The day the music died ... or did it?

People exit this world as quickly as they enter it. Some may spend their time quietly, while others choose to make some noise, kick some butt and take some names. When an individual who makes a significant impact on our society and culture passes, does he or she ever actually disappear? It is fair to claim that fate may obstruct one's potential, but even more so I believe it is safe to say that history will somehow find a special place for individuals of particular distinction within its own pages.

February 3, 1959 -- youngsters all across the nation awoke to startling news: Three rock 'n' roll icons -- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and "the Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson -- died in a plane crash en route to Minnesota. The plane hardly left the ground before it plummeted; investigators later blamed the tragedy on bad weather and pilot error. Band members had decided to flip a coin for the last seat available on board to avoid the less desirable alternative of a long-distance bus ride. Those who boarded the planes ironically took off thinking of themselves as the "lucky ones." The bizarre sequence of events that day tragically cut short the lives of three young musicians on the rise to ultimate stardom and on the brink of accomplishing great things in their careers.

Who's to say what these young stars might have accomplished if they only had more time to write songs, record and perform? It is possible that any of these individuals may have altered the face of popular music as we know it today rather than settle as tragic footnotes in its history. Regardless, the past cannot be changed and we cannot do anything but speculate and wonder.

While fate did cut short the lives of Holly, Valens and Richardson, that's not to say that Americana ever forgot them. Look at the impact their legacies hold on pop culture today and how their artistic voices continue to resonate.

People may argue until the end of time about the metaphorical value for each line of Don McLean's 8.5 minute "American Pie," but there is no doubt that it commemorates the February plane crash. This institution of popular music not only manifests itself as a symbol of the Baby Boomer culture but it continues to be an oldie favorite today.

In addition to posthumous tributes, the songs of all three artists are all staples in any commemorative '50s CD advertised on TV, novelty jukebox or period movie soundtrack. With Holly's "Peggy Sue," Valens' "La Bamba" and Richardson's "Chantilly Lace," these three singers helped to cultivate a unique identity for the music of the 1950s.

Not only have their numerous hit songs lived on, but filmmakers, writers and other artists continue to borrow from them for their own work. Their songs have influenced other artists, notables including Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis and Los Lobos. Countless movies and books have depicted their lives leading up to the crash and their ascending musical careers. The imitations of Holly's signature spectacles alone speak volumes to the memories of a bygone era (think Rivers Cuomo of Weezer).

These three artists are just a few of many who have grander legacies than the lives they actually lived. While their work may have been significant, it receives a legendary status after being shrouded in the mysterious, controversial and often shocking details of their personal lives and deaths. The list goes on and on with artists and innovative minds who earned significant notoriety for said reasons: Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, River Phoenix and, more recently, Heath Ledger are just a few that come to mind.

When it comes to remembering people who have touched us both on the silver screen and on the radio, we don't just appreciate their work by itself but rather how history (and other significant individuals therein) chooses to memorialize and emulate them in their own work. No artist is truly original, and those who come after will always borrow from those who have come and gone before in order to create new things that provoke our thought and inspire us in unprecedented ways.

I always feel a miniature thrill from any allusion or offhanded reference to a star from a previous era in a current movie, TV show or song because it reminds me that artists continue to preserve their forerunners and appreciate what was done before their own time. History has a peculiar way of remembering more than one would think, and while an artist we enjoy may leave us without any rhyme or reason, he or she is just down but not yet out for the count.

Bailee's column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at barfield@cavalierdaily.com.?

related stories