About the Songwriter

 

Verse 6, continued

And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken

Beyond all the noise and violence of this tumultuous era, the America that survives this decade is not the America we knew a scant 10 years earlier. With so many of the assumptions of that older order undermined, little familiar remained to believe in, and our once buoyant faith in American culture appeared irrevocably lost. The old religion was dead: the church bells all were broken.

And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died

These three enigmatic figures resonate strongly with this period, and carry more than one association—the most obvious being the three performers (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper) who died in an Iowa cornfield that fateful day in 1959. They could also be symbolic of the three political assassinations of the 1960s—John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King—whose violent deaths shook the foundations of American optimism and naiveté during these years. But given that the “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” seem to be alive and well and living in the present tense of this verse (1970), we might look elsewhere to identify them. In a quote from a January, 1972 Life magazine article, Don McLean—speaking of Buddy Holly—gives us a better clue to the identity of this trio: "He was a symbol of something deeper than the music he made. His career and the sort of group he created, the interaction between the lead singer and the three men [italics mine] backing him up, was a perfect metaphor for the music of the 60s and for my own youth." So these three men could also be the Crickets, representing the surviving remnants of Holly's enthusiastic spirit, and by association symbolic of the happier optimism of their time.

But these religious figures hold an even greater symbolic importance: in the wake of this decade's disillusioning cynicism and fragmentation, the "Father, Son and the Holy Ghost" represent a faith in America that had once permeated American life, and that—hope against hope—might still redeem the disorder that had befallen us. But the holy trinity, finding no sympathetic hearing and resigning themselves to the inevitable (having held out for "the last train"), pack up their bags and retire to the coast: the believers had lost faith in their gods, and the gods can only retreat.

And they were singin'...


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