If you ever sang along with Don McLean’s classic, American Pie, you are likely all too familiar with the reference to “The Day the Music Died.” On February 3, 1959, a fateful plane crash took the innocence of the baby boomer generation. Each year ever since fans from all over the world flock for the Winter Dance Party to remember.
The crash took the lives of musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, as well as the pilot of the chartered plane just outside of rural Clear Lake, Iowa.
Holly, Valens, and Richardson had been on a Midwestern tour was billed as The Winter Dance Party. The young, up-and- coming musicians had performed at the Surf Ballroom, n/k/a the Surf Ballroom and Museum, where the story goes that Holly decided to forego the rigors of traveling by bus (excessive cold and breakdowns had taken their toll) and chartered a plane to take them to their stop in Minnesota.
My dad was 18 years old when he and a classmate drove over to the Surf that night after a day’s work at their respective parent’s businesses.
I can imagine their excitement as well as the others in attendance, for a night of dancing the jitterbug, all the girls in their poodle skirts and sweaters, and most notably the musicians who took the stage, three of them for the last time. Although my dad won the jitterbug dance contest that night, he has had surprisingly little to say about that evening nor has he attended the yearly Winter Dance Party held at the Surf Ballroom and Museum, a landmark in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For a small town with a population of 8,000, the event is significant economically, historically, as the long weekend celebrations bring people from across the country and abroad to Clear Lake.
I remember a few years ago asking my dad why he never went back to commemorate the Winter Dance Party. Knowing him as I do, I know a big reason is that he doesn’t have a love of crowds. Point noted and taken. However, he responded, “I didn’t like the music then and I don’t like it now.”
That point of view fits well with the fact that although he was quite popular in school, along with his twin brother, Dad has attended very few class reunions, and only at the heckling of classmates.
He has often said when he walked out of the doors of the school it was history. A few days after our conversation, I went to visit my grandma. I told her what Dad had said. In true form, she blared,”To hell he didn’t! He went dancing all the time.” Both he and I had a good chuckle.
When I return home for a visit, I plan to take a drive out to the memorial crash site where a monument of Buddy Holly’s signature glasses stands as a reminder of how unpredictable and swiftly innocence and youth can be taken away and reflect on day’s gone by.