The day the music died

  • Buddy Holly. COURTESY PHOTO

  • Peterborough Attorney L. Phillips Runyon III File photos

Published: 1/31/2019 4:03:45 PM

As life goes on, there seem more and more occasions to cast a backward glance and to revere the past over the present state of affairs.

One of those moments is approaching for me, as it will be 60 years on Feb. 3 since Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and JP Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. I was 11 at the time and knew their music well. In particular, when the crash occurred, Buddy and his band the Crickets had been riding particularly high, with a raft of hits in just the two years since they’d exploded onto the national scene from Lubbock, Texas. Those songs have been covered by dozens of others over the years – the Beatles and Rolling Stones among them – but Buddy’s originals are still the icons and I have a bittersweet feeling every time I hear one.

Don McLean memorialized the crash with “American Pie” in 1971, and although that tragedy may have been the day the music died in some ways, it came toward the end of a lot of other things about American life that seemed simpler and better then. Even though the late ’50’s were the height of the Cold War, those of us who were kids then didn’t spend much time thinking about that, despite the silly “duck and cover” exercises at school. We were too busy riding our bikes all over town, often to sketchy places our parents had no clue and little concern about as long as we made it home for dinner, which we always did. We didn’t have “play dates,” we just played, and “stranger danger” would have made no sense to us at all. If you did something that got you in trouble, the worst consequence was your parents finding out about it and exacting forms of retribution that would likely get them in trouble today. Getting hauled into juvenile court by the police was largely unknown but would definitely have been the lesser penalty.

Another element of those times was that you didn’t need much money to live pretty well – or to have fun. We could play an entire season on the playground with one baseball and bat. Once we’d knocked the cover off the ball, we wrapped it in electrical tape, and when the bat finally broke, it got some screws and tape of its own. You could go to the movies for a quarter, buy a Coke for a dime, and you could get a college education for about $1,500 a year. If your dad made $10,000 a year – and it was nearly always your dad then, as your mom was usually at home no matter when you showed up there – you were living pretty high on the hog, as my mom used to say.

Still, while those times now seem bathed in a golden aura, there were many of the same problems we have today – they were just kept pretty tightly under wraps or hadn’t even broken the surface of general awareness yet. There was a great deal of unacknowledged alcohol abuse; domestic violence was rampant, though rarely reported or dealt with; murky air and water were simply facts of modern life; global warming wasn’t on the radar screen at all; and racism or at least segregation continued to reign nearly everywhere. Buddy sang that “Everyday it’s a-gettin’ faster,” but with no computers, cellphones or instant messaging, faster was mostly to rhyme with “go ahead and ask her.” If you went back there now and started talking about those issues, people would have thought you’d escaped from the “funny farm” or should mind your own business.

But maybe I’m being a little cynical about those days because no matter what, we can’t go back. Someday these times may also be a cause for nostalgia, though that gets harder to believe all the time – and it will be for the kids of today to look back and make that assessment. In the meantime, I’ll just put on “That’ll be the Day” and be thankful for the lasting gifts Buddy gave us all those years ago.

L. Phillips Runyon III lives in Peterborough.


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