All I knew about Iowa was corn—endless fields of corn and wheat and feed. Tumbling south on I-35 for 200 miles out of the Twin Cities and on to Nebraska, I wanted to drive through these amber waves of grain; I wanted to know if they really gleamed amber in the fading daylight and if they waved like dainty handkerchiefs when a dry breeze graced us with its fleeting presence.
Back in St. Paul, though, a svelte grey-haired man at The Replacements’ hometown reunion show told us of Iowa’s dark musical past. “If you’re going through Iowa,” he shouted, fighting to be heard over Midway Stadium’s pre-show soundtrack, “You have to find Buddy Holly.”
Of course, Holly is one of the most important figures in American musical history. Not only did he pioneer an aesthetic—the thick, black, horn-rimmed glasses—that’s still ubiquitous today, but he also popularized the sonic combination of pop, R&B, rockabilly, and country that we now call rock and roll. Embarrassingly, my millennial ears had heard more of Weezer’s 1994 hit based off his name than the dozens of songs this 22-year-old wrote in the ‘50s before his untimely death. Yet, as we peeled off Exit 194 to Clear Lake, I briefly considered why such concepts of fandom or fame drove us to seek out such places.
The tiny town of Clear Lake, with a population hovering around 7,000, is home to the Surf Ballroom. Now included on the National Register of Historic Places, the 2,100-person venue hosted Holly’s final show on February 2, 1959 as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour. Shortly after the show, Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson piled into a chartered six-seater Beechcraft Bonanza set for their next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. The plane crashed violently and tragically soon after it took off from Mason City Municipal Airport. In his epic “American Pie,” Don McLean memorialized it as “the day the music died.”
While the Surf had a concrete plaque and a marquee that read in those big, black block letters, “THE MUSIC LIVES ON! WELCOME ROCK N ROLL FANS TO THE LEGENDARY SURF,” we learned that the actual crash site memorial is deep in someone’s personal property, six miles away from the ballroom on the lake. In fact, it’s in the middle of a cornfield where on that September day, the stalks grew tall enough to block out parts of the sun. At some point, the paved highway disintegrated into concrete rubble and then into pounded dirt.
A giant pair of Holly-inspired glasses sat atop two concrete pillars to mark the beginning of the trail. As the corn stalks rose taller and seemingly closer together to create real life optical illusion, the grass beneath us grew patchier and muddier. No signs denoted the path; no markers pointed the way. And so we kept walking—for nearly half a mile—wondering what we were doing and what, if anything, we’d find.
To tell you the truth, the actual site was fairly demure. It didn’t take much time to pay our respects at this place where only the most dedicated of die-hard fans had ever visited. But a metal guitar stood as a tribute with Buddy and Ritchie and the Bopper’s names etched into it. People had placed guitar picks delicately into the each of the letters and lined various types of contemporary and colorful, if cheap, thick-rimmed glasses along the neck. A small weather-stained thank you note, with messages of gratitude written in no fewer than nine languages, sat at the base.
As we traipsed back to the car through the shrinking stalks and widening rows, I suppressed the urge to make—ahem—corny jokes in order to soften the somber mood. But out of the piercing setting sunlight, other life forms seemed to magically materialize, illuminating a multi-generational family ambling toward us on their own pilgrimage to honor the musical legend. We nodded at each other with knowing glances and sad smiles, because words seemed too simple to convey the real reasons we were all there: It’s just what you do for the ones you love.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.