Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Buddy Holly, Wordsmith

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Rather than glumly mope about "The Day the Music Died," as Don McLean dubbed the tragedy in the well-worn song, "American Pie," I'd prefer to reflect on what a tremendously gifted singer/songwriter Holly was. He had a beautiful touch with the English language (sung in his signature hiccupy style), and in his lyrics he found ways to take familiar words and phrases and innovatively shape them into his own. Here are my brief thoughts on the language of four of his songs.

That'll Be the Day (May 1957)

Well, that'll be the day, when you say goodbye
Yes, that'll be the day, when you make me cry
You say you're gonna leave, you know it's a lie
'Cause that'll be the day when I die.

For his first hit single, Holly drew inspiration from a memorable line in the 1956 John Wayne movie, "The Searchers," directed by John Ford. The expression "That'll be the day" had actually been floating around American pop culture for a couple of decades — etymologist Barry Popik notes its use in the comic strip "Joe Jinks" in 1938 and then as a tagline for Kellogg's Corn Flakes in 1942. But it was John Wayne's swaggering delivery in "The Searchers" that would have been foremost in the mind of young Buddy Holly as he was toiling away in Lubbock, Texas to come up with songs for his new band The Crickets. As Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier obsessed with finding his kidnapped niece, John Wayne utters the line several times over the course of the film:

You wanna quit, Ethan?
That'll be the day.

I hope you die!
That'll be the day.

Holly took Wayne's expression of dogged defiance and repurposed it for a heartfelt love song. The single made him a big star in the summer of 1957 and had a lasting influence on the course of popular music. The following year, a cover version of "That'll Be the Day" was the first recording ever made by an up-and-coming Liverpool group known as The Quarry Men. We know them better, of course, as The Beatles — an insect-y name that was partially an homage to their heroes The Crickets.

Not Fade Away (October 1957)

I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be
You're gonna give your love to me

I wanna love you night and day
You know my love not fade away.

Here's another song on the theme of obstinate resolution in the face of love's evanescence. As with "That'll Be the Day," Holly might have been inspired by a tough guy of the times: in this case, General Douglas MacArthur. In his Farewell Address to Congress in 1951, MacArthur famously said:

The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

Could Holly have been suggesting that his love was tougher than even MacArthur's old soldiers? Perhaps he was just drawing on a phrasal verb with echoes going as far back as the King James Bible ("The earth mourneth and fadeth away," Isaiah 24:4). In any case, "(not) fade away" became a popular expression in rock music, and not just from groups like The Rolling Stones that covered the Crickets tune. Stephanie Zacharek, writing in Salon, observed that Holly "was talking about keeping a love affair alive, but his followers took the song to heart as a pledge to keep rock 'n' roll thriving, past the stage of being a fad." The Who turned the expression on its head in their rebellious youth anthem, "My Generation": "Why don't you all f-f-fade away?" Later rock acts from Blondie to Bruce Springsteen incorporated "fade away" into their lyrics — to lament a loss, or, like Holly, to vow against its possibility.

Oh Boy! (October 1957)

All of my love, all of my kissin'
You don't know what you've been a-missin'
Oh boy, when you're with me
Oh boy, the world can see
That you were meant for me.

Though Holly is remembered as a pioneering "singer/songwriter" (matched only by Chuck Berry in the early rock 'n' roll era), he also was an excellent interpreter of music and lyrics composed by others. Fellow Lubbock native Sonny West wrote "Oh Boy!", and Holly was quick to record it with the Crickets ("Not Fade Away" was actually its B-side). Holly takes West's words and invests them with great excitement and anticipation. Linguistically, the song is notable for its prominent use of "(Oh) boy" in addressing someone of the opposite sex. This demonstrates how boy, like man, has transformed from a male term of address (or "vocative") into an exclamation that can be used regardless of the addressee's gender. As I discussed in a previous Word Routes column, we're now seeing a similar transformation with the word dude.

Rave On! (April 1958)

Well, the little things you say and do
Make me want to be with you
Rave on, it's a crazy feelin'
And I know it's got me reelin'
When you say, 'I love you,' rave on.

Rave started out as a verb chiefly meaning "talk in a noisy, excited, or declamatory manner," but it developed its own semantic pathways in pop-music usage — and this rollicking song (another Sonny West offering) may have played a critical role. Rave came to be associated with loud, uptempo music and the party atmosphere such music generates. A rave (or rave-up) was a crazy party, and a raver was a party animal. Decades later, rave began to be applied to dance parties with electronic music and light shows, spawning the rave music scene of the '80s and beyond.

Seen from a modern vantage point, the language of Buddy Holly's songs may seem rather simple. But as Spencer Leigh recently wrote in The Independent, "It is wrong to assume that Holly's simple songs imply simplicity." His genius was taking elemental expressions in the English vernacular and imbuing them with an irresistible energy that resonates to this day.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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