A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
Bye, bye Miss American Pie“American Pie” – Don McLean (1971)
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die
When I first heard Don McLean’s American Pie, I was in the 8th grade. This was the time in my life when everyone seemed older and wiser than my own awkward, not-yet-grown-into-my-body self. Maybe since I grew up listening to Daddy’s 1950s-era, 45-rpm records, I was just old enough to understand the loss of great musicians in plane crashes as well as the loss of innocence as we grow up.
With its over eight glorious minutes of rollicking storytelling, American Pie was probably the only song to hit number one on the charts with that length. Don McLean effortlessly captures what it’s like to be young and hit between the eyes by rock-and-roll. Then to learn about the death of one its most stellar visionaries, Buddy Holly, in February 1959 at the too-young age of 22. The opening lines of American Pie refer Holly’s widowed bride, Maria Elena Santiago-Holly, who did not attend his funeral because she had just miscarried their first child.
Holly never saw the 1960s, but his records did. He was such a prolific songwriter and spent so much time in the studio recording them, that his record company was able to continue to release his songs throughout the ’60s. What an innovator he was as he is credited with establishing the quintessential lineup of a rock band: two guitars, a bass, and a drum kit. He pioneered multi-track recording and influenced musicians who came after him such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elton John, the Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others.
I was reminded of Buddy Holly a few weeks ago when I read The Day the Music Burned, a New York Times Magazine investigative article chronicling the loss of Buddy Holly’s master tapes in a 2011 fire of the warehouse on a movie-studio lot where the archival recordings were stored.
And not just Buddy Holly’s master recordings were lost, but an enormous treasure-trove of other artists’ master recordings including: Elton John, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Billie Holliday’s recordings for Decca. Also lost were masters by Etta James, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, REM, No Doubt, Sheryl Crow, Nirvana, the Eagles, the Police, Sting, Janet Jackson, George Strait, Aerosmith, the Carpenters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Diamond, B.B. King, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, the Weavers, Mama Thornton, the Four Tops, Benny Goodman, Joan Baez, and probably thousands of other musicians.
Why didn’t we hear about this terrible loss of our musical heritage? The record company that owned the tapes had stored them in a warehouse on a movie-studio lot. In their official statements after the fire, the record company downplayed their losses and stated that no master tapes were lost in the fire. Of course, the loss of a master tape is an incalculable one. In the early years, record companies thought of master tapes as a money-out-the-door issue since storing them safely and archiving them for retrieval cost money. They did not fully understand the inherent value of the master tapes. It was only decades later when recording technology progressed far enough where original recordings could be used to create pristine versions of the artist’s work that were actually better than when the original recording was released on vinyl.
The tension between accumulating money versus artistic creativity, getting rich versus aesthetic beauty is one I have been thinking a lot about lately as I have been driving around my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. I have been cursing as I see new apartment complexes going up near downtown Knoxville, most of them meant for university students not for long-term housing and the lack of aesthetics goes along with it. These new buildings look like manufactured housing with facades of a little bit of brick here and there to spiff it up.
All the buildings I see share a common theme: a small amount of brick edifice, and a great deal of cheaper material that is not made to last or look beautiful. Just one time I would like to see new construction in my hometown that is awe inspiring, aesthetically pleasing, and worthy of note. Just one time. The old buildings at the University of Tennessee have the fine architectural details around their windows and doors, railings with decorative filigree, form married beautifully with function.
Buildings that are graceful and elegant, that will stand the test of time are really not what we build here in Knoxville–maybe in America–anymore. Before I was born, public buildings, hotels, banks, and other businesses were designed with distinction and built by bricklayers with old-quality construction and craftsmanship. I guess that quality and craftsmanship got lost somewhere around the time people began to be called employees instead of workers. If you are an employee, you are one that is being acted upon by your employer, you do not own the action. If you are a worker, you own the action, you produce the work. The words we use to describe things are subtle, yet they are powerful. I would much rather be a worker than an employee.
Maybe the word worker became too closely identified with Communism in the wake of World War II as the Soviet Union gobbled up country after country in its quest for as much of Europe as it could take. I don’t know. It would seem obvious to me that Communism lost out in its competition with Capitalism somewhere back in the Reagan-Gorbachev years. Maybe that’s why Putin is trying to regain Russia’s lost glory and build another empire in the world today. But Russia is not exactly known for its innovation as America has been known in the past.
Some of the best things about what it means to be American have inspired people around the world: especially through our music such as in the blues and rock and roll, both steeped in African roots. Because we are a country populated with an amalgam of different people from all over the world, our music was stirred together with bits and pieces of magic from musical traditions from all around the world.
Certainly Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly, born during the Great Depression in Lubbock, Texas, wanted to make money in the music business. But what drove him was not to be an employee of a record company, waiting for a songwriter to write him a hit record, a public relations man to tell him how to dress and act, and a producer to make his music sound like what other musicians were doing. Buddy wanted to be a complete artist, write his own songs, perform them in his own idiosyncratic way with his distinctive black glasses (that he bought from an optician in Lubbock, of course!), and produce his records himself. He saw what was there and he wanted to make it better. His music, his way. So quintessentially American.
So Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, his master tapes were burned in a warehouse in California in 2011, but his music did not die. It is the music that gives us the strength and fight to go on even in our darkest times.
~ Anna 6/30/2019