Tuesday, February 03, 2009

"Words of Love" / Buddy Holly


I don't agree with Don McLean -- 50 years ago today was not the day the music died. The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens was tragic indeed, but music this exuberant just doesn't die.

The kid was only 20 years when he wrote this song -- don't expect tons of emotional complexity. Besides, this was the dawn of rock & roll; emotional complexity belonged to Frank Sinatra, not to a scrawny rockabilly contender from West Texas. All the same, this blissfully simple three-chord song packs a nice bit of romantic punch. Even within this primitive song structure, he finds a way to build a surge of desire into each verse. I love how the verses keep curling inward, opening with a long run-together line of invitation ("Hold me close and tell me how you feel"), followed by a shortened, more urgent plea ("Tell me love is real") and then a husky, intimate hum, like the cuddle at the end of this musical hug.

In each line he hops by intervals down the scale ("Words of love you whisper soft and true / Oh darlin' I love you"), pushing to the lower limits of his boyish voice, then he soars upward on that yearning hum -- whatever she's whispering to him, it really sends him into ecstasy. He starts out with calm confident quarter notes ("Let me hear you say"), then gets carried away with a burst of eighth notes ("the words I want to hear"); he steadies himself with a half-measure of rest, then eagerly adds, "Darling when you're near" before releasing it all in that hum/groan of desire.

That hum is just pure genius, isn't it? That's the best part of this song -- that and the guitar riff. Listen to how he echoes the melody's broken chord on plucked quarter notes (just like he doubles his own voice in the harmonies), then trips into an joyous eighth-note arpeggio, as if he just can't contain the happiness of being with her.

I first got to know this song through the Beatles' cover of it on Beatles VI; of course I love their version, but the home-demo quality of this 1957 single has a raw, earnest appeal that even Paul and John couldn't quite catch. Maybe it's the guttural earthiness of Lennon's vocals, maybe it's the echo effect or the busyness of Ringo's drumming (those handclaps are awfully distracting), but somehow I'm aware of there being a crowd in the room. Buddy Holly's version? It really feels intimate, like it's just him and his girl alone in a room. And who knows where those words of love could lead next?

Words of Love sample


IƱaki said...

God Bless Buddy, I found out only a few days ago that he was so young when he died. I can't even imagine the wonderful things he would have done if he had had more time.

Mark said...

This is a great Buddy Holly song, and like "True Love Ways," quite a departure from the more typical raucous Holly sound. Buddy was so talented, I wonder what more he would have done had he lived. (And the Beatles version of "Words of Love" is pretty darn good, and very faithful to the sound of Holly's original.)

Holly A Hughes said...

Holly was indeed a great songwriter, and a great performer. (This song actually wasn't a hit for Holly, but a group called the Diamonds covered it with some chart success.) Back then, the two didn't necessarily go together -- musicians weren't expected to write their own stuff. I suppose Holly was covering all his bases early in his career. If he didn't make it as a singer, he might have just gone the songwriter route. It is sad to think how much we lost with him.