Listen to this song by Lubbock Texas’ favourite son, Buddy Holly. It’s “Everyday”, a hit from 1958. The song was in many ways kind of an oddity in the rock’n’ roll world, using as it does a celesta as its lead instrument, rather than Buddy’s standard sunburst Fender stratocaster, and without a drum kit in sight, too.
I think Holly’s unconventional approach to arranging his songs is one of the many reasons he was so ahead of his time. He understood the importance of timbre as a means of getting the attention of listeners, and expanded the definition of what a pop song could be in the process. And in this tune, kind of a soft-spoken rock n’ roll lullaby, he manages to make a song which is not only charming in its simplicity, but also one which is highly interpretable and timeless. Artists like Bobby Vee, and James Taylor had similar chart success when covering this unassuming little song, which sounds like a kid’s song, if not for the twisty-turny middle-eight section. He didn’t invent the middle-eight, but he sure did make it an important part of rock songwriting, breaking the pattern of verse-chorus-verse, and giving rock songwriting the same potential depth and variety as any tin pan alley tune. Holly knew how to structure a song as a whole, do it unconventionally, and still make it stick in your head.
The great thing about the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll is that everyone in the pantheon seemed to have a place in making sure that this music would make a lasting impact. Bo Diddley brought out the rhythm encoded in our genes all the way back to Africa. Chuck Berry gave us a clear manifesto; Cars, Makin’ out, and No School. Little Richard gave us theatricality, flamboyance, and a hint of the funk. Jerry Lee provided the danger. And Elvis gave the beast legs, in every sense of the word.
I think what Buddy Holly brought to the table in his 18 month recording career was pure craft. He could take three minutes and make them transcendent using odd timbres, weird chord changes that worked, and interesting rhythm patterns (see another Holly hit, “Peggy Sue” – where did he get that strumming pattern from?). In the process, he gave the act of songwriting a quality that was something akin to creating life beyond its creator, and beyond the times in which a song was first written. Songwriters spend their whole lives slaving over getting their craft up to this level. Holly seemed to be able to do it naturally, and in short order. He started a tradition of songwriting which lasts until today; the idea that a song can be immediate, and be immortal at the same time.
Still, it makes me sad to think that Holly would never see his musical baby grow up. His influence on other acts is well-documented. His sway over the songwriters of the British Invasion period, and even on modern country music, which is where I think Holly would have gone had he lived, is immense. In my alternate reality, he would have created some great, earthy music of his own well into the 1970s (including a cover version of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Cotton Jenny”, which is clearly written with Buddy in mind…), and maybe he would have joined the Highwaymen in the 80s, with his old friend Waylon Jennings. The 90s would have seen him become an elder statesman to alt-country acts, headlining festivals, and recording stripped-down albums that displayed his undiminished spark. Our 21st century would find him semi-retired, surrounded by grandkids and great grandkids, teaching them all to “hiccup” in his unique style while leading them in renditions of kids songs.
There have been a lot of artists who have been mourned as having been struck down in their prime. But, Holly was one of the most random and most senseless of all, killed in an airplane crash in Clearlake Iowa after a show, while his pregnant wife waited for him at home. Even if he didn’t record another note, he should have had the chance to be a dad.
For more music, check out the Buddy Holly MySpace page.