Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“The day the music died” February 3, 2022

Portraits of the deceased musicians inside the Surf Ballroom. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

SIXTY-THREE YEARS AGO TODAY, the music died. On February 3, 1959, three musicians—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson—and a pilot died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. It was, and remains, a monumental moment in American music history.

A broad view of this massive ballroom which seats 2,100. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

Today the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake still hosts a Winter Dance Party honoring the musicians who performed their final concert there on February 2, 1959. Early the next morning en route to Moorhead, Minnesota, the charter flight carrying the rock-n-roll musicians crashed in a field near Clear Lake in northern Iowa.

This display references “American Pie.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

In 2015, Randy and I traveled an hour and 15 minutes south of Faribault along Interstate 35 to Clear Lake, where we toured the Surf. We were mere preschoolers when Holly and the others died. But the story of this tragedy imprinted upon us as teens, when Don McLean released his hit, “American Pie,” in 1971. How well I remember that tribute, the lyrics, the length of the nearly 8.5-minute song.

The ballroom stage. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

While in Clear Lake on that May day seven years ago, we didn’t visit the crash site. Rain kept us away. But we certainly enjoyed our tour of the historic ballroom, site to many concerts from greats such as Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers… The posters and photos, the aged booths, the stage and dance floor, all pay homage to the past, when ballrooms centered entertainment. The Surf, on the National Register of Historic Places and a designated National Historic Landmark, represents another time, another era, not simply a concert venue.

This sign summarizes the importance of the Surf. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo May 2015)

Today I celebrate music and those who create it, past and present. Music enriches our lives beyond entertainment. Music, in many ways, writes like poetry into our hearts, souls and memories. And this February day, I honor the memories of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, as I consider “the day the music died.”


TELL ME: Have you toured the Surf Ballroom or the crash site? Or do you have music memories of Holly, Valens and Richardson that you’d like to share?

FYI: To see more photos and stories from my visit to Clear Lake, Iowa, please click here.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Squiggles in the sky

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Squiggles in the morning sky. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2022)

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, on a brutally cold Minnesota winter morning when tires on roadways sound like boots crunching glass, when breathing in outdoor air almost hurts, when brilliant sunshine deceives, I noticed a strange sight in the sky. An endless skinny squiggle.

Alarmed, I wondered at the contrail resembling the attempts of a preschooler free-styling the letter “S.” Was this thin white line revealing an out-of-control aircraft about to crash? It’s interesting where the mind wanders when knowledge lacks. I will be the first to admit I don’t understand much about airplanes. I still don’t understand the physics of flight, not that I’ve even tried to educate myself. It simply does not interest me.

An edited version of the original photo to better show the squiggles. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo January 2022)

With questions racing through my mind, I grabbed my camera to document the scene through my front picture window. Yes, utility wires and dirty glass distracted, but I held no desire to step into the frigid cold to take photos.

Upon discussing the skinny squiggles with Randy many hours later, he suggested the cold, stillness and other “just right” atmospheric weather conditions caused those skinny contrail squiggles. Right? Wrong? What do you think (or know)? I’m listening.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling