It’s not the cheeriest of thoughts, but isn’t it interesting how many spiritual sites are connected with death? From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and Normandy Cemetery in France to the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania, places associated with tragedy are often considered sacred.
On a trip to northern Iowa, I added another such site to my list, one that at first might seem an unlikely pilgrimage destination: the farmer’s field where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash in 1959. If you’re of my vintage, you may know of this tragedy as “The Day the Music Died,” a phrase from the song “American Pie” by Don McLean (that melancholy song was part of the soundtrack of my generation’s teenage years, each line endlessly parsed for symbolic meaning.)
To be honest, it took me awhile to realize that this is a place of pilgrimage. But as I stood at the simple memorial, suddenly it clicked. I saw the offerings left on the ground. I realized I’d met pilgrims as I approached the site–a couple from Norman, Oklahoma, who had made a detour on a cross-country trip to pay their respects. I could see another group of visitors walking down the path. Yes, this is a pilgrimage site, all right–one that is connected not to religious faith, but instead is intertwined with music, memory and lost youth.
As with most pilgrimage sites, there’s a narrative that helps shape the meaning of this place, one that is told and retold by visitors. It begins the evening before the three musicians died, when they played a concert at the nearby Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. As rising stars in the new genre of rock ‘n roll, they drew a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Surf. Buddy Holly in particular was on the fast track to fame, thanks to a string of hits that included “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.”
That evening, Holly decided to book a small private plane to take him to the group’s next gig in North Dakota rather than travel by the drafty and cold tour bus. There was much discussion about the two other available seats. Waylon Jennings, a member of Holly’s band, was offered a spot, but he graciously gave it to Richardson, who had come down with the flu. The last seat was wanted by both band member Tommy Allsup and Ritchie Valens, so the two flipped a coin. Allsup lost the toss and won his life.
The plane went down soon after take-off, plunging into a farmer’s field. The three musicians and pilot, Roger Peterson, were killed instantly. And ever since pilgrims have been coming to this spot in the middle of rural Iowa. Marked with a metal memorial made in the shape of a guitar and three vinyl records, the site attracts one kind of offering more than any other: coins, given in recognition of the fateful toss.
It’s interesting to speculate on why this place continues to draw people from around the world. Part of it is simply that the musicians died young, at the height of their fame (Holly was 22, Valens was 17 and Richardson 28). Part of it is the way that their music helped define an entire era, in a way that music, segmented as it is today into so many different genres, no longer does. And part of it, I think, is that the tragedy makes one reflect on the passing of one’s own youth.
But if this is where the music died, I must also tell you about where the music lives. The Surf Ballroom–the site of the last concert of the three–is as much a pilgrimage destination as the crash site. If it wasn’t for the Buddy Holly connection it’s unlikely the Surf would have survived, but the fame brought by the last concert attracts a steady stream of patrons and musicians to its doors. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland has designated the Surf a Rock and Roll Landmark. Travel + Leisure Magazine has named it as one of the Coolest Music Venues in America, an honor shared with Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“People come from around the world to honor the memory of those who died,” says Nicki Barragy, education coordinator for the ballroom and museum. “But the Surf is a living place as well, full of dances, concerts and events. That’s the best way to honor their legacy.”
The original Surf opened in Clear Lake in 1934. After being destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt across the street in 1948, decorated in a tropical theme with murals of surf and palm trees and faux clouds projected on its midnight blue ceiling. Holding up to 2,100 people, the Surf has hosted many of the entertainment world’s top names, from Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers to Martina McBride and B.B. King.
Today its 1950s interior, restored to pristine condition, is like a time machine, its hallways lined with publicity photos of guest artists from past decades. Musicians have also left their mark on the walls of the Surf’s dressing room, which is covered with hundreds of signatures (including a handwritten stanza of “American Pie” signed by McLean).
The Surf’s museum, located in a lounge adjacent to the main ballroom, gives information on the three musicians who lost their lives as well as other artists who have played here. Its memorabilia includes a briefcase used by J.P. Richardson and the handwritten lyrics to Ritchie’s “La Bamba.” Most poignant of all is the phone booth where Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens made their final phone calls after finishing their concert.
When I visited the Surf I got the chance to talk with Margaret Majerczyk, a native of England who now lives in Iowa and who teaches dancing lessons at the Surf. She also helps host its international visitors, including many from her home country.
“The British Buddy Holly Society started in the early 1960s and has many members in England,” she says. “He was a huge influence there on younger musicians and on teenagers like myself, who grew up surrounded by rock ‘n roll music. We’ve had hundreds of members of the club visit over the years. One man has been here 31 years in a row.”
But while Majerczyk enjoys hosting her fellow Brits on their annual pilgrimage, her favorite event at the Surf happens much more frequently. “I like to watch older visitors come into the Surf,” she says. “As they come down the ramp into the ballroom, they often seem frail. But once they step onto the dance floor a transformation occurs and they’re gliding like they’re young again.”
I left the Surf in a contemplative mood. I thought of those coins left at the crash site and of how so much of what happens to us seems to be the result of random chance. I thought of those elderly couples dancing underneath the fake clouds and the benevolent gaze of Holly, Valens and Richardson, whose pictures overlook the ballroom. And I thought of how holy sites blossom in unexpected places, nurtured by the need we have to remember, to celebrate and to mourn, whether it’s someone we knew or someone who symbolizes part of our past that is gone forever.
On a happier note, let me end with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, followed by Don McLean singing “American Pie.” For thankfully, it turns out that the music didn’t die after all.
The Surf Ballroom and Museum are open for self-guided tours daily during the summer months and Monday through Friday during the rest of the year, with occasional closures for special events. The most popular time to visit the Surf is during its annual Winter Dance Party, which is held on the weekend closest to the date of the fateful plane crash. In addition to concerts, the event typically includes a record show, family sock hop, dance lessons, and dance and costume contests.
The Surf website also has directions to the memorial site where Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson died. While it’s located on private land, visitors are welcomed.