Buddy Holly Criticism - Essay

Dave Laing (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Listen to Me," in On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, Pantheon Books, 1990, pp. 326-40.

[In the following excerpt from his 1971 study of Holly, Laing provides an analysis of the compositional structure of Holly's songs as well as the highly individual style of his performance on studio recordings.]

Buddy Holly's music developed considerably on the records made under his own name, mostly at Petty's studio in Clovis. The backing is usually by members of the Crickets, although the record labels only said "with instrumental accompaniment." These tracks are the twelve which appeared on the album Buddy Holly in 1958, with the addition of four later tracks—"Rave On," "Take Your Time," "Heartbeat," and "Well All Right"—and others not issued until after Holly's death, including "Love's Made a Fool of You" and two songs cut with the R&B saxophonist King Curtis: "Reminiscing" and "Come Back Baby."

The general impression given by these records is one of sparseness and simplicity, particularly in comparison with the baroque richness produced by the vocal backings on the Crickets' records. The principal elements are drums, guitar or piano, and voice, and often the drumming is pared down to a tom-tom or jelly. The songs are frequently loosely constructed, with each sung line countered by a meandering guitar line, on the call-and-response pattern of "Not Fade Away."


Most music in the rock 'n' roll tradition differs from other popular music and aligns itself with folk music in the relationship of the song to the record. A Cole Porter song, for example, is more than just a recording by Ella Fitzgerald. It has an independent existence beyond that particular version, and it is easy to imagine Sinatra or Crosby making their own interpretations which would be equally icceptable. No single recording of a Cole Porter song exhausts its potential, whereas the Who's recording of "My Generation" or Jerry Lee Lewis's record of "High School Confidential" does precisely that. In each case it becomes impossible to disentangle the song from the recording of it. There is much less reason for anyone else to do another version of either song, unless they were prepared to make use of the Who's or Lewis's vocal and instrumental mannerisms. Cole Porter and Jerry Lee Lewis in this sense are polar opposites, and many rock performers will be found to be at neither extreme. It is worth examining this opposition because of the light it throws on the relationship between words and music in rock 'n' roll, and in particular in Buddy Holly's work.

It is useful here to draw a tentative comparison between popular music performers and film directors as seen by critics who analyze films in terms of the auteur principle. Both auteur and metteur en scene work from a written text, but, whereas the latter does no more than faithfully transfer that text to the screen, the auteur gives it certain emphases which change its meaning.

The musical equivalent of the metteur en scene is the performer who regards a song as an actor does a part—as something to be expressed, something to get across. The aim is to render the lyric faithfully. An obvious example of the genre is the "protest" singer, whose work subordinates music to message. The vocal style of the singer is determined almost entirely by the emotional connotations of the words. The approach of the rock auteur, however, is determined not by the unique features of the song but by his personal style, the ensemble of vocal effects that characterize the whole body of his work.

This dichotomy also holds among popular musicians who compose their own material. Those who, like Leonard Cohen, merely transpose their lyrics into song form cannot be considered rock auteurs because their musical style is entirely determined by the words on the page. But the meaning of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" or of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" on disc is infinitely richer than the words of the lyric on the page. In the work of these singers, the distinction between the composition and the performance, central to classical music, breaks down. The song "Peggy Sue" has no real existence outside Buddy Holly's record of it.

Within rock 'n' roll, examples of two kinds of auteur can be found. Carl Perkins is a singer of the first, weaker kind, a man who can impose a distinctive personal style on his material, but whose own songs are capable of having other singers' styles imprinted on them (e.g., Elvis Presley's record of "Blue Suede Shoes"). On the other hand Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis are two singers who inscribed their styles on the songs they recorded, thus making it difficult for anyone else to perform those songs without imitating Diddley's "jungle beat" or Lewis's piano style with the famous swoop along the keyboard. Another major auteur of this kind is Buddy Holly, who found stylistic maturity at a time when it was becoming possible to play rock 'n' roll outside a rigid, conventional, 12-bar structure.

With his solo records, the shapes of Buddy Holly's songs start to match his vocal style in their originality. Short two- or three-line verse forms predominate. The effect of this in "Words of Love" or "Listen to Me" is to alter the balance between singing and instrumental work. Instead of having two large vocal sections separated by a shorter instrumental segment, these songs consist of a series of shorter singing and playing passages.…

"Peggy Sue" has a two-bar instrumental embellishment at the end of each verse and no "middle 8." This omission partly accounts for the unrelieved excitement of the record, since the function of the "middle 8" in most songs is to provide a breathing space from a succession of verses, just as an instrumental break does.

The structure of "Listen to Me" is more orthodox, although the instrumental break, in which Holly repeats the title phrase over the guitar playing, is unusually long. In "Heartbeat," each line has its accompanying guitar response, except where the song returns from the "middle 8" back to the verse. It is based upon the call-and-response pattern, which probably reached the Holly fraternity ("Heartbeat" is written by Petty and Bob Montgomery) through the work of Bo Diddley. One of the Holly tapes issued after his death with a backing added by Petty is of "Bo Diddley."

The themes of these songs are similar to those of the Crickets. They are all love songs, and nearly all are sung directly to the girl. "Mailman Bring Me No More Blues"; "Love's Made a Fool of You" (which is a philosophical song addressed to men in general), and "Heartbeat," where the singer soliloquizes, are the main exceptions. In addition, there are "Ready Teddy," with a lyric in the "Rock Around the Clock" tradition—a general invitation to everybody to have a good time—and "Well All Right."

This last record is the nearest Holly and Petty ever came to making a rock 'n' roll protest lyric along the lines of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" or Chuck Berry's "Almost Grown," although there is none of the anger or irritation of those songs. The response to adult criticism of young people in "Well All Right" is: "Well all right / Let people say …" which is a shrug of the shoulders rather than a shake of the fist.

As with the Crickets' lyrics, the words of a large proportion of these solo songs are about a man trying to win a girl's love. This is the situation in "Little Baby," "Look at Me," "Words of Love," "Listen to Me," "I'm Gonna Love You Too" and "Peggy Sue." Two songs, "Wishing" and "Everyday," are slightly different, in that the singer passively hopes that a girl will "surely come my way" instead of being involved with someone already. Instead of using his own words to win a girl, he simply hopes that fate or chance will act for him. In "Wishing," he looks around for a wishing star to help him. "Everyday" straddles the gap between what might be called "confrontation" songs ("Listen to Me," etc.) and the large body of teenage daydream songs, typified by the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream," in which the real girl has been eclipsed by the girl in the singer's imagination.

Few of the Holly solo songs possess regular four-line verses, like "That'll Be the Day." Only "Look at Me," "Take Your Time," "I'm Gonna Love You Too," and "You're the One" have verses of this kind. The other tracks have either two- or three-line verses, or a structure based on the 12-bar blues form, for example:

TWO-LINE: "Wishing," "Heartbeat," "Words of Love," "Love's Made a Fool of You"

THREE-LINE: "Everyday," "Listen to Me"

12-BAR BASED: "Mailman Bring Me No More Blues," "Ready Teddy," "Rave On," "Peggy Sue," "Baby I Don't Care," "Reminiscing"

("Well All Right" has eight-line verses, four lines of which form a chorus. "Um Oh Yeah" has verses which vary between two and three lines.)

Of the two-line verse songs, "Heartbeat" and "Love's Made a Fool of You" have complementary guitar lines following each vocal line. "Words of Love" has a chorus that is the same shape as the verse. Each vocal section (verse and chorus) is therefore four lines long. The second line in each pair is half the length of the first, and the other two bars are completed with humming.…

Although six songs have a structure based on the 12-bar blues, only one, "Mailman Bring Me No More Blues," has the classic blues form of three lines, with the second as a repetition of the first. "Ready Teddy," "Rave On," and "Peggy Sue" have another much-used blues form, in which the two lines spread over the last eight bars crop up in every verse, as a chorus. This structure is less obvious in "Peggy Sue" than in "Ready Teddy," where the chorus is clearly marked off from the rest of the verse. Two aspects of "Peggy Sue" combine to give it a spontaneous, unstructured appearance: quiet rhythm guitar work, which means that the chord changes are not emphasized, and constant repetition of the name "Peggy Sue" in both verse and chorus, blurring the division between the two.

The three-line verse shape of other songs also owes much to the blues, although its immediate ancestry was more likely the blues of C&W music than rhythm and blues. In both "Everyday" and "Listen to Me," the third line is almost the same in every verse and acts as a chorus, but the effect of this line is different from the type of chorus in "Ready Teddy." That chorus, introduced at regular intervals, acts as a bedrock for the song, as a firm construction underlying the lyric. In "Listen to Me" and "Everyday," however (as in "Peggy Sue"), the single line chorus seems to be reached each time by a less sure route, because the repeated phrases are not clearly set apart from the rest of the lyric; thus the listener hears them as a separate musical passage. The records give the impression of being one long, flowing unit, instead of songs composed of a series of structurally regular sections.

Another contributory factor to this flowing feeling is the use of rhymes: the units are very short, often only a phrase of three or four words. "Heartbeat" in particular has a complex rhyming scheme, with syllables echoing and bouncing off each other:

Heartbeat why do you miss
When my baby kisses me?
Heartbeat why does a love kiss
Stay in my memory?

It is worth listening to the whole sequence of rhymes, half rhymes, and echoes: do / you (line 1); why (lines 1,3) / my (lines 2, 4) / stay (4) / ba-(2);-by / me (2) / -ry (4); does / love (3). Even the distant echo of a rhyme in the song's title contributes to the pattern.

These, then, are the features of the songs as they are before the records are made. What Buddy Holly and his backing musicians chose to make of them is the subject of the remainder of this chapter.


The powerful effect of Buddy Holly's singing does not come from what is normally thought of as vocal "power." In fact, his least interesting records are those in which he gives the song the full-blooded Little Richard or Elvis Presley treatment, like "Ready Teddy" or "Early in the Morning." Although he performs these songs adequately, the distinctive qualities of his singing seem to be submerged. These qualities need slower or more complicated songs than conventional rock 'n' roll tunes, to be fully effective.

Buddy Holly's singing voice was not strong, and this factor turned out to provide the basis for most of the vocal effects found on his records. Holly's voice was naturally higher-pitched than those of many rock 'n' roll singers, and lacked the body and resonance of Fats Domino or Elvis Presley. It was, in origin, like the voices of Buddy Knox, Carl Perkins, and the Everly Brothers, a typically country singing voice. Both Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams (the two greatest singers to fashion their own style in the C&W genre) possessed high-pitched voices, but with a wiry strength lacking in the more moping vocalizing of many of their successors.

Holly had a subtle strength allied to his relatively thin, high-pitched tone. The strength and subtlety came from a number of vocal effects or mannerisms, and a constant shifting from one to another of them, so that no phrase is sung in the same way as the preceding or the succeeding phrase. It is possible to isolate at least five distinct effects that appear frequently in the records Holly cut at Clovis as a solo artist, backed by members of the Crickets.

Contrast in pitch is the only one of his vocal mannerisms that Holly clearly borrowed from another artist, Elvis Presley. His version of "Baby I Don't Care," a song previously recorded by Presley, follows the original, where the title phrase is very low pitched. In other songs, alternate phrases are sung with contrasting pitch: in "Mailman Bring Me No More Blues," the final line of the last verse, which ordinarily would have a falling cadence, is sung with the second phrase much higher than the first: "One blue letter (LOW) / Is all I can use (HIGH)." In "Well All Right," the cadence at the end of the verse is the conventional falling one, but Holly overemphasizes the contrast between the high and low parts in a similar way.

In both these songs, one of the contrasting sections is made to sound "out of place" in the song. Holly sings the low part in the former song and the higher part in the latter, so that he seems to break out of the vocal range the song had set for itself: the listener is surprised by the change. This impression occurs in "Well All Right" because Holly's voice only sketches in the upward movement of the melody in the line "Well all right, well all right." The end of the word "right" is cut off sharply and the word itself is sung both times very softly. This contrasts with the next deeper line which is sung with greater power and assurance. In "Mailman Bring Me No More Blues" it is the Presley-like growl that is deliberately out of place. Contrasted high and low phrases in these records are not usually equally balanced. Holly's singing tends to place special emphasis on one of them, while the other is made to seem more integrated with the rest of the song.

More frequent than contrasts between phrases are contrasts in pitch within phrases. In "Peggy Sue," Holly's voice is continually darting up and down, so that the experience of the record is like that of a roller coaster or switchback ride. In the last two lines of the second verse quoted, the underlined words are those where low pitch is accentuated by Holly's singing, and those in capital letters are the emphasized high-pitched notes: "Oh well I love you gal / Yes I LOVE you PEGGY Sue …" (the last word is spread over several notes, on the last two of which the voice drops).

Variations in intonation are easily discerned in Holly's singing, but are more difficult to define. "Peggy Sue," Holly's most spectacular vocal performance, includes an important example in the verse preceding the guitar...

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Richard Aquila (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Not Fade Away: Buddy Holly and the Making of an American Legend," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 15, No. 4, Spring, 1982, pp. 75-80.

[In the following essay, Aquila examines the endurance of Holly's reputation as a songwriter and his status as a major figure in popular American culture.]

February 3, 1959 is for many rock and roll fans a day of infamy. Don McLean, in his 1971 recording "American Pie," referred to it as "the day the music died." On that day Buddy Holly, a twenty-three-year-old rock star, was killed in the crash of a chartered single-engine airplane. Two other rock stars, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), also died in the...

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John Goldrosen and John Beecher (essay date 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Making of a Legend," in Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography, 1986. Reprint by Penguin Books, 1987, pp. 149-63.

[In the following excerpt, Goldrosen and Beecher document the continued popularity and influence of Holly's songs following his death, detailing the release of "enhanced" versions of unfinished or previously unissued recordings made by Holly later in his career.]

"The day the music died"—so Don McLean termed that cold February day in his number one song "American Pie" almost thirteen years later. He was not the first to see Holly's death as a decisive event in the history of rock 'n' roll. At the time, no one could sense fully just what...

(The entire section is 7977 words.)