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


16 Responses to ““The day the music died””

  1. Jane Larson Says:

    Did you know Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane for JP Richardson aka the Big Bopper?

  2. beth Says:

    i was just a tot, and didn’t know about it at the time, but their story is timeless. i’ve never been to the area but i’d love to see it all. i so agree with you about the importance and value of music.

  3. Judy Says:

    I have never been to the Surf or the crash site. I was a teenager when their plane crashed. The musicians were popular at the time, I liked their music, I still play their songs. Thank you for posting about them today.

  4. Ruth Says:

    My son visited the crash site.
    What a sad story of immeasurable loss.

  5. What a classic song. American Pie. Known internationally but the story behind the song is not as well known (I think). I didn’t know they had made a museum out of the concert hall.

  6. Had the privilege of going to lots of great concerts there and love the history of the venue. The crash site is a neat thing to see just because of the memorabilia that folks leave behind. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Sandra Says:

    Thanks for all the pictures as I’ll never get there. I read the history timeline, all the owners, all the investment, generations past its prime. Interesting. Feb. 1959 I was a freshman in public school instead of the private plan, Mom and I moved from her home of 33 yrs. What I had was my music, Marjorie Silvis picked me up, put me in sr. choir a year early, made me librarian, gave me focus and friends. Yes, one could say music is necessary and Buddy Holly lifted up my generation. We still remember the Armory dances, visiting bands…without stereophonic sound. Good times. Good memories.

  8. I remember learning American Pie in a high school choir class and about this accident that inspired it. This accident happened the before both of my parents were born.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.