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Why That Music Makes Us Smile

If you drive across the country on I-80 and detour north at Des Moines, just under two hours later you will be standing in front of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Buddy Holly played his final concert. I know this because I did it last summer. Something had drawn me to Clear Lake even before I found out that this week would be the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy.

The Surf Ballroom still looks pretty much as it did on the evening of Feb. 2, 1959, when the Winter Dance Party arrived in Clear Lake, stumbling off the bus on the second week of its miserable tour through the frozen Northern Plains. Featuring a faux-tropical decor, the ballroom has a dance floor large enough to handle the 1,300 fans who had driven across icy roads in four states to greet the stars. Here were Buddy Holly and his cobbled-together backup band—reduced to Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup after drummer Carl Bunch had been hospitalized with frostbite suffered on a bus with a broken heater. The other headliners included the 17-year-old Latino sensation Ritchie Valens and a DJ-turned-singer, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who had a novelty hit called “Chantilly Lace.”

At the concert, Buddy ran his Fender Stratocaster through a playlist of hits—“That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy,” “Maybe, Baby”—from his brief, astonishing burst of nine top-10 releases in just 18 months. For the finale, he joined Valens and the Big Bopper onstage for a rousing ensemble of Ritchie’s “La Bamba.” Then the makeshift trio headed for the nearby Mason City airport and climbed into a chartered red-and-white Beechcraft Bonanza bound for Fargo, N.D.

The pilot, Roger Peterson, was a 21-year-old who a few months earlier had failed his instrument flight exam. Shortly after takeoff, he apparently became disoriented in the darkness and a gathering blizzard. At about 1 a.m., the plane cartwheeled at 170 mph into a snow-covered field of stubble five miles north of the airport. The wreck and the four frozen bodies were not found for another eight hours. Buddy was just 22.

A half-century later, those sad events still resonate … but are tempered with—how else to say it?—a kind of bittersweet joy. This week the Surf Ballroom is hosting a “Fifty Winters Later” festival complete with art exhibits, dance lessons, scholarly panels, tours to the crash site, and visits by the survivors of the 1959 Winter Dance Party. At the inaugural concert for President Obama last month, Garth Brooks sang Don McLean’s 1971 elegy to Buddy, “American Pie,” with its encomium to the music that “used to make me smile.” When Bob Dylan won an Album of the Year Grammy in 1998, he recalled seeing Buddy and the Winter Dance Party perform in Duluth, Minn., on Jan. 31, 1959—three days before the crash—and thanked Holly for being “with us all the time we were making this record.”

Why does Buddy make us feel this way? Why does his name keep coming back 50 years later?

The answer is that the place Buddy Holly holds in American memory is all about authenticity and loss.

The first loss, of course, was that of a single enormously influential individual, gone like Milton’s Lycidas, “ere his prime.” Buddy was the first pop star to die young. He was the first to write and record his songs with his own backup group—later commonplace but then rare outside the R&B circuit. After Buddy and the Crickets toured England in 1958, Paul McCartney and John Lennon named their new group for another bug, and their first recording was a cover of “That’ll Be the Day.” The rights to Holly’s song catalog are currently owned by McCartney. As for the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger was so struck by seeing Buddy perform the Bo Diddley-influenced “Not Fade Away” during the same tour that the Stones made it the first track on their first U.S. album.

The loss that keeps Buddy with us today, though, is a larger one that bridges two generations: the so-called war babies, born during World War II, and the first of the baby boomers, who turned 13 in 1959. As they entered adolescence, the first Americans to think of themselves as teenagers were presented with a fresh-faced product of Lubbock, Texas, who was tall and geeky and—unheard-of for an entertainer of any kind—wore black horn-rimmed glasses. He was not a sex symbol like Elvis. He did not make country music like Hank Williams nor “race” music like Chuck Berry or Fats Domino. He was not outrageous like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and he was not urban and Eastern like Paul Anka or Frankie Avalon.

Buddy Holly was an original, most notable for all the things he was not—and by not being any one of them, he became all of us. His was the embarrassing face every adolescent white kid saw when he looked in the mirror. Even his name—Buddy!—seemed unthreatening and reassuring. If the raw energy of songs like “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On” suggested an awakening sexuality, the unrestrained joyfulness of others like “Oh Boy!” spoke also to latency, the pre-puberty stage of life when the imagination is free to fantasize without being bombarded by sexuality and insecurity.

The Beatles absorbed Buddy’s playful spirit in their early years, but by then the war babies and boomers had moved to older adolescence, and their other heroes had fallen in other bitter landscapes: Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

I recently watched a video of Buddy’s appearance on theEd Sullivan Showin 1958. Here was the gnarled and dyspeptic Sullivan, muttering an introduction. And then, suddenly, here were Buddy and the Crickets, launching exuberantly into “Oh Boy!” Embarrassingly, I felt tears welling up. I think now I was moved by rediscovering the feelings I once had of uncomplicated happiness, before sex and the Sixties hit. I was often happy then, too, but it was different.

Last summer I was thinking about all of this—Holly, the boomers and their fiercely held nostalgia—while standing outside the Surf Ballroom on a street now called Buddy Holly Place. Then an apparition appeared: a vintage, canary-yellow Thunderbird convertible driven by a man sporting a luxuriant handlebar mustache. His license plate read “2 BIG 55.” I asked to take his picture. He agreed, though afterward I could not decide whether the “55” stood for his age or the model year of the Thunderbird. Or maybe both. Or maybe, as the title of Buddy’s last record put it, “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” The driver was expressing his own connection to a lost time of innocence and fun.

If Buddy had lived, he would turn 73 this year. During this week’s commemorative events in Clear Lake, his widow, Maria Elena, who has remarried and divorced since Buddy’s death, will travel to the Surf Ballroom, along with members of the families of the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. The kids who discovered their generational identity through his music a half-century ago are in their 60s now. For us, Buddy Holly’s music will forever stay close to the heart, standing in for the youth and bright future we once savored but can never reclaim.

Landon Jones is the former managing editor of Peoplemagazine and the author of Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.