Harm Jagerman

I thought about The Day the Music Died

Triggered by an article in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool I thought about The Day the Music Died. This happened long before I was born. People are still talking about the tragic accident of 3 February 1959. Why is that?

From Surf Ballroom to Fargo

It was hard times for the pop stars of that time. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had a though touring schedule and the way they were transported from one location to the other had a great impact on their moods. An old school bus without heating was the last straw for Holly. He demanded another means of transportation from the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake to Fargo. A small aeroplane was arranged and Holly together with Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup were supposed to go on board of this Beechcraft Bonanza. Because Jiles Perry Richardson (The Big Bopper) was ill and Valens had never flown in a small plane before, Jennings and Allsup decided not to go onboard.

Shortly after one o’clock in the morning of 3 February 1959, the aeroplane took off from Mason City Municipal Airport. The destination was the local airport of Fargo. Both of the towers of the airports were unable to contact the pilot, Roger Peterson.

The wreckage of the plane, photographed the morning after the disaster.
The wreckage of the plane, photographed the morning after the disaster.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It was the owner of the aeroplane who decided to follow the route that the flight of Peterson might have taken since the pane didn’t reach its destination. At 9.35 AM the plane wreck was discovered in a cornfield. The bodies of the pilot and the occupants lay around the wreckage of the plane.

The Day the Music Died

3 February 1959 was The Day the Music Died. The news shocked many people. Not just people in the US. It was a combination of the star status and the age of the deceased that caused a stir. Holly was 23, Valens only seventeen and Richardson was 29. Had they not died, their star status would likely have increased. Likely, because we can’t tell for sure.

The name The Day the Music Died was a reference that wasn’t something that was created or thought about directly after the accident. It was the American singer Don McLean who made this line famous in his song from 1971: American Pie.

McLean never revealed what the song is really about. He made clear that The Day the Music Died is a reference to that accident. As far as the rest of the song, it was a mystery. Just like what caused the accident.


There was an official investigation that pointed to the inexperienced pilot and the combination with the snowstorm. It left speculations about what happened. The body of Richardson was discovered as he lay further from the plane than others. It was suggested that he might have survived the crash and wanted to get help.

Months after the accident the gun of Holly was discovered in the cornfield. Did the gun go off by accident, causing the plane to crash?

In 2007 the investigation was reopened. It was all because of the reburial of Richardson. His son demanded a second autopsy on his father’s body. It showed that there was no evidence that he survived the crash and died at a later time than the others. No powder traces were found either.

A new investigation in 2015 was rejected by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). An English retired pilot, L.J. Coon believed there was more to the accident. These were incorrect weight distribution or a problem with the fuel system. According to the NTSB, there was no reason to reopen the investigation.

As long as no conclusive evidence has been found, it remains an unfortunate set of circumstances. Another scenario could have been that Holly, Jennings and Allsup would have been killed in the latter two had not given up their seats. That just never happened. Therefore, this third day of February is still a day when the music died.

Still discussed

How is it possible that this aeroplane crash is still discussed after 62 years? Well, isn’t that the same for another event in history? The Titanic disaster for example. The ship went down in 1919 (14/15 April) and people are still talking about this. The disaster is re-examined time and time again. This plane crash in 1959 is no different. Add to this the fact that three celebrities were killed at the same time and you have an event that is still being written about 62 years later.

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