playlist were suggested by Kluth.