Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Winter Dance Party, Dylan and American Pie

Everyone looks back at the cultural upheaval that was the Sixties but forgets all the debris that was leftover after that turbulent time. The early Seventies saw many interesting phenomenon, including numerous religious groups that sprang up to vacuum young minds into their fold. It was a time of burgeoning cults, or groups that were labelled as such as they gathered their members in communes, rejecting the culture they were already disillusioned with.

In 1972 one of these groups, the Children of God, came through Ohio University on a bus seeking converts. I remember this event because an friend of mine dropped out of school and went with them to a commune in Texas. I vividly remember their method of proselytizing as they hovered around the Baker University Center and Student Union passing out brochures explaining the meaning of the song American Pie.

Among other things, I recall how they emphasized the departure, in American Pie's last verse, of the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost, who caught the last train to the coast" and how after the cultural rupture of the Sixties, all the "church bells were broken."

What I do not recall is ever grasping what day it was that the music died. I remember mulling over the meaning of the song's lyrics with a friend from Kent who tried to help me understand the chorus, "I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry." I didn't get that either.

In the intervening years it's only recently that I've given much thought to the song, as it seems to be a recurring number on Pandora's Bob Dylan channel.

Even though I've always heard people say that the plane crash involving Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper was "the day the music died" I never really understood why Buddy Holly was such a big deal. But then, that's what the song is about.

American Pie is possibly one of the most dissected songs of all time with numerous websites devoted to the meaning of its lyrics. Though Don McLean has been asked countless times what the song means, his oft-repeated reply is, "what American Pie really means is that I will never have to work again if I don't want to."

So what made Buddy Holly so significant? That's the part I didn't understand till I recently stopped to dig into it. He was only 22 when he passed on February 3rd fifty-six years ago. His public career had only lasted 18 months. Did his music set the stage for the Sixties? Or was the Sixties a departure from where the geeky-looking musician with a Fender Stratocaster had begun to take us? McLean makes a case for the latter explanation, which is why the music died that day. But in my thinking both stories can make sense.

The character of rock 'n roll music was shaken considerably during the Sixties. "American Pie" outlines one man's explanation for the new sounds that emerged. According to McLean's "American Pie" Bob Dylan was one of the culprits. In verse three Dylan, the Jester, fired the first salvo. The Beatles followed up with their new sounds. The Rolling Stones, rightly or wrongly, finish the revolution these others initiated.

But an alternate story can be told. The vibrancy of Fifties rock 'n roll mesmerized a young Bob Dylan who as a high school school student formed a band and envisioned himself as the next Little Richard or Bobby Vee. He listened to a Duluth radio station in the late evenings in an effort to catch the sounds that were now roiling through the atmosphere. This is why when Buddy Holly and his Winter Dance Party rolled into Duluth on January 31 1959, 17-year-old Robert Zimmerman was there. And what happened that night? He experienced something profound, which he then internalized, as has been his habit over a lifetime... internalizing and digesting influences so they become part of his DNA.

Twenty months later he was performing in Greenwich Village. Though in the very early Sixties Dylan made a name for himself in the New York folk scene, he didn't end there. The spark of that 1959 Winter Dance Party had lit a fire in the young man, and that flame was never extinguished. Though he transformed it and made it his own, I don't believe his passion for that music has never dissipated. Sometimes his anger made it a blistering sound and sometimes it was simply a celebration of sound, but always his wit elevated it to places this new music had never been before. That's my take, for what it's worth.

Maybe it was just the innocence of Fifties sock hops that died. With the civil rights movement, assassinations and Viet Nam coming on, that innocence was bound to get scarred sooner or later anyways.

All this to say, if you're here in the Northland and looking for an escape back in time to those nostalgic days of when we had dances in the gym, or wherever, the Armory Arts and Music Center has announced a Winter Dance Party for January 31, featuring the Travelons at Sacred Heart in Duluth's Central Hillside. Put your dancin' shoes on. It's a fund raiser and a fun raiser. Heck yeah.

This Winter Dance Party is likely to be a barn burner with a "Best 50's Costume" prize included. There will be a silent auction to preserve the Armory and a cash bar, plus snacks. And a dance contest! Don't pull a muscle, kids. Just dance your heart out.

For more information: here's the Facebook announcement with a link to purchase tickets. Or go directly to the ticket counter here. No waiting in line. Hope we'll see you there.

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There is plenty more you can read for more information. Here are some links you can follow, from the meaning of the song to why Buddy Holly still matters.

One of many sites that analyzes the lyrics of American Pie.

And here's another.

Wikipedia's Account

A Nod from the History Channel

Why Buddy Holly Still Matters 

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