Today's the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, and I've commemorated the event in a Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus by considering lyrics from four of his most famous songs. As you might have guessed, the four songs are "Oh Boy," "That'll Be the Day," "Rave On," and "Not Fade Away." You can check out the column here. As a postscript, one of those four song titles has an extra syntactic wrinkle that's worth mulling over.
"Not Fade Away" consists of the adverb of negation not plus the verb-particle construction fade away, and as such it is an example of a non-constituent title of the type documented by Geoff Pullum here and here. Geoff focused mainly on book titles that are not syntactic constituents, like A Scanner Darkly or Sometimes a Great Notion. Those are few and far between, but he noted that "things are freer, and there is more experimentation, in pop music song titles."
Even when a song title is not a constituent, we still expect the string of words to appear somewhere in the song itself as part of a syntactically well-formed lyrical sequence. Take, for example, the Justin Timberlake song "SexyBack" (discussed by Semantic Compositions here), which uses as its title the last two words of the line, "I'm bringin' sexy back." (Of course, to appreciate that as a well-formed sequence requires a construal of sexy as a noun.) The case of "Not Fade Away," however, is significantly more complex.
Transcripts vary quite a bit, but here is how I would render the first stanza of the original Buddy Holly recording (you can hear it on this YouTube clip while watching a spinning 78):
I'm a-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 (ah!) not fade away
Well you know my love (ah!) not fade away.
The introduction of the words "not fade away" at the end of the first stanza is complicated by Holly's signature hiccup, which I've indicated with (ah!). By inserting an extra syllable, the hiccup has allowed some listeners to interpret the line more grammatically as "You know my love will not fade away" — or at least the reduced version "…my love'll not fade away." Others hear it as "You know my lovin' not fade away," which still lacks the expected future auxiliary will or 'll. But based on the rest of the song, I feel confident in my hiccup interpretation. Just listen to the very next line, which has another complicating hiccup: "My love (ah!) bigger than a Cadillac." Again, the hiccup seems to elide a syntactically expected element, in this case the copula is.
The words "not fade away" are repeated later in the song, but never in an obviously well-formed context (e.g., following a form of the verb do or a modal auxiliary like will, can, or must). The second stanza ends "Love for real, not fade away," and the third stanza (a variation of the first) ends "Love is love and not fade away." Or perhaps that's "Love is love (ah!) not fade away." (Others, predictably, hear "Love is lovin' not fade away.") In any case, it's clear that "not fade away" ends up functioning in the song like a slogan or mantra, rather than fitting neatly into a syntactic slot. Thus it works just fine as a song title, regardless of its non-constituency.
In his essay collection Back to a Shadow in the Night, music critic Jonathan Cott identifies both the hiccuping vocal motif and the peculiar syntax as part of the "playfully ironic, childlike quality that defines and gives the key to Buddy Holly's style." A fine observation, but then he goes on to describe the line "You know my love not fade away" as "telegraphing its message like a Chinese ideogram." A "Chinese ideogram"? Really? How is that "telegraphic," exactly? My guess is he's got a stereotypical image of Chinese immigrants speaking a syntactically simplified pidgin English (of the "no tickee, no shirtee" variety) and is somehow mapping that back onto Chinese native-language use (their ideograms, even!). Sheesh.
I won't let Cott off the hook for that description, but I certainly have no problem granting Buddy Holly poetic license to bend syntax to his will. R.I.P., Buddy, not fade away.