It was one year ago today that my twin sister Sheryl and I arrived in Clear Lake, Iowa to attend the Surf Ballroom's 2016 Winter Dance Party. Given our lifelong affinity for 1950s rock and roll, it was a pilgrimage in the making since childhood. Our first collaborative effort in preservation, The Surf Speaks: Voices of a Living History, galvanized our journey to the historic landmark. With my focus being primarily W.A. Mozart to that point, it was the beginning of my work in American popular music, and what a beginning it was!
Since 1979, rock and roll fans from around the world have attended the annual commemorative event to celebrate the lives and legacies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"). It was at the Surf Ballroom that the trio gave their final career performances on the evening of February 2, 1959. The show was a great success, but the unthinkable happened just a short time later. "The Three Stars" and pilot Roger Peterson perished in a tragic plane crash around 1am.
Today marks that anniversary as well. While February 3rd is popularly known as "The Day the Music Died" in reference to Don McLean's 1971 song "American Pie," I tend to think of it as the"shift" that's inscribed on a plaque dedicated to the Surf Ballroom from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "There are few buildings in existence today that represent a complete shift in our musical history. As the last concert venue for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, the Surf is the bedrock of where the sound and attitude of rock and roll changed forever."
While the Surf Ballroom was the last venue where the rock and roll pioneers performed before boarding their ill-fated plane, you won't find solemn faces there this time of year. You'll find only the palpable joy and happiness that their music continues to bring individuals across generations. I can't express in words what the Winter Dance Party experience has given, rather, ignited in me, but its indelible impression has made me reconsider this day as one to celebrate, not mourn, the passion and promise these lives represented. There was a new dimension or patina to my understanding of this historic event. It was almost as if I had known nothing at all.
It's appropriate to quote Sheryl here: "Scholarship is crucial but field work is the heartbeat. I love academia but there's nothing like being out there experiencing firsthand the vitality of your subject matter. Nothing takes you closer to the source than the source itself. Scholars are hunting the shadow, not the substance. Vitruvius knew his stuff!"
We danced, we sang, we cried, we marveled, we met rock and roll royalty, we met some of the biggest rock and roll fans on the planet, we were on local television for a memorial site segment, we received a driver from an anonymous group who supported our work and we had one of the scariest flights in the aftermath of Winter Storm Kayla (we flew into the Mason City Airport in a small aircraft where Buddy's plane departed on the same day of the tragedy).
We met members of the Snyder family who saved the Surf from becoming a Red Owl grocery store in the 1990s, we met Connie and Irma Valens (Ritchie's sisters) and we met Richard Casey, who's father owned the Surf from 1964 to 1967. Living history was all around us, personified!
Buddy Holly's best friend and drummer Jerry Allison joined our project's group photo, we met Tommy Allsup who was Buddy's lead guitarist from the 1959 Winter Dance Party (he unexpectedly passed away last month), we interviewed 1959 emcee Bob Hale (watch), we were filmed for the Bopper and Me documentary (release TBA) and we took a few spins in the "Bopper Mobile" to name a few highlights. In short, I could write a book!
And over the past year, our relationship with the Surf Ballroom, the music and the people has only gained in depth and scope. As we rolled out The Surf Speaks initiative and Sheryl was appointed as Interim Museum Director of the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association in April, we've been given greater opportunities to leverage our collective passion to further the history over these past months.
The Surf Speaks website captures these exciting outcomes! It's richly rewarding to revisit my experience at the Winter Dance Party and trace the arch of its progress on this dual anniversary. It's my hope that, as with everything I do, my story helps others relate more to the history as it lives today and encourages them to invest in it as patrons, consumers, advocates and volunteers.
In closing, a few words from the iconic Surf Ballroom: "Step onto the hardwood floors, surrounded by ocean-front murals and booths reminiscent of milk shakes and rock and roll. Look up into the clouds floating on the ceiling and realize that the sky is still the limit. You're indeed standing on the stage of American music..."
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