Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Day The Music Died: Roots of Modern Rock

Whether you first heard of Buddy Holly from the fun stuff Weezer video that came with the Windows 95 installation disk, or whether you know about Texas because of Lubbock and Port Arthur, this post is for you. For a lot of contemporary music fans, February 3 is just another day. But this was the day that is remembered by students of modern popular music as “the day the music died” as described by Don McLean in his 1971 big hit American Pie. This was the day when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.D. “Big Bopper” Richardson died in a plane crash in 1959.

Till the time I was able to understand and appreciate the significance of Buddy Holly in the evolution of modern music, I brushed this event off as just another tragedy in the series of tragedies that lines the history of rock. I thought it was an event made famous by the song, and not vice versa. It was not till my early 20s that I began to realize why Buddy Holly was so important, and what his death meant to generations of musicians and music lovers across the world. The opinions and understanding expressed in this post are my personal ones, and it is possible that there are subjective interpretations that might not be in agreement with popularly held views. At the end of the day, I am a lover, not a forensic scientist, and love has its own way of looking at things.

The amount of critical attention that Don McLean’s song American Pie has received is amazing. Just like Eagles’ Hotel California, this song has been torn apart and dissected beyond recognition. Even Don McLean would not have imagined that the lyrics that he wrote would convey so much to analysts. I recall the early years of music video coming to Indian television, and hearing a still young Madonna sing American Pie, and reading about McLean’s wry response that the version was “mythical and sensual,” which betrayed how detached he had become from the significance of the song. However, this post is not about the song. You can find excellent critical analyses of it on the internet, and for those interested but lazy, here is a good one by Jim Fann.

J.P. Richardson, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens were part of a 24-city concert tour called The Winter Dance Party when they chose to take a chartered flight on Feb 3 from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota. The small Beechcraft Bonanza 35 was later found to have crashed 6 km away from the airport, with no survivors.

J.P. Big Bopper Richardson was a radio jockey who had composed and recorded a few clever songs, with his biggest hit being Chantilly Lace. More than his contribution to songwriting though, he is remembered for popularizing the radio show format, introducing new and emerging musical trends, and developing the persona of the radio jockey as an artist in his own right. Buddy Holly was Buddy Holly evenin the short span that he was in the limelight, redefining the white understanding of a predominantly black form of music, bringing folk music and rhythm and blues together in an absolutely refreshing and unique manner. Ritchie Valens was the face of the emerging Latin sound in modern music of the times, and was the man who made La Bamba a staple of parties and get-togethers the world over. Big Bopper was 29 years old when he died. Buddy Holly was 23. Ritchie Valens was 17.

To get a sense of why this event was such a great tragedy, one needs to look beyond the fact that Holly had just set out on delivering rock hits 18 months before his death, or that Valens was just a teenager but had built the foundations of what we today call Latino music. One needs to go back to the roots of rock as we know it and look at what was happening in the Americas and the continent in the decades preceding the 50’s and 60’s.

There were several different strains of root music in the New World as it evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries and these strains were not just distinct, but also exclusive. Like all traditional thinking, each viewed the other with a certain amount of disdain, maybe even fear, fear of being corrupted, fear of losing out, and fear of giving in. There was the several-century-old classical music that embraced all of the renaissance and baroque sensibility that came earlier and the romantic movement that followed. This was an European preserve, one that the educated and elite settlers in the Americas brought with them. This music was rich and multilayered, with polyphony, harmony and counterpoint having been worked to the acme of perfection. The works of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Hayden, Chopin and Liszt capture the best of the orchestral aspect while Purcell, Wagner, and Verdi stand at the forefront of the operatic format.

Then there was the music of the Africas, which came with the slaves that were imported (yes, people were traded in once upon a time, and in many ways are still traded in, through institutions like dowry marriages and child labor) from the Dark continent to provide labor to the colonizers of the New World. Africa was called dark not because the inhabitants were dark skinned, but because they lived in the dark without receiving the light of the God of white men. These people were used to provide the hard manual labor that was needed to build the America that we know, working to build the railroads, open roads to new frontiers, plough and harvest the corn and the cotton, and mine coal and minerals. However, they were slaves, and as slaves, they were not allowed the same rights as the rest of the population. They were punished severely if they protested against their conditions, and in many cases, any discussion among black workers was forbidden. The sorrow of being uprooted from their native land and culture, the tribulations of living lives of subjugation, and the harsh penalties for trying to address this inequity led to the rise of what we know today as the Blues, a form of music that expresses the pain of the unfairness and injustices of the human condition. How can one censor the cry of anguish, the howl of oppression, and the blues of a saddened soul? With the richness of their own beat driven traditional music, the Bluesmen discovered the European classical tradition and out of this marriage was born Jazz.

Then there was what can be called American folk music, with two different strains in it too - the indigenous music of North American and Canadian Native Indians and the music of the South Americas. Native Indian music served more of a documentary purpose, using history and mythology to turn religious rituals into a way of preserving traditional wisdom. South American music on the other hand was more beat driven, sensual and Dionysian, with a greater emphasis on the recreational and social function of music. When these two traditions met the more prim and structured ballads and folk song formats that the Irish, French and English settlers brought with them, a new form of folk music emerged, what we know as Country & Western music.

(You may want to read Falling Down Like Hail, my post on the history of the Blues as I perceive it over the Subho's Jejune Diet.)

The importance of Buddy Holly and other pioneers of the time, Elvis, Bill Haley, etc., lies in the fact that they were part of the movement that brought all of these divergent and mutually exclusive streams of popular music together to create what is generally recognized as Rock. Rock was the convergence of convergences. If you have read carefully, you will have seen how Country music was a convergence of Native American, Latin American and European music. Jazz and Blues were a convergence of African and European music. Rock, in layman’s terms, was a convergence of these two convergences.

The early 20th century saw what is known as the Great Migration, the mass movement of Blacks from the southern states to the northern states, thereby introducing more and more people to their music and enabling greater acceptance of Black culture and art forms among the general population. This also enabled more and more people to realize the inequities that were inflicted upon these people as part of the segregationist policies of the white government. With the emergence of Jazz, Rhythm&Blues, Rock&Roll, and Rock, musicians and music lovers managed to demolish the barrier of skin color in the realm of creativity.

The three musician’s who died in the plane crash at Clear Lake were not the only torch-bearers of this movement that held racial harmony and equality close to its heart. But their untimely death managed to highlight their contribution to the movement and put in perspective what they might have been able to achieve had they lived on. Don McLean wrote about this event, not only as a tribute to the three artists who died, but also to the period of the 60’s and 70’s, an era that was filled with hope and optimism and innocence, where people believed that the power of music, literature and art could change the world, end wars, and wipe out hunger and poverty. An era that lost its way in a haze of drugs, sex, and thoughtless anti-establishmentarianism, and era that was hijacked by the very same forces that it opposed - the greed of corporates, the indifference of the war machinery, and the desperation of governments.

The music of Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, and Elvis might sound simplistic and perhaps even archaic to ears that have grown up hearing Jay-Z and Rihanna, but they will outlast them in the larger scheme of things. They are the foundations on which modern rock is built, without which there would not have been The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Greenday or The Black Eyed Peas. Finally, for those of you who might not have heard Don McLean’s classic tribute to the day the music died, here is a link to a video of him singing the song live -

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  1. Very comprehensive post on Buddy Holly and the music he was surrounded by, although I wonder why rock n' roll as a movement was and is met by indifference in our motherland. I guess its our already rich tradition and culture in music, we just couldn't relate to the turbulent rhythms of rock for thought.

    1. Indian sensibilities are built around melody and scales as against the rhythm and guitar driven sound of rock. As urban listening tastes have evolved, we have grown bands like Something Relevant, Parikrama, and Zedde, and many more. So there is a growing acceptance of indigenous Indian rock happening now.

  2. i never knew these !
    good information Subh :)

  3. Enjoyed your post as a layman though I have an expert in my family on rock music. Perhaps you can get in touch with Arjun S Ravi. Google him and you shall find.

    1. Thanks, looked Arjun up and am following him now.

  4. Informative piece! Thanks for sharing :)

  5. That was really informative, Never came across all these. :)
    Thank you! :)

  6. remains one of my favorite songs for its simplicity and beyond imagination relevance. Whats makes a song timeless is not the jazzy beats or tacky videos but the lyrics.

    'Now, do you believe in Rock n Roll? Can music save your mortal soul?' ! Iconoclastic !!

    thanks for the post ...

    1. I love the song and the lyrics too. Glad you liked the post, Nitin.

  7. Just Amazing Information and nicely summed up too!
    Thanks a lot for sharing:)

  8. legends never die, they live forever!!!

    very well written article.



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