The Day The Music Died: Songs that Surround the Tragic Event in Music History

by Matthew Wilson
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It may have been a long time ago, especially now. But the tragic 1959 plane crash, or the day the music died, remains a focal point in music history.

During the Winter Dance Party, a plane crash killed popular musicians Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P. Richardson Jr. also known as the Big Bopper. It was a seminal if tragic moment in the national spotlight. On Feb. 3, 1959, all three musicians died when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff.

Now 62 years later, that historic event is remembered through the power of music. Over the years, several artists have provided tribute and memorialized the three musicians. Here are some of the songs about the tragic event.

Dion Sang ‘Hug My Radiator’ with the Late Musicians

Dion exercises some of his survivor’s guilt with the recording of “Hug My Radiator” back in 2000. The musician actually toured with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper during that fateful winter tour. The three musicians sang “Hug My Radiator” together while on the bus. But it took decades for Dion to gather the resolve to record it.

“Hug My Radiator we used to sing on the bus, although I never originally completed it and recorded it,” he told Record Collector Mag.

Out of all the tribute songs, this was the only tune the three doomed musicians played a part in.

“Anyway, it was just baffling to me, ’cos I was 19- years old and these guys touched me very deeply,” Dion continued. “We were on the bus sharing songs, and it was probably the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I was so impressionable and vulnerable.”

Dion Wrote ‘Everyday (That I’m With You)’ As a Tribute

The second of Dion’s songs acted as a tribute to the three musicians. Softer and more meditative, Dion sings of carrying their spirit with him as he lives life. He tried to live life to the fullest and accomplish the dream of making it as a musician for all four of them. The tune, with its tender melody, helped put to rest some of his feelings that he had.

“I don’t think I finally put it to rest until I wrote Every Day (That I’m With You),” Dion told the outlet. The musician had actually almost ended up on the plane himself. For the longest time, he felt guilty that he didn’t take the plane ride that killed his friends.

“When something like that happens, you feel kinda guilty in a way,” Dion said. “It’s funny, my parents always argued over the rent and that was the reason why I didn’t take the plane – when I knew it was $36 to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, I refused it and said, Give it to Ritchie [Valens], ’cos he was sick anyway and that’s what my parents were paying in rent in the Bronx. But they wanted to flip a coin, and I said, ‘Nah, I’m gonna pass.’”

Waylon Jennings Reflects on the Day the Music Died in ‘A Long Time Ago’

Waylon Jennings knows a bit about survivor’s guilt himself. And like Dion, he honored the musicians across two different songs. In Jennings’ “A Long Time Ago,” the singer weaves an autobiographical tale of his rise and career. During the song, he revisits the American Pie crash.

Jennings included the lyrics: “Don’t ask me who I gave my seat to on that plane/ I think you already know/ I told you that a long time ago.

Jennings almost ended up on the flight himself. He gave his seat to the Big Bopper, who wasn’t feeling well, after losing a coin flip. The country singer had a 50/50 chance of dying himself on the day the music died.

Waylon Jennings Sings of His Friend Buddy Holly in ‘Old Friend’

In this teary-eyed tune, Jennings unloads all of his grief and mourning for his “Old Friend” Buddy Holly. Despite their different musical influences, the two were pals and Holly had hired him as his new bassist. The two would often cut up and laugh during the tour. One of their final conversations proved to be chilling, however.

Before boarding the plane, Holly playfully told Jennings, “I hope your a– freezes on the bus!”

“Here I am, about 19-years-old and I said, ‘Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes,’ and God almighty – for years I thought I had caused it…” Jennings said. For the rest of his life, Jennings regretted saying those words. “Old Friend” is a testament to how friendships remain eternal despite personal tragedies.

Tommy Dee Memorializes The Three in ‘Three Stars’

“Three Stars” by Tommy Dee may be the oldest tribute related to the three musicians and the crash. It was released in the spring of 1959, only months after that fateful day. The memory was still fresh in many Americans’ minds. And the track served as a way for the country to heal from the tragic event.

Dee and Carol Kay sing on the tune, which imagines the three musicians as three stars in the sky. The tune suggests that the singers’ legacies would live on despite their deaths. In many ways, the song turned prophetic. Because all these years later, the three remain, immortalized in the pages of music history.

Don McLean Laments The Day The Music Died in ‘American Pie’

It’s been a long time now since even Don McLean has sang about the American Pie. His 1971 classic was a love letter to Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper. Through the power of song and lyrics, McLean channeled a decades and generation of grief into the haunting melody.

Equal parts melodic and uptempo, the song is filled with allusions to music history, especially the 1959 crash. Upon release, the tune has even influenced how people reflect on the crash in retrospect. For instance, people nicknamed the crash “American Pie” after the song. They also refer to the date as the day the music died, another lyric.

McLean honored the musicians with one of the greatest tributes ever put to note. Though they’re gone, they certainly are not forgotten.

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