The Surf Ballroom; A little bit of History in Iowa

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When one thinks of Iowa, a specific image comes to mind: One of soft rolling hills, and farms as far as the eye can see in all directions, where the sky can sometimes take on a characteristically midwestern form of murky thin cloudiness, giving a feeling that is neither cloudy nor sunny. Traveling across the state, this scene shifts quite little as the miles go by. The scenery is as steady and reliable as the culture.

Some people have a deep appreciation for the role that this corridor plays in agriculture and transportation, as indicated by this wall art at the Worlds Largest Truck Stop.

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Others find it monotonous and unbearable. People have even written parodies about how uninteresting and unpleasant a drive across Iowa is. However, as is the case with most places, there is more to it than what one will see from an interstate highway, whose primary purpose is to provide the most efficient route between cities for trucks.

Tucked away among the endless miles of corn fields are a surprising number of lakes that cannot be seen from the interstate.

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As well as the sites of a surprising amount of our history.

Most music fans are familiar with “The Day the Music Died“, February 3, 1959, when three of Rock and Roll’s biggest stars were all killed in a tragic plane crash. It was an event that nearly torpedoed the still young music genre’s rise to the top. It had the potential to significantly change the path music took for the remainder of the 20th Century, which could have had a major effect on the social and political movements that transformed our society from the middle of the century to where it is today.

What few people know, though, is that all of this occurred in Northern Iowa, in a town called Clear Lake. Clear Lake is a town not unlike many other towns in Iowa, and the structure and establishments feel generally like anywhere in the Midwest.

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Like many place in Iowa, it has a surprisingly beautiful lake, depicted at its best by this postcard.

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It is also home to the Surf Ballroom, the last place anyone would ever hear the three stars of early rock and roll on the night of February 2, 1959.

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Why they chose to play at this spot, on this date, feels both natural and confusing at the same time.

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Perhaps because it is well preserved in its 1950s form, the venue itself feels like the exact place one would expect to hear Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valley, and the Big Bopper. It was also likely the right size, given the types of crowds that a music genre that was hot, but not quite mainstream would attract at that time in history.

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With traveling being a little more difficult than today, as the interstate highway system was just being built and flying was more likely to be prohibitively expensive, it seems logical for tours to come to smaller towns. Today, it would be more likely for musical acts to have tours that cover larger distances, such as a North American tour. Fans in Clear Lake would be expected to come to Des Moines or Minneapolis to see a show. Then, it was harder on both the band and the fans. However, I still wonder, why Iowa, and why in winter? Inclement weather is one of the reasons for the plane crash.

Another is how the tour, labelled the 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour, was planned, as indicated by this display.

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They toured by bus. So, having a tour date in Kenosha right after Milwaukee makes logistical sense. After that, the schedule had them meandering all over the place. These dates were all back-to-back. The show at the Surf Ballroom came at a particularly grueling time, having played in Green Bay, WI the night before, and having a show scheduled in Morehead, MN the next day. Frustrated, Buddy Holly chartered a plane to the next show- the plane that would kill the three performers. One could say that February 3rd was the “Day the Music Died”, but it was a combination of poor planning and a harsh Midwestern winter that killed it.

However, as anyone reading this in the 21st Century knows quite well, the music didn’t really die that day. A few years later, rock music would be infused with fresh life, in the form of new bands that would later be counted amongst the best of all time. The Surf Ballroom also refused to let the music die. They continued to host musical performances of all kinds, and still do to this day. They have hosted some of the all time greats.

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It probably helped that the venue itself did a good job of finding the right balance, between preserving this key moment in history…

 

While also staying in the here and now.

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Road trips are certainly more appealing when they involve more than just traveling from one destination to another, but rather, leave time to explore some of the places in between. Every place that exists, big or small, new or old, has a story to tell. The story of one small town, one of many, tucked away behind the interstate by one of Iowa’s gentle rolling hills, certainly ignites the desire to explore more, eagerly anticipating what is around the next corner, over the next hill, just beyond the horizon.

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