This episode begins with a few stray observations exploring topics mentioned in recent episodes, including the Cuban Revolution, neoliberalism, the Capitol Riot, & the popularity of conspiracy theories. The main narrative of the program explores the early history of rock 'n roll. We discuss how rock music became big business by the late 50s, despite accusations from conservative forces that the new sound was an immoral & subversive racket that corrupted American teenagers. One of the rising stars of the genre was a lanky & bespectacled young man from Lubbock, Texas named Buddy Holly. He quickly attained national fame thanks to hit songs like "Peggy Sue," but he then experienced a financially-damaging breakup with his band & his management. Short on cash & needing to provide for his new wife & unborn child, he launched on an ill-advised mid-winter tour of the Upper Midwest alongside fellow rockers Richie Valens & the Big Bopper. After their rickety tour bus broke down in dangerously cold temperatures, resulting in his drummer being hospitalized with frostbite, Holly decided that chartering a private plane might be a safer way to travel. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case, & Holly became the first of a string of rock stars to die young under tragic circumstances.
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“From Boomers to Millennials” is a modern US history podcast, providing a fresh look at each year since the end of World War II. Welcome to Episode 14B, a supplemental podcast called “A Rock ‘N Roll Tragedy & A Podcast Update.” We promise, next time, we really will get to the first year of the Sixties, including the U-2 incident and the subsequent rise in Cold War tensions. However, we will first use this episode to tie up some loose ends from recent podcasts, and then before we leave the 50s, we will take a deeper dive into the pop-cultural history of the final years of that decade. But first, a quick podcast update. Our current Top 10 countries with the most downloads are as follows: 10) New Zealand; 9) Norway; 8) France; 7) Indonesia; 6) Germany; 5) Ireland; 4) Australia; 3) Canada; 2) the United Kingdom; & 1) these United States of America. If your country is not on this list, you could always download a bunch of episodes & tell several friends about the podcast, and maybe your nation will crack the Top 10 next time. We thank our listeners in all 66 countries & counting (according to our statistics) that have downloaded the podcast so far.
Our featured podcast for this month is the “History of the Cuban Revolution Podcast.” I discovered this podcast when researching Episode 14 of our show, during which I mentioned that the Cuban Revolution is still a polarizing topic. Yet engaging host Nick Ramos takes a fairly judicious & well-researched approach in his excellent podcast. Ramos states that he was born & raised in post-revolutionary Cuba, but he was educated in & currently resides in the United States, so he has a very unique perspective. I found his episode entitled “Sergeant Stenographer Fulgencio Batista” particularly interesting. As we mentioned in our “Coping With Cuba” episode, Batista was the corrupt dictator who was overthrown in the revolution of 1959. However, he also has a fascinating backstory, as a self-educated mixed-race enlisted man who managed to lead a mutiny against the officer corps & then seize control of the entire government of Cuba during the 1930s. He was of far humbler & more diverse origins than the wealthy white elites who traditionally governed Cuba, and it remains an irony that he eventually became a close protector of the island’s elites before he was overthrown in the popular revolution led by Fidel Castro & Che Guevara, two left-wing radicals who were also men of European ancestry from relatively privileged backgrounds. Check out the “History of the Cuban Revolution Podcast” at thinkabouthistory.podbean.com, or download it on one of the major podcast platforms.
Now, we will do a quick follow-up on some themes introduced in recent episodes. In our episode entitled “Defining Liberalism” (Episode 13A), we neglected to address the growing popularity in American political conversation of the term “neoliberalism.” This term is often confusing to older generations of American political observers who associate the term “liberal” with increased government spending & a more heavily regulated economy. Neoliberalism a very different ideology; it favors privatized services & deregulated markets. The word “neoliberal” harkens back to “classical liberal economics,” the older European-style meaning of the term liberal that refers to a preference for free trade & free markets. Hence, neoliberalism amounts to what in the United States would be considered closer to economic conservatism. In particular, the term is especially popular among partisans of the political Left, who use ‘neoliberalism’ to describe a perceived shift by both center-left & center-right parties away from the welfare state & toward deregulation, austerity, & privatization. Here in the English-speaking world, left-wing critics of neoliberalism allege that during the 1980s & 90s, the US Democratic Party & the UK Labour Party abandoned their traditions of using state power to protect the interests of blue-collar workers & the poor. The rise of neoliberalism was part of an economic evolution that occurred during the final 3 decades of the 20th Century in many countries around the world. Governments adopted neoliberal policies in part due to the perceived successes of pro-market reforms in generating economic growth, & also due to the perceived failures of centralized economic planning, especially in Communist nations. Today, a total embrace of the free market seems to be in decline around the world thanks to growing populist movements on both the left & the right. We may now be seeing the beginning of the end of the era of neoliberalism. But that is a story for a much later episode.
Another loose end I want to follow up on is my little rant at the beginning of Episode 12 (released in mid-January 2021) that condemned the recent Capitol Riots. Our podcast attempts to draw connections between past & present, but it is not primarily a Current Events show. So, I won’t get on my soapbox for too long here, but I want to address this historic event and its future implications. My interest in the events of January 6th isn’t about scoring partisan points against political opponents. While it probably won’t shock longtime listeners of this podcast to hear that I was not a supporter of President Trump, I have criticisms of both major US political parties. My point is to recognize the historical significance of a violent attempt to overturn a presidential election. This January’s lack of a peaceful transfer of executive power is unprecedented in modern US history. It requires citizens to reflect about the direction & stability of our democracy. I found the Capitol Riots just as shocking & emotionally traumatizing as the 9/11 attacks. Both were breaches of national security that seemed to have profound consequences for the future of the country. Thankfully, far fewer people died on January 6, 2021 than did on September 11, 2001. Yet at least some members of the mob that stormed the Capitol seemed intent on harming legislators or even “hanging [Vice-President] Mike Pence,” to paraphrase some rioters’ own words. Members of Congress avoided being confronted & possibly captured by the mob by a mere matter of minutes. If the attempted insurrection had come closer to succeeding, it could have threatened the future of American constitutional democracy.
The insurrection primarily occurred because tens of millions of Americans were convinced that the November 2020 presidential election was stolen. The most important thing to realize about these claims is that they completely originated from one source, former President Donald Trump. The ex-president obsessed over maintaining an appearance of strength & avoiding being labelled as a “loser.” For this reason, starting in 2016, he began claiming that if he lost the general election, the only possible explanation was massive voter fraud. This claim became awkward after Trump shocked the world by winning the election via the Electoral College, despite narrowly losing the popular vote. Still, even in triumph, he would not admit he had been wrong about the 2016 election fraud claims. Trump instead maintained that there had indeed been many illegal votes cast for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, but he insisted that his base of support had been “yuge” enough to overcome it.
During the 2020 presidential race, after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic wrecked Trump’s plans to run on a good economy, he doubled down on claims of imminent voter fraud. Once again, he did not base these accusations upon any clear source or evidence. He simply asserted that there would be fraud, a claim that would nicely excuse his own responsibility for a potential loss, and that was enough for many of his supporters to believe it. Once all the votes were counted after Election Day, the presidential race was officially called for the Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden, yet supporters of Trump insisted that this result would be overturned by the courts. They did so despite the fact that all major mainstream media outlets, & even the right-wing Fox News channel, had called the election for the Biden-Harris ticket. The Trump camp then spent weeks trying every political & legal method available to challenge Biden’s victory, but federal courts found their purported evidence of fraud to be wholly unconvincing & insufficient. Even the ideologically conservative US Supreme Court, which currently has a 2-to-1 Republican advantage, & includes 3 members appointed by Trump, declined to overturn the election. Many of the controversial state elections certified for Biden were administered by Republican-run state governments, such as those in Arizona & Georgia. If there were real evidence of massive voter fraud, conservative judges & Republican governors would have a strong partisan incentive to reveal such irregularities. Instead, they all certified narrow Democratic wins in the states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, & Arizona as fully legitimate & valid.
All this brings us back to Episode 10A on conspiracies, which we released right before the November 2020 Election. The “voter fraud” conspiracy theory spread like wildfire in late 2020 & early 2021. Republican voters understandably wanted to believe that their chosen champion, President Trump, had actually won re-election. Many trusted Trump above any other media source or politician, in spite of the fact that Trump’s record in business & personal matters indicate that he is not a paragon of honesty & integrity. Trump supporters wanted to believe in the Voter Fraud conspiracy so much that many alleged that the entire mainstream media, Congress, the judiciary, & even Fox News were part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to rig the election. Occam’s Razor would lead a logical thinker to a different, more plausible conclusion: that there simply wasn’t substantial evidence of systematic voter fraud. But that isn’t how conspiracy theorists think. I understand that many in the mob that stormed the Capitol were deeply sincere in their convictions. They truly believed Trump when he said that they were on the verge of losing their country forever. Many rioters combined the Voter Fraud conspiracy theory with other, even darker conspiracies, such as QAnon. In our October 2020 episode, we documented how conspiracy theories have led to violence throughout history. We were sad to see it happen again this past January. Clearly, not enough Americans listened to that episode of our podcast. Seriously though, we’re very fortunate that the insurrection failed, but a full reckoning is needed, like the investigation that occurred after 9/11, in order to prevent this type of domestic terrorism from ever happening again. Unfortunately, many elected officials have downplayed the seriousness of the events of January 6th for partisan political reasons. If the US government fails to take domestic unrest seriously, it is probable that incidents of electoral violence will happen again.
I want to make one other point regarding the broad appeal of conspiracy theories, outside of the specific context of the 2020 election & the Capitol Riot. I was fairly harsh on advocates of conspiracy theories during Episode 10A; I do want to acknowledge that I understand the impulse to embrace them when dealing with seemingly implausible & troubling events that seem very unlikely to be mere coincidences. The Jeffrey Epstein case, which involved a mysterious billionaire who trafficked teenage girls & who was friends with powerful celebrities, is a case in point. His death in prison, deemed a suicide, looks suspicious given that it silenced him from revealing potentially incriminating information about his prominent associates. Epstein’s death has led people across the political spectrum to question the official explanation & to speculate on what really may have happened. This phenomenon of scrutinizing suspicious news events also happens to be relevant to our upcoming episodes about the 1960s, because of widespread American reactions to the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers within a 5-year period. People wondered what the odds were of that happening randomly, & they speculated about an intentional plot to eliminate these young, charismatic leaders. I want to emphasize that you can have skepticism of official explanations without buying into unproven conspiracies hook, line, & sinker. It is important to note that although there are legitimate questions that can be raised, convincing evidence simply has not emerged to prove a conspiracy behind either of the Kennedy assassinations. We have to remind ourselves that sometimes, statistically unlikely events can occur, and the existence of such coincidences does not by itself prove the existence of any external plot. I always attempt to be open-minded enough to change my opinion if new credible evidence is revealed, but I try not to be manipulated into believing emotionally compelling but unsubstantiated theories.
OK, that’s more than enough talk of violence, conspiracies, & revolutions for one summer supplemental episode. Let’s move on to a more cheerful topic, vintage popular music, although (spoiler alert) we’re not quite finished with the tragic tone of this episode yet. We previously discussed rock ‘n roll music back in Episode 10, identifying it as a new style of upbeat pop music, championed by the young but viewed with suspicion by older generations. Today, we’ll do a deeper dive into early rock music, which had grown in popularity during the late 50s. The term “rock ‘n roll” was popularized by one of its earliest promoters, the Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who broke new ground by playing a mixture of black artists & white artists on his radio show. Soon pioneering black rock stars like Chuck Berry & Little Richard were on the same playlists as white adopters like Bill Haley & Jerry Lee Lewis. The potential implications of this cultural integration troubled many white parents. Historians Henretta, Brody, & Dumenil write that (quote) “many white adults . . . saw rock ‘n roll as an invitation to race-mixing, sexual promiscuity, & juvenile delinquency” (close quote). The textbook Liberty, Equality, Power reports that (quote) “guardians of older, family-oriented forms of culture . . . denounced its lyrics, pulsating guitars, & screeching saxophones as an assault on the very idea of music. Religious groups condemned it as the sound of the devil [and] red-hunters detected a communist plan to corrupt youth” (close quote).
Nevertheless, this controversial music turned out to be very good business for record companies. According to historian James T. Patterson, annual retail sales of rock-and-roll records jumped from $182 million dollars in 1954 to $521 million in 1960. Elvis Presley had become such a big star that famous TV host Ed Sullivan, a longtime rock music skeptic, changed his mind & invited Elvis to perform on his popular variety program. A record-breaking audience of more than 54 million Americans tuned in to watch Presley perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. Patterson argued that Elvis-mania proved (quote) “the rise of mass media was ushering in an era of unprecedented star- & celebrity-worship” (close quote). It appeared that these stars could burst onto the national music scene from just about anywhere. The co-authors of Liberty, Equality, Power point out that (quote) “Presley & other youthful rock stars – such as Buddy Holly from West Texas, Richard Valenzuela (professionally known as Richie Valens) from East Los Angeles, & Frankie Lymon from Spanish Harlem – crossed [various] cultural & ethnic barriers & shaped new musical forms from older ones, especially African-American rhythm & blues and the [so-called] ‘hillbilly’ music of southern whites” (close quote).
Buddy Holly was one of the fastest-rising rockers of the late Fifties. He first developed his love of performing music in a place where there wasn’t much else to do. His hometown of Lubbock, Texas was a medium-sized city smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains that cover the Panhandle region of northwestern Texas. Lubbock was widely considered a relatively sleepy conservative backwater, far away from not only the musical meccas of Chicago & New Orleans, but also several hours drive from the more modest music scenes in the Texas metros of Houston, Dallas, & Austin. Nevertheless, Holly was able to eventually break through into nationwide fame during 1957 with multiple hit songs including “Peggy Sue” & “That’ll Be the Day.” He became a familiar face to music fans throughout the USA by performing on big network television programs such as “American Bandstand” & the “Ed Sullivan Show.” After disputes with his backing band the Crickets, Holly travelled to New York City in summer 1958 for a solo recording session. While he was there, he had a whirlwind romance right out of West Side Story; he met a Puerto Rican-born girl named Maria Elena Santiago who worked in a record company office. He asked her out the very first time they met, & he ended up marrying her just 2 months later. When Holly took his new bride back to Lubbock, she sometimes was refused service by local establishments due to the area’s segregationist mentality toward blacks & Hispanics. Buddy also had further conflicts with his management over financial issues, which finally led to a permanent breakup of Buddy Holly & The Crickets. He decided to move with Maria to New York & start making more records on his own. But money was tight because, in an example of artist exploitation that has been all-to-common throughout the history of the music business, Holly’s manager had not given him a fair share of the royalties from his best-selling hit records. When Maria announced that she was pregnant, he decided to go on the road to earn more cash for his new family.
Promoters booked Buddy Holly on a whirlwind tour of the Midwest during the dead of Winter in early 1959. Joining him on the tour were other rising young musicians, including the aforementioned Ritchie Valens, who was the gifted artist behind the classic songs “Donna” & “La Bamba.” Also on the tour was the so-called “Big Bopper” (born as J.P. Richardson), who had scored a hit with a raucous tune called “Chantilly Lace.” Finally, there was a young Texan bass player named Waylon Jennings. Yes, the same Waylon who later became a Nashville legend & originator of the “outlaw country” style. As you may remember being depicted in the film Walk the Line, Johnny Cash toured with Elvis in 1956; the “rockabilly” style popular at the time blurred the lines between country & rock ‘n roll. Anyway, this formidable batch of musicians set out on the officially-titled “Winter Dance Party tour,” which ended up being an experience that would have more appropriately been called the “Tour from Hell,” according to journalist Pamela Huey of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The performers on tour were mostly native Texans, plus Valens from Southern California. This group had no idea what they were in for when it came to dealing with the deep-freeze of winter in the Upper Midwest. The musicians traveled by bus, but this was not the glamorous tour bus situation that we may picture pop stars enjoying today. There were no roadies traveling with them to help them set up their equipment each night. There was probably little enthusiasm from fawning fans or potential groupies to join them on their bus journey, given that they were riding on a reconditioned school bus that was in poor repair and mostly unheated. Pamela Huey notes that according to Waylon Jennings, (quote) “It was so cold on the bus that we’d have to wear all our clothes, coats and everything. I couldn’t believe how cold it was” (close quote). Huey spoke to one teenage Buddy Holly fan who is now a retired farmer from Western Minnesota, & he remembered introducing himself to Holly in January 1959 when he passed through town. “Is it always this damn cold in Minnesota?” Holly asked. “No,” the local boy replied, “It gets a lot colder.”
Huey notes that the tour had been booked (quote) “with no thought to geographic sanity.” It “zig-zagged from Wisconsin to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Minnesota to Iowa to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Minnesota . . . On Saturday, January 31st, the tour made its second-longest haul – 368 miles from Fort Dodge, Iowa to Duluth [Minnesota]” (close quote). A young high schooler from Hibbing, Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman was in the audience for the Duluth show. He always remembered Holly’s performance: (quote) “He was great. He was incredible. I mean, I’ll never forget the image of seeing Buddy Holly up on the bandstand” (close quote). Zimmerman took this inspiration (among others) to eventually begin a very successful music career of his own under the name Bob Dylan. After the Duluth show, the tired musicians packed up their instruments & piled back on the rickety bus. They worked their way south toward Green Bay, Wisconsin for yet another show the very next day. Huey reports that the weather outside was almost 30 degrees below zero when the bus (quote) “creaked to a stop as it struggled up an incline on Highway 51.” The worried musicians “huddled under blankets & burned newspapers to try to stay warm” (close quote). Buddy Holly’s drummer got frostbite in his feet and later had to be hospitalized as a result. Buddy’s guitarist recalls (quote) “Everybody started thinking we were about to freeze to death” (close quote). Rescue arrived just in the nick of time; fortunately, a passing trucker had spotted the broken-down bus & called the local sheriff’s office, which then sent 4 cars to pick up the stranded musicians.
The full band of young rock ‘n rollers, other than the hospitalized drummer, were back on the repaired bus just 2 days later. They played a show in Clear Lake, Iowa on the night of February 2nd. But Holly was fed up with bus travel by this point. Having the most financial resources of the group, he decided to charter a small private plane to take some of them to their next gig. Unfortunately, not everyone would fit on board. Holly’s bassist Waylon Jennings was originally going to be on the plane, but he gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was sick & wanted to spend less time on the frigid bus. Huey notes the unfortunate exchange that then occurred between 2 music legends. Holly grinned at Jennings and said (quote) “Well, I hope your damned bus freezes up again.” Jennings responded, (quote) “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” It was just two young comrades good-naturedly busting each other’s chops with a bit of dark humor. But Jennings’ harsh words would haunt him for the rest of his life because of the outcome of the flight.
The tiny airplane’s pilot was a college-aged kid; at just 21 years old, he was one year younger than even the baby-faced Buddy Holly was at the time. This greenhorn Iowan pilot had limited experience & had not been properly trained to fly in weather conditions with poor visibility, & those ended up being exactly the type of inclement conditions he faced on the morning of February 3rd, 1959. Soon after takeoff, the young man lost control of the plane & careened into the frozen ground of a nearby cornfield. The crash killed all of the passengers instantly. At that moment, Holly, Valens, & the Big Bopper crashed out of rock-n-roll history & into musical martyrdom. Ritchie Valens would go on to have a critically-acclaimed biopic made about his life in the mid-80s, and his legacy remained a longtime inspiration for Latin artists, including rockers Los Lobos, who had a hit with their 1987 cover of his song “La Bamba.” Winter Dance Party Tour survivor Waylon Jennings managed to move on from his brush with tragedy & become one of the biggest country stars of the late 20th Century. J.P. Richardson was the least famous of the three rockers who died in the crash. He may or may not have gone on to have more successful bops after “Chantilly Lace.” That’s the thing about people who die young – you never know what else they could have gone on to accomplish.
The most historically famous casualty of the tour remains Buddy Holly. The stress from her husband’s death tragically caused the pregnant Maria to have a miscarriage in 1959, but in the years since she has remained a fierce protector & defender of Buddy’s legacy. It’s easy for later generations to look at the lanky, bespectacled, clean-cut Holly and wonder what the big deal was. By say, 1980s standards, he looked less like an Axel Rose-type rock frontman & more like, say, a hip yuppie architect. It’s also difficult for those of us here in the 21st Century to appreciate how fresh & impactful his music sounded to listeners during the 1950s. But Holly’s rock ‘n roll legacy had a big influence on the British invasion artists that took rock to a whole new level of global popularity by the mid-1960s. A little band called The Beatles intentionally picked a name similar to The Crickets, & they performed multiple Buddy Holly songs during their early concerts in Liverpool. One of The Rolling Stones’ first hit songs was a cover version of the Buddy Holly song “Not Fade Away,” released in 1964.
The tragic crash of February 3rd, 1959 was immortalized as the “day the music died” in folk singer Don McLean’s 1971 rock radio classic entitled “American Pie” (the song predated & was unrelated to the 1990s raunchy teen comedy, just for the record). McLean’s ballad was epic in terms of its 8-minute-plus length, its thematic scope, & its global popularity. It used the singer’s childhood memories of the tragic death of Buddy Holly as a jumping-off point to express a broader sense of disillusionment among American youth in the aftermath of the 1960s. In addition to being an iconic figure for Baby Boomers, the influence of Holly had an indirect influence even upon the lifetime of Millennials. In 1994, the apparently-unkillable alternative rock band Weezer released a hit song called “Buddy Holly,” which referenced lead singer Rivers Cuomo’s image as a rock nerd with glasses & a guitar. Hip-hop and R&B group The Fugees, which included later solo stars Lauryn Hill & Wyclef Jean, scored a huge hit in 1996 with “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” This actually does relate to Buddy Holly, stay with me here. The Fugees were inspired to cover the song because it had been a hit in the 70s by soul singer Roberta Flack. But the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly” were originally written in 1972 by a singer-songwriter named Lori Lieberman & were inspired by her strong emotional reaction to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which was (once again) about the death of Buddy Holly.
We could continue playing 6 degrees of Buddy Holly with other songs & musical artists, but you get the point. His legacy was one of the foundations that classic rock ‘n roll was built upon. Sadly, he would be among many popular music stars over the next few decades of rock history to die young. Many of these rock deaths fit the stereotypical mold of being related to substance abuse & a life of excess. However, many other pop celebrities died in plane crashes just as Holly did, including the soul superstar Otis Redding, blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt of the southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, heavy metal guitarist Randy Rhoads, folk singer John Denver, & most recently the R&B performer Aaliyah back in 2001. But perhaps there was something unique about losing the very first martyred rock stars, a reminder that death could stalk even these icons of youthful energy & vitality. Thankfully, touring life for musicians has gotten much safer & more comfortable since 1959, although I hear it can still be an exhausting grind. Here’s a little free advice: if any musicians listening out there are offered a mid-winter tour of small-town venues in Minnesota, you might want to pass.
I hate to break it to you, but our next full-length episode will also prominently feature a plane crash. This one, however, was no accident. In May 1960, an American pilot was flying a spy plane over Soviet airspace when his plane was shot down behind the Iron Curtain. The pilot survived, but he was captured & imprisoned by the USSR. This international incident led to a significant confrontation between US President Dwight Eisenhower & Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. We will learn the outcome of that conflict next time, as we begin the story of the 1960s.
The "From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Logo design by Camie Schaefer & Erin Rogers. Written and narrated by Logan Rogers. Please subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform. If you use Apple Podcasts & you like our show, we would love it if you would leave us a 5-star review. You can also give us a follow on Instagram & Twitter. Check out our Source Lists on our Patreon page, & while you’re there, feel free take an opportunity to donate a couple bucks per month. We would love to hear feedback about whether this episode rocked or crashed; leave us an e-mail at [email protected]. Here at From Boomers to Millennials, we hope that when you’re on tour you always travel in safety & luxurious comfort, hopefully while listening to our podcast. Thank you for listening!