The Night the Music Died

Searching for the ghost of Buddy Holly in Clear Lake, Iowa.
A small memorial marks the spot in the Iowa cornfield where Holly’s plane crashed on February 3, 1959.
Photograph by David Bowman

it came out of the sky about five miles north of Clear Lake, Iowa, and slammed into the frozen earth. The right wing dug a six-inch-deep furrow for 57 feet as it disintegrated into bits of fabric and metal. The fuselage bounced hard, careening and ripping apart over the next 500 feet while the nose gear, door frame, and tail cone were all smashed loose and scattered, until what was left of the red Beechcraft B35 Bonanza finally came to rest against a barbed-wire fence at one end of a long, empty cornfield. It was just past 1 a.m. Deep inside the twisted mass was the body of the pilot. Outside lay the bodies of three young men who had been thrown from the plane at more than 100 miles per hour. They had all been killed on impact, their bodies broken, their heads smashed open. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Jiles P. Richardson, also known as the Big Bopper, were dead.

If you believe, as I do, that the modern age is defined as that period beginning sometime in the fifties when the Kids started to dictate what the Grown-ups would hear, see, wear, and think, then the plane crash killing the three teen idols (and their pilot, Roger Peterson) was the first modern tragedy. The assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were years down the road, as were the deaths of rock gods Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain. On February 3, 1959, Holly, the four-eyed country boy from Lubbock, became the first martyr of American pop culture. His iconic status was sealed twelve years later by “American Pie,” folk singer Don McLean’s sprawling 8-minute, 33-second tribute to “the day the music died.” The song spent four weeks as the country’s number one hit, the longest song ever to do so.

Last June, I visited the Iowa cornfield where the music died. My guide was Jeff Nicholas, a mild-mannered farmer who owns the field. Nicholas has become the unofficial keeper of the Holly flame in Iowa. Not only does he maintain a modest monument at the crash site, but he is the president of the Surf Ballroom, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving the majestic old dance hall near downtown Clear Lake where Holly played his last show. I had come to town for a tribute concert to Holly, Valens, and the Bopper in honor of the sixtieth anniversary of the Surf (it opened in 1933, then burned down and was rebuilt in 1948), a party not unlike the one that the Surf will host this February 2, on the fiftieth anniversary of the last concert before the crash.

Clear Lake is a small resort town of tidy two-story wood and brick homes with nice yards; it looks and feels like Eisenhower’s America. Apart from Holly, the biggest local celebrity is Meredith Willson, the author of The Music Man, who hails from nearby Mason City. Nicholas drove me north through town, up Buddy Holly Place, and soon we were cruising on a gravel road through flat, rolling cornfields and soy fields, with old, faded barns and large gunmetal granaries. We made a right and a left and came to a stop at 315th and Gull Avenue. “This is it,” said Nicholas, who at fifty has a thin mustache and hair just turning gray. He led me into the hip-deep corn, walking in a furrow next to the fence. The wind blew hard, and the green stalks waved like kelp under the sea.

After about ten minutes we came to the monument. It was a simple stainless-steel sculpture of a guitar with the musicians’ names and the date of their deaths alongside three 45’s inscribed with the song titles “Peggy Sue,” “Donna,” and “Chantilly Lace.” Draped over the guitar’s fret board was a rosary. A pair of Holly-like glasses had been balanced on top. Fans had left various other tokens—business cards, a student ID, a debit card, coins, guitar picks, plastic flowers, and a biscuit from US Airways, still in its package.

Nicholas reached down and began pulling up weeds from around the base. The only sound was the wind rushing through the corn and the occasional bird chirping as it cruised through the cool air. We looked south and southeast at the farmhouses and coppices of trees on the horizon. Nicholas pointed out a lone windmill. “Some people believe the plane’s wing hit that,” he said. I imagined the four-seater buzzing over nearby farms in the freezing dark. Elsie Juhl, who lived on the farm with her husband, Albert, had said she heard it early that morning. Afterward the Juhls would find body parts and pieces of the plane scattered around their land.

Nicholas and I stood in the breeze, watching the skies. “We’ve thought of putting up a sign and a walkway,” he said, “but we like how simple it is.”

The rolling guitar riff at the beginning of “That’ll Be the Day” is, to me, one of the most exciting three seconds in all of rock and roll. That song was among the first John Lennon ever learned to play. Holly’s tunes changed the lives of many aspiring rockers, from legends like Lennon and Paul McCartney to contemporary bands like Vampire Weekend. “Everything he did you still hear on the radio today,” Keith Richards once said. “Not bad for a guy from Lubbock, right?” And it wasn’t just the music. Holly’s appearance and attitude said that it was okay to look like a geek as long as you made cool music.

But Holly had been a rock star for only eighteen months when he died, at age 22. It all happened so fast. Born Charles Hardin Holley (after the e was dropped accidentally in a contract, he decided to leave it off), he grew up playing country music. One of his first bands opened for Elvis in 1955, when Holly was just 18 years old. Hearing Elvis play live changed Holly forever. He

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